They’re High on San Mateo Highlands

San Mateo Highlands is a neighborhood made for families, which include the Rardens above: Marc, his wife Heather, and their three children. Marc grew up in the Highlands. Photo by Sabrina Huang

Talk to people who live in San Mateo Highlands, which we profile in ‘Hillside to the Stars,’ in the new fall ’18 issue of CA-Modern magazine, and several themes emerge again and again. It’s a great place to raise kids, with homes surrounding an elementary school and community pool and recreation center.

Neighbors are friendly and get to know each other; many families have lived here for two or more generations.

The location is great, surrounded by open space with views of mountains in the distance and ease of access to urban and rural amenities.

All of that is true. But it’s hard to sum up this neighborhood with just a few phrases because, large and diverse in opinion as it is, there are more sides to it than can be told in a relatively short profile.

San Mateo Highlands has a remarkable collection of rare, original two-story Eichlers (like this one), with dramatic interior spaces. Photo by Margo Tomaszewska-Richter

Just consider some of the architectural treasures to be found in the Highlands, which was built from 1955 to 1964 on an often windy ridge overlooking the reservoir that marks the rift formed by the San Andreas Fault.

There’s Joe Eichler’s all-steel X-100 home, which attracted 150,000 when it opened to the public and was recently placed on the National Register – the only individual Eichler home with that honor.

Or 'the Life House,' a startling two-story home designed by Pietro Belluschi, then dean of architecture at MIT and published by Life magazine in October 1958.

The Highlands has several clusters of rare, original two-story Eichler houses, built on lots that could not handle single-story homes of the size Eichler wanted. They are arranged so as not to snoop into neighbors’ yards.

Quite a few homes in the Highlands subdivision have second-story additions -- which don't blend in with the neighborhood as do the original two-story homes, whose shape is determined by their sites. Photo by Dave Weinstein

But then consider that about ten percent of the homes in this unincorporated neighborhood, which has never had an architectural review process, have been altered so much as to be hardly Eichlers anymore.

Yet this is a neighborhood that celebrates its architecture, and its creative remodeling, every few years with a popular home tour that attracts people from all over.

It’s also a neighborhood of intelligent, caring people – including the many volunteers who look after the many seniors who have chosen to age in place.

One of those seniors is Lois Scott, who arrived in 1965 with her husband, an ex-Marine. They raised two daughters and a son. “The rec center was a lifesaver,” she recalls.

Many of the homes in the Highlands, though, remain original and very attractive, including this one, with a paint job that pops. Photo by Dave Weinstein

“I played tennis till I was 80. Amazing. Sometimes I would make a good shot. But I didn’t start playing till I was 45. They used to say up in the office, they could tell I was playing because there was so much laughing going on.”

Jeff Schwartz, who runs many programs at the recreation center, works with the Highlands Senior Network, providing seniors with transportation, taking them shopping for groceries, and to social gatherings.

“We have a neighborhood here where people are so attuned to each other, both young and old. We thought the younger people can help by changing light bulbs, sweeping their houses, taking out the garbage cans," Jeff says.

And this is a neighborhood that doesn’t just have a community association – it has area representatives whose jobs are to “talk to the neighbors, see what’s on their minds,” says Jonathan Feinberg, who served as a rep years ago.

You've got to look closely, but you can spot the historical plaque in front of the X-100 all-steel house. Photo by Dave Weinstein

“There’s not many of these communities left where everybody gets together,” says Rick Priola, who grew up in the neighborhood and has been in charge of the fireworks for many years.

Marc Rarden, who also grew up in San Mateo Highlands, lives there today with wife Heather, and together they have three children who attend the neighborhood Highlands elementary school. They’d been living in San Francisco but returned to the neighborhood so their kids could play outside safely.

Since returning to the home he grew up in, Marc has been expanding it for his family – and making it as green as can be. He added about 500 feet of living space, replaced a leaky roof, and added a graywater system to recycle water.

Water from washing and the shower water is filtered, stored in three 800-gallon rain barrels and used for landscaping -- native and drought-tolerant plants, of course.

“Between washing our hands, taking showers, and catching rainwater, the goal is we don’t use any municipal water. That’s our goal,” Marc says.

For more on the San Mateo Highlands Eichlers, read ‘Hillside to the Stars,’  a sneak preview of the new fall ’18 issue of CA-Modern magazine.

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