Listening Helped Bill Streng Prosper

Bill and Karmen Streng
Bill and Karmen Streng (above) lived for 45 years in their Streng home in Davis. Photo by David Toerge, 2004

As partner with his younger brother, Jim, in the homebuilding firm Streng Bros. Homes, Bill Streng, who died March 20 at 94, brought to the Sacramento Valley its largest collection of mid-century modern homes in subdivisions stretching from Davis to the Sacramento suburbs.

The firm never built many homes—3,800 in all—but they are notable for their inventiveness, including indoor garden areas dubbed 'atriums' after those designed by their inspiration, Joe Eichler.

The firm had its own personality, and it was easygoing, derived from the personalities of Bill and Jim, who remained close friends, even as they eventually split up their firm's geography, Bill handling Davis, Jim Sacramento.

“Most people didn’t get him, I guess,” daughter Lenny Husen says of Bill, describing a man who was never far from a deck of cards, loved sports (especially the Oakland A’s and the Davis Aggies), and had a wry sense of humor.

“He enjoyed laughing at things even if other people didn’t think they were funny,” she says. “He wasn’t being funny to entertain people. His humor was for himself. He wanted people to appreciate it, but he really didn’t care.”

“His brother had more social skills than Bill, so he would smooth the way with clients,” she says. “Bill appreciated Jim’s skills in that way.”

But Bill did all right with clients, he treated his employees well, and the people he worked with—both with Streng Bros. Homes and in the wider business world—loved him. Bill served as Davis Chamber of Commerce president and, for a time, as president of a local bank.

  Bill Streng
Bill Streng. Photo by David Toerge, 2004
 

Jim Streng recalls the early days together with Bill, greeting clients at a model home: “Bill never talked much. He listened, while I talked. He always outsold me.”

Bill remained a man of the people. He and his wife Karmen (Gallo) Streng have lived for 45 years in a 'Carter Classic,' named for their architect, Carter Sparks, in the midst of a Streng subdivision in North Davis, Covell Park.

Bill knew his neighbors, many of whom bought their homes from him. It was in his Davis home that he died, with his wife by his side, of complications of Alzheimer’s disease, which he had for several years.

Streng Bros. Homes was easygoing in the way it allowed buyers to customize the plans of their homes. They also continued to build more traditional homes within their tracts, to accommodate varied tastes. And Streng home designs could get wild; the partners even built some designs shaped like pyramids.

The Strengs were always attentive to cost in their homes, running a union shop, and keeping overhead low. That too related to the personalities of the owners.

“I describe myself with words like ‘thrifty’ and ‘prudent,’” Bill has said. “Others use words like ‘penurious,’ ‘miserly.’” He laughs, and continues, “‘Inflexible,’ ‘unbendable.’”

Neighbors
Bill and Karmen Streng gather with neighbors in their Davis neighborhood of Covell Park. Photo by David Toerge, 2014

“He took pride in living very modestly. He really cared about not over-spending,” Husen says. “He would say, I love making money, but I don’t want to spend it. He loved creating deals, and he just happened to be very good at it.”

George William Streng IV was born June 19, 1926, four years before Jim, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to middle-class parents. Their father, who was a stockbroker, died when the boys were teens.

As a boy, Bill was too small to make the football team, but he was athletic. “He was a pretty good kicker, for a little guy,” Jim says.

Bill attended Dartmouth College, and remained proud of getting both a BA and masters from the business school. His education was interrupted by World War II. Bill served two years in Germany, not seeing combat but rising to master sergeant. In Germany he met and later married a German woman, Johanna Meckel. Years later they divorced.

The day Jim graduated high school, the younger brother says, Jim and his mother moved to California, where her brother, Phil Heraty, built homes. Jim worked for Heraty in purchasing, Bill, who later joined them and had his CPA license, as an accountant.

Jim and Bill formed Streng Bros. Homes in 1957 when Heraty retired and they took over his Sacramento business. To make their business stand out, inspired by Eichler, they decided to build modern tract homes.

  Streng family
Jim Streng (left bottom) and his son, Steve (left top), and Karmen and Bill Streng got together regularly at a restaurant in Davis. Photo by Dave Weinstein, 2016
 

As mid-century modernism soared in popularity in the 2000s, Bill enjoyed the newfound acclaim.

He remained athletic throughout his life, skiing until age 75. He swam in the backyard pool. Baseball remained big, with annual family gatherings at A’s games. Husen remembers a family wedding that occurred on game day, with Bill listening to the ballgame on headphones.

Bill played bridge and poker and solitaire, read two books a week about the stock market, or bridge, or novels about lawyers. He cared much about life in Davis, and was active with the Rotary.

“He really loved life, even up to the end,” Husen says.

“He very much valued not being lazy or idle. If there was a sin, in his mind it would be laziness.”

Bill, who always dressed well, with sport jacket and tie, was a man of habits, Husen says. “He would always answer the phone the same, way, ‘Bill Streng.’ And when he hung up he would always say, ‘Very good. Goodbye.’”

Bill is survived by wife Karmen and children Monica Lillya, George William Streng V,  Lenny Husen, Martin Gallo, and Kevin Gallo, grandchildren Scott Roberts, Sarina Madan, Mark Lillya, and Shane Lillya, and by his brother Jim.


 

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