Eichler’s Famous Life House Can be Toured

Life House
'The Life House,' designed by Pietro Belluschi and completed in 1958 in San Mateo, will be the centerpiece of the Modern Home Tour for any Eichler fan. Photo by Andrew Corpuz

One of Joe Eichler’s most unusual homes will be the star attraction of this year’s Silicon Valley Modern Home Tour, along with a custom home by Eichler’s architects Anshen and Allen and several other modern homes.

The ‘Life House,’ so called because it was designed on behalf of Life magazine to demonstrate a model house suitable for mass production, was built by Eichler as part of his San Mateo Highlands subdivision – the same subdivision that also is home to Eichler’s all-steel X-100.

Also on the Silicon Valley Modern Home Tour will be the Anshen and Allen house in Palo Alto, a rather ranch-like affair as seen from the street but as open and glass-walled on the interior as anything the architects designed for Eichler.

A soaring ceiling adds to the light-filled atmosphere in the Life House. Photo by Andrew Corpuz

The drive-it-yourself tour runs on Saturday, May 16 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and costs $30 in advance, $40 on the day.

Monique Lombardelli, a real estate broker who produced a film about Eichler and helped build a new ‘Eichler’ in Palm Springs, brought both the Life house and the custom Anshen and Allen home to the attention of the tour organizers.

The organizers, Austin-based Modern Home Tours, has been putting on such tours nationwide for five years now, having begun by giving tours in its Texas hometown.

The tour will also include an unusual hillside home from 1959-1960 by the architect Beverley (David) Thorne in Portola Valley. Thorne, one of the few Case Study architects based in Northern California, was famous for designing houses using steel, either for the substructure alone, or sometimes the roofing and more. His most famous house was done for his most famous client, jazz man Dave Brubeck in the Oakland Hills.

A custom home by Anshen & Allen, Eichler's original team of architects, will also be on the tour. Photo by Andrew Corpuz

The Portola Valley house  is a wonderful, open house with glass walls front and back.

The house has an amazing cantilevered steel deck. “Just having the dog run up and down [on the deck], the house shakes,” homeowner Mike Nuttal said in a 2006 interview. “It’s just the nature of a steel house.”

Another home on the tour is new construction in Belmont designed by Bay Area architect John Klopf, who recently designed an Eichler-inspired modern home in San Mateo Highlands replacing an Eichler that had been destroyed in a fire.

While the house has a decidedly mid-century look, with exposed beams, tall glass, and aluminum sliding doors, its performance is 21st century all the way. Thanks to insulation and overhangs, the house far exceeds California’s energy requirements. And – it has radiant heat.

The kitchen of the Palo Alto house by Anshen & Allen. Photo by Andrew Corpuz

The fifth house on the tour is a 1967 “renovated atrium style Eichler home with new metal roof, kitchen, family room, and landscaping,” according to Modern Home Tours, with the renovation by architect Mark Marcinik of M110 Architecture.

The Life House was designed by an architect who was not part of Eichler’s usual crew. Pietro Belluschi, known hereabouts as the lead architect for San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Cathedral. He headed the architecture department at MIT.

Eichler got in on the deal after an estimator stated that Belluschi’s plans for the prow-shaped house could not be built for Life’s limit of $25,000. The idea was to produce an affordable house – and Eichler was a man who knew how to produce a high quality, modern affordable house.

The house was required to be split level, on a slope, and capable of replication. It was replicated at least once – not far away, on the Stanford campus. Eichler’s regular team of architects, Jones & Emmons, were associates on the project. The house appeared in the October 6, 1958 issue of Life and attracted nationwide attention.

"It’s exhilarating," says the owner about living in the Life house. "It’s a liberated feeling with the openness and the spaces that’s unstructured and yet sheltered from the outside."

Steel beams extend over the deck in Beverley Thorne's design for a house in Portola Valley. Photo by Mike Nuttall

Ken Shallcross, vice president of Modern Home Tours, says that, among the company’s many tours, “Silicon Valley especially is a standout tour for us because it’s the only place we get to that has so many Eichlers. We obviously look for standout [new] modern homes, but we also like to expose people to some older homes they wouldn’t usually get the chance to see.”

About Joe Eichler, he says, “You can’t ignore the granddaddy of them all.”

He said this will be the firm’s third Silicon Valley tour. If all goes well, there will be another in 2016. Other West Coast tours for the company are San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C. They did an East Bay tour in 2012, but Shallcross says it’s hard convincing East Bay owners of modern homes to open their doors. “People are very private,” he says.

In the early days, the company had plans for broad expansion, aiming at cities both national and international – and beyond Vancouver.

John Klopf's modern take on mid-century modern design is true to the 21st century. Courtesy of John Klopf Architecture

“We realized a little while ago that rather than trying to be in every city and produce tours that are not living up to our standards but are passable, we would focus on a core group of cities,” Shallcross says.

“We have a list of ten cities that are definite go-to spots every year. We could always do a new one if there is interest.”

“People who go on the tour love to do it every year,” he says. “And among the architects there’s an expectancy about getting us back. I’ve heard architects say that when they are working on a house they’re looking forward to getting it on a Modern Home Tour.

That’s how I measure our positive growth.”

Klopf 2
Planes intersect planes in the interior of the Klopf-designed house in Belmont. Courtesy of John Klopf Architecture.

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