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John Fyten's Blog

By John Fyten | Agent in Palo Alto, CA

Where to find MCM in Palo Alto, California.

homecontemporary  It's not hard to find contemporaries in Palo Alto, particularly south Palo Alto, and particularly Eichlers (Joe built about 2700 here). Although Sunnyvale may offer a more complete range of Eichlers, from his very first to some of his last, Palo Alto has a reputation as the Holy Grail—the place for the Eichler aficionado. I've broken down the Eichler developments by neighborhood, listed in alphabetical order.

Barron Park: Unlike the rest of South Palo Alto, Barron Park isn't known for its acres of contemporary homes. But what's here in the way of flattops is typical of Barron Park sub-divisions: small, and with homes so extensively modified that it's hard to tell what the original floorplans were. El Centro Gardens, 12 houses found on La Jennifer Way, was one of Joe's first architect-designed developments. Dating from 1950, they probably started as 3/1s of 1068 sq.ft. The 50 or so homes of University Gardens, built on Josina, Kendall and Barron in 1949-50, are one of Joe's first three or four projects, so early that they predate his use of architects. Joe designed these homes himself, with the help of a draftsman, and they look like larger versions of the stock-plan contemporaries he'd just built in Sunnyvale. Apparently there were three floorplans: a 3/1 of 1088 sq.ft., and two 3/2s of 1342 and 1389 sq.ft. These are small houses, even by the minimalist standards of 1949, but the two-bath floorplans and big lots suggest that University Gardens was fairly upscale for its day. They have central heating and raised perimeter foundation, not the radiant heating and slab usually identified with Eichlers. Then there's a small tract of about 25 homes called Maybell Gardens, at the corner of Georgia and Amaranta, built two years after La Jennifer, apparently with the same 1068 sq.ft. 3/1s and perhaps some 3/2s of 1405 sq.ft.. Barron Park may have yet more Eichlers—I just ran across two 1974-era gallery Eichlers on a flag lot off La Donna.

Community Center: Taking its name from the nearby community center, this is an eclectic neighborhood. Adding to the eclecticism is a large development of 1973-vintage Eichlers built on the site of the former Harker Academy, now located in San Jose. These are typical of the very late Eichlers found in pockets in south Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Los Altos, bigger and more upscale versions of the ‘50s homes Joe is better known for. They’re usually four bedrooms of around 2000 sq.ft. although some are larger.

East Charleston: East Charleston comprises two distinct, mostly Eichler neighborhoods, Fairmeadow ("the circles") and Greenmeadow. Both are typical South Palo Alto contemporary yet a little different from the norm.

Fairmeadow, north of Charleston, is a large Eichler tract laid out in circles, Joe's first and last experiment with this design. Whatever his intent, the neighborhood is one large traffic calming device, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are drivers who've been circling these streets, lost, since 1954. (I've since seen this design credited to Anshen & Allen's "concentric circle" or "bull's-eye" site plan.)

South of Charleston is located perhaps the most consistently attractive South Palo Alto tract, Greenmeadow. The streets are tree-lined, and the houses slightly newer than most and well-maintained. There's a neighborhood swim club that’s also open to non-residents.

Fairmeadow is 100% Eichlers, 278 of them built in four phases from 1951 to 1953. Most are small three-bedroom/two-bath homes of 1100-1300 sq.ft. although there’s a handful of 3/1s, often in less desirable locations and apparently the project's price leaders. Fairmeadow may be the first Eichler development that offered more than a handful of floorplans—I count eleven, and there's probably more. By far the most common is a 3/2 of 1318 sq.ft., but homes range from a 3/1 of 1016 sq.ft. to a 3/2 of 1488 sq.ft. At the top is a 4/2 of 1496 sq.ft., and it appears that Fairmeadow was one of the first affordable Eichler tracts to offer four-bedroom homes. This, plus the variety of floorplans, almost all of them with two baths, confirms Ned Eichler's assertion that homebuyers were much more demanding in the early '50s than just a few years before. The economy was booming and prosperity was reaching further down the economic ladder. Now buyers expected (and could pay for) a little more space and a few more bells and whistles. Two bathrooms, previously a luxury reserved for top-end homes, was now a necessity. One of the Fairmeadow two-bath floorplans shows Eichler tweaking his product, this time with a tweak that turned out to be a dead end: some of his two-bath homes have two hall baths, not the usual master bath and hall bath arrangement.

Greenmeadow is more of the same, yet different. Eichlers abound (more than 300) but they date from the builder's "mature phase", designed for a decidedly more upscale market. In one sense, Greenmeadow is a continuation of Fairmeadow, started a year after the latter was finished. Greenmeadow Units 1 and 2 followed the next year, in 1955, with a later in-fill development of 27 homes, Greenmeadow 3, built in 1962. There's also a Greendell tract of 48 Eichlers just off San Antonio, dating from 1956. Like Fairmeadow, Greenmeadow offers plenty of floorplans, at least 11 and possibly more. But Greenmeadow homes are a step (or two) up. Like Fairmeadow, all have at least three bedrooms and two baths, but Greenmeadow Eichlers often come with separate family room, and four-bedroom homes are common. And they're very big homes for the mid-'50s. Although a handful are in the 1200-1300 sq.ft. range typical of Fairmeadow and other early Eichler developments, the vast majority of Greenmeadow Eichlers range from about 1600 to 2000. By far the most popular floorplan was a 3/2 of 1674 sq.ft. with family room; a 4/2 of 1690 sq.ft., also with family room, was the second choice. And while most Greenmeadow Eichlers have just three bedrooms, these are often big three-bedrooms—one plan is 1848 sq.ft. Greendell is entirely four-bedroom homes between 1611 and 1765 sq.ft.

