Eichler Homes: Modernism for the Masses

Eichler homes like this one in Fallen Leaf Park in Los Altos have inspired an exhibit opening soon at the Los Altos History Museum. Photos by Dave Weinstein

When Steven and Judi Eichler approached the Los Altos History Museum with a proposal to mount an exhibit about Steven’s grandfather, the part-time curator Jane Reed loved the idea. And she had a few ideas herself about how to make it even more relevant to today.

The exhibition, ‘Eichler Homes: Modernism for the Masses,’ runs from April 29 to October 8. The museum is open noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays.

On May 5 from 5p.m. to 7:30 p.m. an opening celebration will be accompanied by a jazz ensemble, "because jazz was popular then," Reed says, meaning the mid-century era.

Reed writes: “The coming exhibition of Eichler homes will cover the inspiration of merchant builder Joseph Eichler, the innovation of the three California architectural firms that designed the homes, the structural building blocks that made Eichler living so appealing, the interior-designed furnishings that became classics and are still produced, the sense of community and inclusion that was fostered within these tracts of homes, and the fierce devotion of the homeowners that were immediately and are forever Eichler devotees."

The exhibit will also focus on the Eichler community. To someone living in an Eichler neighborhood, it's not so much about the individual house as about the human and architectural ensemble.

Steven Eichler, the exhibit’s curator, is working with Reed, the exhibit’s coordinator on behalf of the history museum. We are speaking with Reed this time because we posted previously about an earlier, smaller iteration of the exhibit, at which time we spoke to Steven Eichler.

The earlier show was at Rejuvenation, a store in Palo Alto.

Steven Eichler has become involved with efforts there and elsewhere to preserve the homes built by his grandfather from being destroyed through over-development. He has also worked to help preserve Eichler neighborhoods through single-story districts and other planning designations.

The 1,200-square-foot gallery will be filled with panels exploring the history of Eichler and Eichler Homes, which produced 11,000 modern tract homes from 1949 to 1974. There will be historic photos and home plans.

In addition there will be furniture, dishes, and other artifacts from the era, including some donated by people who live in Eichler homes. “Things of the times,” Reed says.

To personalize the exhibit, Reed is bringing in real people, some of them her neighbors and friends. Reed had lived in Los Altos for 49 years. Although she does not live in an Eichler, some of her friends do.

Sunset magazine in October 1957 announced an award of merit to Eichler and his architects Jones and Emmons for their tract developments.

There will be photos of Eichler homeowners from Los Altos and other South Bay and Peninsula communities, statements from them, and more. Several will take part in a series of talks and panel discussions that will take place during the run of the exhibit, Reed says.

Among the talks, which are not yet scheduled, will be a panel of architects, she says, and a discussion by a man who is a leader of the effort in Palo Alto to save Eichler neighborhoods by banning two-story houses.

There will be videos as well. One is a short film about Greenmeadow, a community in Palo Alto that is on the National Register.

Another is a 23-minute interview with the late artist Matt Kahn. Kahn worked for Joe Eichler as a designer, decorating many model homes. He also inspired Eichler to include art in many of the homes – and even taught art classes to Eichler’s employees.

The film was produced by King Lear, who helps run another important institution in Los Altos – the Neutra House.

Also in the works – an event, or event geared to kids, probably involving architecture and iPads.

Reed discusses some of the appeal Eichler and his homes have for people today:

“He had progressive ideas himself, and with the help of his architects he created communities within communities, the pools, the community centers, neighborhoods where people step out their doors and chat [with neighbors].”

The late Matt Kahn will be seen in a filmed interview during the exhibit. Here he is seen inside his home studio with one of his artworks. The home was an art-filled Eichler on the Stanford campus, where he taught.

In Los Altos, Eichlers have been in the news recently as efforts have been underway to create a historic district in the Fallen Leaf Park tract. Opposition has developed.

Reed says the exhibit is not tied to that effort.

“The exhibit will not be a political statement, ‘This is why we should do it.’ But you could get the feeling, ‘I could see why they would not like having big houses peering into their backyards,’ and why they might want to preserve the look [of the homes],” she says.

“At one period of our lives these Eichlers were important as the newest of the new, and the people who were moving into them were of that mind too,” she says.

“This is not just Los Altos history. This is the area’s history.”

Reader Comments Box