Time Tested: Joseph Eichler's Lucas Valley Masterpiece
In 1943, a former butter-and-egg salesman was down and out, depressed and living in a rented home because he couldn’t afford to buy one for his family.
His name—Joseph Eichler—was known by very few people. But that rental became his salvation, not only elevating his mood but also giving him an idea that would make him briefly wealthy and eternally famous in the annals of architectural history.
“He lived in the Bazett House, a Frank Lloyd Wright–designed home in Hillsborough, and he loved it. He eventually was evicted because he was shouting at potential buyers—purposely scaring them off so he could go on staying there,” says Monique Lombardelli, a filmmaker and real estate agent specializing in the sale of midcentury modern homes. “His idea was to build residences that were calming, organic and connected to the outdoors. The big difference was that his homes would be affordable for almost anyone.”
Eichler teamed with architects to create his distinctively horizontal structures, which featured open floor plans and walls of glass. His first development, in Sunnyvale on the San Francisco Peninsula, was not well received initially. But as the Greatest Generation started to return from World War II, settle down and launch an unprecedented era of productivity, the easy-to-live-in homes and their $10,000 price tag resonated with them. Thirty-two Eichler communities were built in California, and many consider the Lucas Valley development in San Rafael to be his pièce de résistance. That community celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a speaker series, which kicks off with the premiere of Lombardelli’s latest film, People in Glass Houses: The Legacy of Joseph Eichler, on September 21.
“It doesn’t get better than Lucas Valley. Eichler was in his prime when he built those houses; they are the Ritz-Carlton of the style,” says Lombardelli. “Specifically, in Upper Lucas Valley, people have taken great pains to maintain them. These people are deeply in love with their homes.”
Upper Lucas Valley is one of the few Eichler developments dedicated to preservation. When driving through the neighborhood of some 350 homes, you won’t see second-story additions, pastel paint colors or mullioned windows—modern-day “improvements” that most residents consider inappropriate for the style. Covenants, codes, restrictions and color palette guidelines require homeowners to petition for committee approval to make exterior changes. Terry Bremer, the chair of the Architectural Review Committee for the Lucas Valley Homeowners Association, has an evident passion for her community. “It’s important to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood,” she says. “We don’t want it to vary too much from the way it was built.”
Lombardelli says Eichler himself would approve. “He used to cruise through his developments and check up on things,” she says. “One day he noticed that a man was painting his house, and Eichler didn’t like it. He got out of his car and started arguing with the homeowner, who stated he had the right to paint his own house. Eichler reportedly screamed at him, ‘It is not your house, and it never was. It’s my house!’” Legend has it that the developer won the fight, and the house was restored to its original glory.
Before he died in 1974, Eichler lost a larger battle to become the biggest developer in the state. While trying to grow his business and outdo his numerous imitators and competitors, the ambitious developer overextended himself and saw most of his money disappear. But the fire to innovate and the seemingly endless font of ideas never waned. “On his deathbed, he was making plans with his son, who had taken over operations,” says Lombardelli. “He was thinking of new ideas until the very end.”