Great Late-Century Modern in Elk Grove

Late modern house
The Streng homes in Elk Grove look as elegantly mid-century modern as they could be -- but were built in the late 20th century (late 1970s to the start of the 1990s). Photos by Dave Weinstein .

The 1980s were not good years for many Eichler homes. It’s an old story for anyone who has visited a lot of neighborhoods built by Joe Eichler from 1948 to 1974. You see a bad remodel, something really out of character, a stuccoed façade, or an interior with a dropped ceiling, and you hear, “Yeah, that was done by a previous owner in the ‘80s.”

Historians often date the end of the mid-century modern era to the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, when the sleek-yet-cozy style of open plan, big windowed houses fell out of fashion and confronted the challenges of stricter energy codes.

But no one ever told Jim or Bill Streng that their time was at an end, nor did they tell the people who continued to buy new Streng Brothers homes to the cusp of the 1990s. The Strengs' Williamson Ranch in the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove was among their final tracts.

David and Susan Link relax in their backyard, which over the past 30-plus years they have turned into a lushly landscaped place, complete with redwood forest.

David and Susan Link bought a new home there in 1985, Mike and Theresa Grandi bought one across Skydome Court in 1984. Jan Scott bought her 'half-plex' from the first owner in 1986.

A few blocks away, Mark Mendenhall and family bought their 1978 home from its first owner in 1984.

Williamson Ranch, with just under 200 homes, is a remarkable neighborhood, not just because it represents a sort of late-century modern, but because it is essentially intact, at least as the homes are viewed from the exterior.

It is remarkable that of the almost 200 homes, only one has gotten a second-story addition. “One person did a second story on a Streng, which turns my stomach,” David says. Mark Mendenall notes that one owner stuccoed over his original Streng siding.

Another house
The Williamson Ranch Streng homes show real variety, both in the standard models and the changes the Strengs were happy to make to please buyers.

Most of the changes you see are colors – and garage doors. Few of the original swing-up doors are left, victims, folks say, to the relentless Central Valley sun. Most homes today have roll-up doors.

Williamson Ranch, named by the Strengs after the family that ran an orchard on the site (Jan Scott still has one of its persimmon trees in her yard), was among the last Streng tracts, along with one in Woodland, Jim Streng says.

Elk Grove was a small, rural community then. A large slaughterhouse was to the east of the new tract. “When the wind came from the south, we could smell it,” neighbor Mike Grandi says.

The slaughterhouse supplied “the meat market in old Elk Grove, and where I used to get my eyeballs for dissection,” says Susan Link, who was a teacher at the time. “I remember one time I asked for something like 13 or 11 eyeballs, and he looked at me…and I thought ‘Oh, OK, 14 eyeballs.’ He loved me.”

  Jan Scott
Jan Scott bought her home in the Strengs' Williamson Ranch in 1986, when it was new. Jim Streng says the modern style never fell out of fashion.

The tract was unusual for the Strengs because it included a park and senior center on land given to the county by the developers. This was long before Elk Grove incorporated as a city.

Jim says that he never noticed the modern style falling from fashion. When Eichler died in 1974, he says, “I was surprised no one else continued building them.”

“But new energy requirements made it more difficult to do mid-century modern,” Jim says. “There had to be more insulation in the ceiling, and you had to use less glass.”

Indeed, models in the tract from the ‘80s have less glass than those from the ‘70s. Owners say the homes keep cool, even in sweltering heat, because of large roof overhangs and the original insulation. Some owners have added foam roofs, and some cover their atriums during the hottest month.

Streng atriums have plastic covers, unlike Eichlers, which are open to the air, because of the climate.

Jim Streng
Jim Streng, right, enjoyed a tour of Streng homes and a celebration of all things Streng, in 2019. With him are Robert Maurer, a Streng homeowner, and Gretchen Steinberg, event organizer.

Few cities suffered as badly from the recession of 2008 as Elk Grove. Home prices plunged, people moved out, and a realty firm that David Link calls the “The Kmart of rental homes” bought many of the Strengs and let them deteriorate.

But the neighborhood has been on an upswing. Some homes have gone for as much as $500,000 recently, shocking longtime owners.

Though Williamson Ranch does not have the rah-rah-we-love-Strengs attitude you find in some Streng neighborhoods in Davis or Sacramento, people do love the architecture.

“Streng’s idea was to build good housing for middle-income folks,” says Susan Link. “He saved money on something like the flooring, which was asphalt tile. Oh, well. But then he had bigger windows, he had really great windows.”

Mark and David run through a list of several newcomers who bought because they were looking for mid-century modern design, including some from the Bay Area. This is, after all, one of the most affordable, well-preserved mid-century modern neighborhoods around.

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