Eichler Enclave Retains its Shady Looks

The Eichlers of Walnut Grove retain their looks. Above, the home owned by Brian Bigelow and Audrey Gee, who are seen out back with their children, Aidan and Ariel, is almost completely original. Photos by Sabrina Huang 

In the East Bay city of Walnut Creek, when people think about Eichlers they most often think about Rancho San Miguel, a grouping of more than 500 homes. But just a few blocks away is a lesser known neighborhood that’s worth getting to know both because of its pleasant setting and the architectural integrity of almost all its 34 homes. Read about Walnut Grove in ‘Eichlers in Bloom’ in the new summer '19 issue of CA-Modern magazine.

(There is also a third, even smaller Joe Eichler subdivision, up the road a bit, in Walnut Creek. This is a grouping of seven late Eichler homes on Pazzi Road and Valley Vista Road.)

Compared to the Rancho San Miguel Eichlers, the Walnut Grove homes are larger, late Eichlers – 2,305 to 2,500 square feet, according to Eichler’s original sales brochure. All were designed by architect Claude Oakland. Most are four bedrooms and with atriums. Unlike earlier Eichlers, these came with fiberglass insulation in both roofs and exterior walls.

Utility lines run underground. “Every lot has ample space for a pool,” Eichler promised, and, as neighbor Reta Gardner says, “Most of us have pools.” The area was a walnut orchard, and “as many walnut trees as possible have been saved,” the brochure noted. Today, few seem to remain.

Dan and Tami Sonnier have made changes to the interior of their home, but the exterior is very original.

“Most people have not changed the facades [of their homes],” neighbor Bob Deutscher says. “I’ve added on a master bedroom suite. We probably added 500 to 600 feet. We designed it to look original.”

Eichler had originally planned to build more than 80 homes here in the late 1960s. But, as sometimes happened with his later developments, Eichler never completed the full plan. One result of this failure in Walnut Grove is that a portion of the tract is separated from the larger portion by several blocks.

This cuts into the feeling that it is a unified neighborhood. Indeed, most people in one section do not know people in the other.

Although Eichler dubbed the tract “Walnut Grove” in his original brochure, that name has been forgotten. Today, the tract is commonly known simply as the 'Northgate Eichlers,' after the general neighborhood name.

The houses were built from 1969 into the mid-1970s, not long before Joe died in 1974. Joe appeared proud of the tract, which featured some extraordinary models with galleries, atriums, and courtyards.

In his ads, Joe called Walnut Grove “the culmination of twenty years of extraordinary achievement in residential construction.”

 “As many walnut trees as possible have been saved,” he said.

An intricate network of trails winds through much of Central Contra Costa County, including Walnut Creek. Here, Tami and Dan Sonnier enjoy a nearby trail.

Besides walnut trees, an original ranch house has been preserved and sits amidst the Eichler homes like a beautiful thing from another time.

Walnut Grove is not an Eichler-centric neighborhood, as so many Eichler tracts are, says Audrey Gee, who grew up in the tract and still lives there with her husband and children.

“We don’t band together because we’re Eichler-ites,” Audrey says. “It’s because our kids are in school together. But certainly the people who are in Eichlers, we all pat ourselves on the back because they are nice homes.”

“Everybody pretty much keeps to themselves,” says Bob Deutscher, a retired physician who lives on Belford Drive, which is a block removed from the other Eichler streets.

In the old days, Bob says, adults knew each other through their kids. “There would be a party here or there, but nothing major.”

Neighbors stroll by an Eichler home, with their babies and pets.

What does help unify the neighborhood is the tree canopy, which is beautiful. There are any number of redwood groves, which add to the beauty but sometimes cause pain as they drop debris on homes and cause disruptions to underground pipes.

Mike Carthage and Joe Garcia, who have lived in the neighborhood six years, love seeing the redwoods from inside their atrium and appreciate their cooling shade during the summer.

But they don’t enjoy the foliage the trees drop in the winter, clogging drains; or their roots, which have cut into drains leading to costly repairs.

A network of often half-hidden pedestrian trails that winds its way through the area, often proceeding alongside quaint canals, is a strong appeal to many people. The trails also lead to wilderness trails in Mount Diablo State Park and in several large regional and city-owned open spaces.

Dan Sonnier, a doctor who arrived in 1991 with his wife, Tami, says, “We didn’t think Walnut Creek was in the running as a place to live until we got on the trails. Pretty much every day we go walking on the trails somewhere.”

For more on Walnut Grove, read ‘Eichlers in Bloom,” a sneak preview of the new summer '19 issue of CA-Modern magazine.

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