Trees Add Much to Modern Suburbs

A line of cypress trees towers above this Eichler home, and above the neighborhood. Few things can define a neighborhood like its collection of trees, and each homeowner can contribute to the overall look. Photos by Dave Weinstein

Anyone who regularly visits mid-century modern neighborhoods for a living or simply as an avocation notices that in many, notwithstanding the beauty of the homes, what stands out the most are – trees.

They’re often taller than the homes, obviously. But, less obviously perhaps, the trees can complement the homes, the layout of the streets and the arrangement of the homes on the street, and the general feeling of the neighborhood.

In the Menlo Oaks neighborhood on the San Francisco Peninsula, and throughout San Mateo County, preserving trees is increasingly on people’s minds. There, one Eichler neighborhood is among several where people are uniting to preserve their arboreal canopies. The movement, we've realized, suggests some timely consideration.

A recent visit to a Southern California neighborhood of Eichler homes that is particularly rich in trees led us to consider that the towering greenery there, and its relationship with neighboring homes, can seem at times outlandish.

The line of cypress trees here forms a wall, blocking sight of the adjacent homeowner and creating a landmark.

“Outlandish,” by the way, we mean in a good way. Mostly.

Balboa Highlands, at the far northern extremity of Los Angeles, is an approximately 100-home subdivision built by Joe Eichler in 1963 and 1964.

Because of its proximity to Hollywood, it is by far the most cinematic of all Eichler tracts, with homes and streetscapes here showing up in TV commercials and even feature films. So much so that film crews sometimes interfere with life and annoy neighbors.

But during a visit some months back, on a day that mixed rain with sudden sun, what stood out were the trees – not only because of their height but also because of the creativity with which they were arrayed.

Like so many modern neighborhoods, Balboa Highlands has a forest that is filled largely with exotics and fruit trees.

The neighborhood has a wonderful view of the Santa Susana Mountains just a few miles away, where can be seen some of the area’s original landscaping, mostly chaparral.

In some modern neighborhoods – the Eichlers of Los Altos come to mind with their varied trees, ranging from redwoods and Japanese maple to cedars – seem to somehow unite the neighborhood, giving it an overall, comforting look.

Some of the homes in Balboa Highlands are surrounded by their own private forests, but those forests add to the overall appeal of the tract.

Not so in Balboa Highlands, where one of the more startling neighborhood landmarks is a line of what appear to be tall, tall cypress trees along one street, forming a wall that blocks the view of the home that is associated with these trees.

There must be close to two dozen of these trees. If you like them, they are truly a gift to the street.

It’s worth contemplating how trees can complement the look of a house – or disguise it completely. How trees can unify a neighborhood – or divide it into discrete areas. As trees and other large foliage can create a peek-a-boo effect as you walk alongside a house, with views of the house appearing and disappearing from different angles.

Trees that are planted in a suburban neighborhood, whether on people’s private property or in public rights of ways and parks, have an entirely different effect than trees that are essentially part of a forest that borders or weaves through a neighborhood.

There are numerous Eichler homes, and other modern homes, that can be found in such naturally forested settings, including the semi-custom and custom Eichler homes found in Hillsborough and Atherton.

Bobby Thompson, who lives with his family in a Hillsborough Eichler that is at the edge of what appears to be a forest, has said of his home, “We call it the tree house, because we’re on a bit of a slope here. We have a lot of beautiful trees here, and it seems like you’re in a forest.”

In standard subdivisions, each tree stands out, making an individual statement. Many of these trees are historic as well, having been preserved by Eichler and his crews as they built.

Bobby Thompson's home in Hillsborough is surrounded by trees, with the long limb of an oak tree reaching across and defining the entry.

Many Eichler neighborhoods were built on former orchards, and in some of them a few orchard trees still stand and provide a touch of historical character. This is so in Eichler neighborhoods in Los Altos, Sunnyvale, Walnut Creek, and the city of Orange, among other tracts, and in such Streng Brothers neighborhood as Evergreen Commons in Sacramento.

If you get to visit Balboa Highlands, besides taking in the broad view, take a look at some of the individual trees and how they complement the homes.

Besides the wall of cypresses on Nanette Street and Darla Avenue, notice homes that boast towering pines and eucalyptus in their front yards (and wonder how much longer those aging trees will remain).

Notice too that homes in Balboa Highlands take advantage of trees even when those trees are small, spindly even, or relatively low to the ground.

More effective than sheer size, in most cases, is artful composition.

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