Suburbia in the Sky

San Francisco's Diamond Heights—where there's charm, drama and the most unique Eichlers of all
Some of the most unusual Eichler models—a series of original two-stories along Diamond Heights' Amethyst Way.

Troy Litten, a graphic designer who loves art from the 1960s and '70s, thought it might be hard to find a home that matched his tastes when he started his hunt back in 2009.

"There are not a lot of mid-century modern [homes] in San Francisco," he says.

Little did he know that less than a mile and a half from his rental in the Castro District he would discover a neighborhood of nearly 100 Eichler homes, one of the most unique tracts Joe Eichler ever built, and in many ways one of his most dramatic.

It is certainly one of Joe's lesser-known tracts, even though the Diamond Heights neighborhood, of which the Eichlers are a part, sits in the geographic heart of the city and has a remarkable history. Diamond Heights was built on mostly undeveloped mountainous land, not a 'blighted' slum of the sort that was the usual target of redevelopment under California law in the postwar.

"At that time [in 2009], I wasn't really aware of all the Eichlers up here. Diamond Heights is kind of stuck up here in its own little area," Litten says, adding, "Diamond Heights is not really a part of the city that that you transit through often. Plus, there are only a few entrances into the area. So you really wouldn't know of these houses, unless you had a reason to come through."

In the annals of Eichler there's not another neighborhood like Diamond Heights. None of its half-dozen or so models can be found in any other tract, as they were designed by Claude Oakland & Associates for this specific series of steep hillsides.

Chanda Williams and Jamie Litchmann out for a doggie stroll.

These are the only single-family Eichler homes in San Francisco. Other projects are towers or townhomes.

Most of the Diamond Heights Eichlers are attached row houses or paired townhouses, some with one story of living space over a garage level, some with two stories above. Many homes have atrium-like entry courtyards. Some even have projecting bay windows, unique in the Eichler canon.

Many of the homes are split-level, to accommodate the slope. There are a few single-story Eichlers on the rare bit of level land in the tract.

"The topography in this urban setting, where the lots are smaller, required the architects to reimagine how to build their houses," Litten says.

The single-level Eichlers do look like models in Joe's suburban tracts, although they are attached to their neighboring homes. As for other models in Diamond Heights, even people who know Eichlers well might not recognize them as Eichlers.

Two views at the entrance to their Eichler: front exterior (top), and just beyond it is this courtyard (above).

And then there are modern homes by other builders near these unfamiliar Eichlers. How do we know which is an Eichler and which is not?

With tightly packed row houses and steep concrete staircases serving as shortcuts between winding streets, Diamond Heights is certainly urban. But the natural world, in all its beauty and fury, is very much part of neighborhood life.

"It's kind of an interesting microclimate up here," says Litten, who successfully pounced when a single-story home hit the market. "It can get super hot when the sun's out in the summer, but it can get wet and foggy and windy at the same time."

Jack Bernstine, who has lived in a split-level Eichler here since 1993, says San Francisco's fog, wind, and cold "are not as conducive to these kinds of houses" as is, say, the relatively sheltered flatlands of Palo Alto or Terra Linda.

"But we love it here," he says of himself and his husband, Matt Ogden.

"One of the nice things about this house is we get these beautiful sunsets," Bernstine says. "When the storm comes in, you can see the gray clouds. And when the rain hits, you can hear the pitter-patter of the rain, and it's very cozy."

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