Tour Visits the Diamond Heights Eichlers

Hannah Simonson leads tours of Diamond Heights to increase appreciation for the modern homes there, including about 100 Eichlers. Photos by Dave Weinstein

Folks in the know know that the peaks in the western and central areas of San Francisco are typically cold and foggy. So it was a delight to tour Diamond Heights on a recent warm, sunny Sunday, with a slight breeze and red-tailed hawks circling above.

But the tourists were house watching, not bird watching, as architectural Hannah Simonson conducted one of her every-two-months-or-so tours of Diamond Heights, a neighborhood built from roughly 1961 to 1978 that includes fascinating examples of mid-century modernist architecture, including some of the more unusual Joe Eichler homes anywhere.

The neighborhood of about 2,000 dwelling units was an official San Francisco redevelopment project, designed to remove blight and provide needed housing during the Baby Boomer housing boom.

The tour, ‘Modern Diamond Heights: The Redevelopment of Red Rock and Gold Mine Hill,’ is presented by the Glen Park Neighborhood History Project, with a suggested donation of $10. The  next in the series will be Sunday December 2 at 10 a.m. You can find out more at Hannah Simonson's website.

Hannah leads these tours as a form of public education, so residents and non-residents will understand the neghborhood's heritage, and safeguard it.

Most of the Eichlers on Diamond Heights look good from the outside. They create a pleasant streetscape.

The Eichlers of Diamond Heights were built roughly from 1962 to 1964 and number about 100, with seven different floor plans, tour leader Hannah Simonson said. They are unusual among Eichler’s work in that they are attached row houses, and range from split levels to two- and tree-story homes, some of which step down steep hillsides to accommodate bottom stories.

Many have atriums. The designer was Claude Oakland.

The tour found most to be in excellent shape, as seen from the exterior, though some have incompatible detailing and at least one needs major TLC. The Eichlers make an attractive streetscape with their vari-colored hues, with the awesome Sutro Tower rising in the distance.

Quite a few have trellises decorating their otherwise plain, flat facades, which creates interesting shadow patterns as the sun moves across the sky. Some have balconies, and many have views, some into the immense Glen Canyon Park.

Here an Eichler home steps down the hillside, alongside a public stairway.

Owners must be a friendly bunch, judging at least by the one who saw Hannah and her 15 tour-goers admiring the homes from outside. He invited them inside his home to visit, but Hannah judged that we did not have time.

Indeed, as promised, the tour ended precisely at noon.

It provided surprises, even for those familiar with the area. She explained the history and meaning of one of the odder assemblages in this part of town, the Diamond Heights Safety Wall, which can be found at the northern end of the neighborhood, where major streets come together and quick turns are required of drivers to stay on the road.

Thinking that some drivers might miss, and send their cars “flying into someone’s bedroom,” Simonson said, planners created a safety wall of heavy timbers. But, in line with their desire to create a high-class community, they hired an artist, Stefan Alexander, to design the barrier.

A girl who came on the tour admires the Safety Wall that serves as a landmark at the edge of Diamond Heights.

The result is an odd yet strangely attractive jumble of wooden surreal standing figures, a target, a wooden butterfly, and a tower. The ensemble is “a kind of welcome to Diamond Heights sign, in a modernist fashion,” Simonson said.

“I never knew what it was for,” tour participant Jim Korn said. “I’ve lived here 40 years.”

Simonson said the city’s Redevelopment Agency used a competition to attract talented architects, and provided a degree of architectural review as designs were selected.

An entertaining aspect of the tour was seeing the other modern homes that were built on Diamond Heights, including a set of large townhouses by a developer called Galli, which usually built more traditional wares.

These were co-developed with GE and were proudly all electric. Metal plaques embedded in the sidewalk proclaim 'Medallion Home, Live Better Electrically.'

The architectural team Campbell and Wong provided a cluster of six tall homes that suggest the standard San Francisco bay window tradition, but with a modernist flair. There are also some individual architect-designed homes that are quite beautiful.

This is one of six, varied homes designed by Campbell and Wong in a modern version of the San Francisco bay window tradition. Each of the homes varies the look.

Simonson, who studied the neighborhood on behalf of the city and wrote a marvelous report, ‘Modern  Diamond Heights,’ has also popularized the term 'Dwellification' to suggest the dangers of over-modernizing mid-century modern buildings.

On the tour, she summarized some of her report, describing how architect Vernon DeMars did the original layout of the neighborhood, seeking to provide views and replacing the original grid with curvilinear streets and pedestrian stairways.

The original plan called for highrise apartments where the mid-rise Diamond Heights Village now stands. One of the final things built there, a beautiful cluster of condos complete with manmade streams, waterfalls, bridges and an interior greenbelt, the village was designed by Joseph Esherick and Arthur Gensler.

Simonson said homebuyers clearly wanted single-family homes at Diamond Heights more than highrises. “Diamond Heights was quite immediately very popular and was considered one of the most successful redevelopment projects in San Francisco,” she said.

“There was kind of a suburban vibe here in the city.”

Diamond Heights Village really is a bit of the country inside the city. One of its architects, Joseph Esherick, was simultaneously designing some of the original homes at The Sea Ranch on the Sonoma Coast.

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