Mackay Homes Still Appeal to MCM Fans

Mackay homes are too little known these days. Here, Lorenzo and Cassandra Barbone with their son Leo enjoy life in their compact, attractive Mackay home in Santa Clara. Photo by James Fanucchi

When Steve Jobs told his biographer that he grew up in an Eichler home, and “that his appreciation for Eichler homes instilled in him a passion for making nicely designed products for the mass market,” he wasn’t quite accurate.

No. The home that instilled such passion was in fact built not by Joe Eichler but by John Mackay and Lawton Shurtleff, owners of Mackay Homes. Read more about this remarkable, though largely forgotten, homebuilding team in 'Meet the Mackays,' a sneak preview of the new summer ’16 issue of CA-Modern magazine.

Maybe Jobs really thought his boyhood home was an Eichler. It had been designed, after all, by architects who had also worked for Joe, the firm of Anshen and Allen. And his neighborhood, Monta Loma Park in Mountain View, was close by real Eichler homes.

The brochure for Oakwood (today known as Monta Loma) from about the same year as Maywood, shows the signature private courtyard of the Mackay homes. Courtesy of Pam Scott

But maybe Jobs called it an 'Eichler' because Eichlers are super well known and respected whereas Mackays are – well, how many people have heard of Mackays?

Yet the homes still appeal to mid-century modern fans, and to the sort of young couples they originally appealed to during the 1950s. One such are Cassandra and Lorenzo Barbone, who live in the Mackay tract of Maywood in Santa Clara.

They love their home, have furnished it well with mid-century modern furniture, and they love their neighbors, two of whom installed a swing in front of their house for the benefit of the local children.

“The kids are out there every morning before school,” Cassandra says. The Barbones have two sons.

“We know everybody,” Cassandra says of the folks who live on their court. “The kids walk in and out of everybody’s houses. It’s pretty retro. We do National Night Out, the police and firemen stop by. We all bring food.”

A well laid out interior in a Mackay home can be a thing of beauty. Photo by James Fanucchi

“I think we have 13 kids under age 14 just on this cul-de-sac,” she adds.

Maywood remains one of the best preserved of all the Mackay modern subdivisions, along with Monta Loma Park. The other modern Mackay tracts include Fairmede, which is several blocks from Maywood and has about 100 modern homes, and Sunshine Glen and Ross Park in Palo Alto.

Some of the tracts have been badly altered by time. But the magic of the original Mackay designs often shines through.

John and Lawton
John Mackay and Lawton Shurtleff. Courtesy of Bill Shurtleff

Recently, the city gave permission for one home in Maywood to be expanded with a second story – a decision a fair number of neighbors supported.

Stephen Estes, a resident of Maywood, has emerged as the homes’ greatest proponents and preservationists. He points out that the Mackay homes won several architectural awards – including some of the same awards won by Eichler.

“I regard these homes as well architected mid-century modern homes,” Estes has said. Nothing gets his goat more than to hear them referred to as 'Likelers,' as though they are mere copycat versions of something better.

In fact, the Mackays have a different look and feeling than Eichlers. For one, for the period, they used less mahogany paneling for a lighter look.

They also employed Dutch doors.

A Mackay home in the neighborhood of Maywood, Santa Clara, shows typical clean lines and a low profile. Photo by Dave Weinstein

“I am guessing what is most unique is the Dutch doors that function as windows as well as entrances.,” recalls Pam Scott, who once lived in a Mackay home and still misses it.

“The five doors in the Bel Aire model that we lived in were in the dining room, master bedroom, bathroom, and small third bedroom that is off the courtyard,” she writes. “There were only two traditional windows [casement crank]: a large, three-panel rectangular window in the second bedroom and a decent-sized one in the master bathroom. The glass in the bathroom windows and doors was frosted.”

These are homes indebted to the modernist goal of supplying easily built, well-thought-out, super-efficient housing to the mass market. Two bathrooms sit back to back to share plumbing.

Floor plans are open, interiors have open beam ceilings, halls barely exist, and glass opens to a front courtyard in some models and to a private backyard, the glass held in place by wooden mullions.

Today, though ignored by history, many Mackay homes remain relatively well preserved, and could and should attract the attention of people who appreciate good modern design, and might want to help these homes last at least through the mid 21st century.

Monta Loma
Monta Loma in Mountain View is one of the best preserved of the Mackay tracts, with this home suggesting what a fan of mid-century modern can find. Photo by Dave Weinstein

Although for decades the men behind these homes were largely forgotten, CA-Modern has learned more about them, largely from Lawton Shurtleff’s sons. We also learned that early on, Mackay took inspiration from an East Bay builder who also helped Joe Eichler out in his early days of homebuilding.

Why was the firm named after 'Mackay' if Shurtleff too was a partner? “My dad had no ego,” Bill Shurtleff recalls. “It was called that when he joined. Plus, he had his own [other] business. But they were equal partners.”

Learn more about the Mackays in the summer '16 issue of CA-Modern magazine in ‘Meet the Mackays.’

Keep in touch with the Eichler Network. SUBSCRIBE to our free e-newsletter