Mid-Century Mackay Homes Deserve Respect

A Mackay house in Maywood, seen in 2011, faces the public with open glass walls. The fence that originally formed a private courtyard has been removed. Photo by Dave Weinstein

In Santa Clara, some owners of modern tract homes hope the city’s proposed historic preservation ordinance will protect them from unwelcome remodeling.

Stephen Estes, who moved into a tract of 1950s homes built by John C. Mackay back in 2001, has been one of their biggest fans ever since. He’s been pushing to build interest in the homes for years, and now sits on the city’s Historical and Landmarks Commission. He emphasized in a recent interview that he was speaking not as a member of the commission but as an individual.

The proposed ordinance, which is being reviewed and most likely modified by city staff, at the request of the City Council, would give additional power to the commission. “It puts the Historical and Landmarks Commission in a deciding role, not just an advisory role,” Estes told friends and neighbors last September, just after the council appointed an ad hoc committee to draft the proposed ordinance. He joined the commission a month later.

Stephen Estes created this map of Maywood and Fairmede and used it in presenations about the neighborhoods. Courtesy of Stephen Estes

The ordinance the committee produced, which Estes celebrated on its completion a month later as “by far the most significant event in our years of effort to preserve the mid-century modern character of our neighborhood,” has yet to be passed by the council.

An addendum to the ordinance includes two of the city’s three Mackay neighborhoods as potential historic districts.

The Mackay 'patio homes,' as they are sometimes called, which were designed by Joe Eichler’s original architects Anshen and Allen, are “part of our cultural heritage,” Estes says. “We had people coming out of World War II, it was an optimistic era, and somehow they were persuaded to live in glass houses. Sociologically I find that very interesting. ” Even today, he says, the houses look very modern.

Santa Clara has several hundred modern homes built by John C. Mackay in three neighborhoods—Sunshine MeadowsMaywood, where Estes lives; and Fairmede. Mackay also collaborated with Anshen and Allen on modern tracts in Palo Alto and Mountain View. Mackay’s firm also built many tracts of more conventional housing.

The interior of a home in Maywood. Photo by Stephen Estes

The house that Steve Jobs grew up in, which he told his biographer was an Eichler, was actually a Mackay home in Mountain View.

In Maywood, Estes says, about two-thirds of the homes retain enough of their original character to 'contribute' to a historic district. That percentage drops to about half in Fairmede where, he adds, “we have whole blocks that are considerably intact and others that have certain disruptions.”

Sunshine Meadows, the oldest of the tracts, from 1952 to 1953, has suffered the most depredations, he says, with maybe “10 or so” retaining much of their historic look.

Yen Chen, a longtime planner for the city of Santa Clara who staffs the Historical and Landmarks Commission, spoke to the Eichler Network to explain the process the city is following. He said that, over the years, neighbors have been concerned about large, out-of-character homes being built in the Mackay neighborhoods, and about proposed second-story additions.

Another Mackay model from Maywood. Photo by Dave Weinstein

Because of concerns in this, and in other neighborhoods, he said, Santa Clara has revised procedures to require hearings before the Architectural Committee for all second-story residential proposals, and before the Landmarks Commission for significant remodels in the Mackay neighborhoods of Maywood and Fairmede.

Chen said the council asked for more documentation to show the Mackay neighborhoods deserve historic designation. “If you really believe this is historical,” the council said, in Chen’s paraphrase, “you have to put together a package for us.”

Estes has been documenting the history for years, trying to track down Mackay or his descendants, and people who worked for him, so far with mixed results.

He knows the homes were built from 1952 to 1959, that Anshen and Allen and Mackay won a prestigious American Institute of Architects award for Sunshine Meadows, that the famous landscape architect Bob Royston landscaped Maywood Park, and the well-known modern architect Claude Stoller designed the community building.

A Mondrian-style fence provides privacy to this Mackay home in Maywood in 2011. Photo by Dave Weinstein

Throughout the Bay Area, and even beyond, mid-century modern homes that resemble Eichlers in one way or another are often called 'Likelers.' The term often suggests they are copycats, or inferior to Eichlers.

Estes objects to this. He recalls first coming upon his home, before he knew anything about Eichlers or modernism. “I just loved the home. It was so radically different. I told my wife, we have to buy this house.”

He also rejects the oft-repeated tale that Joe Eichler once came upon architect Bob Anshen at a Mackay job site and suggested, in Estes’ words,  “that Anshen had compromised himself by working with Mackay.”

The tale is a “canard,” he says.

“The fact is that Ashen and Allen collaborated with Mackay on a number of different tracts, and that working with Mackay, Ashen and Allen achieved two major awards from the AiA,” Estes says. “Anshen was clearly proud enough of his work with Mackay to attend the opening of one of the tracts. He was proud of it.”

“We should stop saying that these A&A Mackay homes are second-class modernist homes. I regard these homes as well architected mid-century modern homes.”

The homes may be low profile but historic palm trees provide height in Fairmede in 2005. Photo by Stephen Estes.

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