‘House With a Floating Roof’ is Flattened

The wing-like structure of the Gavello home's roof reflected the playfulness of its architects and the joie de vivre of the home's owner. Photo by and courtesy of Bernard André

Joe Eichler’s architects Anshen and Allen designed many incredible structures, but few as far out as the home for a rival designer of modern homes. Now the home is gone.

The Atherton house, built in 1957 for developer Elmer Gavello, sold in June for more than $6 million – then was torn down. The 3,650-square-foot house had five bedrooms and six baths.

Elmer Gavello

Gavello had a long career in development on the Peninsula and San Francisco. He is best known among modernist fans as the developer of Gavello Glen, a neighborhood of modern tract homes in Sunnyvale that is the subject of a new article, ‘Melting the Mystique,’ published this week in the new winter '15 issue of CA-Modern magazine. The architects were Bob Anshen and Steve Allen. 

The Gavello house, which the San Francisco Chronicle in 1961 called “the house with a floating roof,” was built with the sponsorship of the Follansbee Steel Corp., from Follansbee, West Virginia, which promoted the house in ads in the professional press, including one in the April 1959 issue of Architectural Record.

“I'm beyond saddened by this,” author and preservationist Heather David wrote. “The Follansbee Gavello House -- gone -- only to be replaced with a McMansion.” The house was at 72 Barry Lane.

Natalie Comartin, the broker who represented the seller, said most potential buyers came with the intention of tearing down the house.

The living room centered on a hexagonal fireplace, a favored shape for Anshen and Allen -- and Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo by and courtesy of Bernard André

“One person who had looked at it and had rented it was going to keep it,” she said. “Many people thought it was interesting architecturally, but property values are so high, most people in the area who buy these houses tear them down.”

Multi-colored tile enlivened the sculptural fireplace. Photo by and courtesy of Bernard André

“I loved that house and was so sad to hear that it is now gone,” said architectural photographer Bernard André, who shot the house for Comartin and has allowed the photos to be used for this article. He notes that the firm doing the replacement does excellent work.

The 1961 Chronicle article described the roof as “coppery, floating and star-shaped,” and said  “...it’s the only roof of its kind in the whole world.” From above, the Chronicle reported, the roof looked like “a perfect star.”

One neighbor told the paper the house looked like a rocket ship.

“I like to go way out,” Gavello told the Chronicle. “I hate convention.” He was still bragging about the house in 1991 when he spoke to a group of residents of Gavello Glen.

“You ought to see my house. My house has a star-shaped roof,” he said, laughing. “It’ll take off in a high wind.”

Anshen and Allen described the roof a bit more prosaically, as “a broad, floating cross-gable roof on steel points at four concrete bastions.” The steel roof was coated with an alloy called “terne” to prevent rust.

Inside, the house had walls that made it only halfway up towards the 16-foot ceiling. “That gives an airy feeling,” the developer’s wife Betty said. Each of the piers supporting the roof rose from its own goldfish pond designed to catch rainwater and channel it into a creek.

Although best known to most people for their Eichler homes, and for the much smaller Gavello Glen subdivision, Anshen and Allen created a large number of unusually shaped structures during their career together, which ended with Anshen’s death in 1962.

Strong forms, fine detailing, the way the shape of the pool harmonized with the landscaping and house, made the house special indeed. Photo by and courtesy of Bernard André

These included a motel shaped like a donut near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, a circular-shaped lecture hall at UC Berkeley, and a curvaceous, sculptural visitor center at Dinosaur National Monument, complete with a butterfly roof.

Architectural Record praised the partners for an “approach to architecture neither wholly romantic nor completely intellectual...”

You can read more about Elmer Gavello and Gavello Glen—while getting a sneak preview of the new winter ‘15 CA-Modern—by clicking here right now for ‘Melting the Mystique.’

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