Also in this area, along Charleston and Ely, are about 70 very convincing Eichler knock-offs, even to the radiant heating, called Burke & Wyatts. Even the tract name, The Meadows, borrows from the Eichler vocabulary. Built in 1953 and 1954, these 3/2s were supposedly designed by Southern California architect Burton Schutt, famous for designing a landmark hotel. Most Burke & Wyatts are around 1265 sq.ft., quite a bit smaller than the typical Greenmeadow Eichler. To many these homes are Eichlers, but they have subtle differences, inside and out. According to Ned Eichler, Joe's son, Burke & Wyatt lost money on this development because the small number of homes kept them from achieving the economies of scale necessary to profitably build the unconventional Eichler-style post-and-beam design. Oddly enough, there's what appears to be a genuine Eichler in the middle of this tract, and I'm told there are more; it wasn't unusual in those days for a builder (perhaps with a cash-flow problem) to sell lots to a competitor. A readers tells me that her parents "bought their house on Dixon Place directly from an Eichler salesman and in fact our home was the model home for the Eichler tract in our neighborhood. Eichler's niece (on his wife's side) lived briefly in our house before we bought it. I have spoken to Ned Eichler myself about this neighborhood and he remembers it well. I think he said that Burke and Wyatt started building here but Eichler Homes took over the tract from them. Ned Eichler even remembered that there was an experiment in Walnut Grove [the name of this Eichler tract] between Eichler and Matt Kahn (Art Professor from Stanford) called "Art About the House" to incorporate modern art from local modern artists with the Eichler houses—both indoors and out. I believe this was in 1954. I have seen an article on featured houses for this experiment in my neighborhood of Walnut Grove that was reprinted online, but can no longer find the URL for it." The reader adds that "the reason we were called Walnut Grove was because this tract was built in the middle of a walnut orchard owned by a Portuguese or Italian family (the Largomorsinos (sp?)) who lived at the end of the Dixon Place cul-de-sac. Ely used to end just beyond Dixon Place, where it dead-ended into the part of the orchard that still remained."

And finally, in case this isn't enough Eichler for you, Joe left two multi-family projects here. The first, Meadowcreek, 17 units built in 1959 at Greenmeadow and Alma, was converted to condos in 1972. The second, a 15-unit development called Ferne Avenue Condos, dates from 1963 but was apparently converted to condos in 1970. Both have the full complement of Eichler signature touches, and are ideal for the enthusiast on a budget (or for anyone looking for an inexpensive single-story ground-level condo).

East of Midtown: Contemporaries or "flattops"—Eichlers, Mackays, Brown & Kaufmans and a few others—are such a big part of the housing stock in this area that I'll give you a little more detail on these homes as I mention them. They may all look alike to the unpracticed eye, but not every "Eichler" is an Eichler-built home.

Between Louis, Colorado and 101, you’ll find mostly early-'50s contemporaries built by Mackay, Eichler and Brown & Kaufman.

The Brown & Kaufman is the flattop most similar to conventional ranchers, with hardwood floors (but as with any house, always verify their existence and condition) and raised perimeter foundation. Perimeter foundation is often preferred to slab because it makes expansion easier, and most of these homes are about the size of the average townhouse (although a minority have already been expanded). This Brown & Kaufman tract has 55 homes built in 1954 with 3-bedroom/2-baths of 1120 sq.ft.

Mackays can be found in two adjacent developments built in 1954-5, Elmdale and Colonial Court. Of these 110 or so homes, most were offered as either a 3/2 of 1240 sq.ft. with radiant heat (just like Eichlers) or as a 1200 sq.ft. 3/2 with cheaper wall heaters. They're built on slab and have hardwood floors. One way to spot them is their gated entry courtyard, which enhances the California "bring the indoors outside" lifestyle by providing more outside space for playing and entertaining.

The adjacent Eichler tracts are called Greer Park and Fairpark. Greer Park is typical early Eichler, 129 small three-bedroom/one-bath homes built in 1951, about evenly divided between between 1069, 1118 and 1368 sq.ft. floorplans. Fairpark is a much smaller development of 40 homes built in 1954 on Marshall and nearby Moreno and Louis. They're still small, with the most common model only 1118 sq.ft., but by this time buyers were demanding a second bath and Fairpark has it. There's also a third, unnamed Eichler tract here, built in 1958 on a series of cul-de-sacs along the 2400 to 2600 blocks of Greer. These reflect the rising prosperity of the mid 1950s, bigger at 1356 sq.ft. for the 3/2s and 1659 for the 4/2s. As you'll see, Eichlers aren't inevitably small and cheap. The first ones were small and affordable because that's where the mass market was until about 1952, but later Eichlers kept up with expanding buyers' expectations into the early '70s.

Further south are three more contemporary sub-divisions. At Loma Verde and Louis are 171 Mackays built in 1955-56 on Elbridge, Stelling and David. Like Mackay's Elmdale and Colonial Court, these were all 3/2s on slab. Radiant heat shows up again in the most common model of 1280 sq.ft., but there were also floorplans of 1306, 1389 and 1412 sq.ft. with forced-air heat. Since the next two contemporary tracts are west of Ross, they belong more properly to Midtown, but I'll include them here for convenience. Stern & Price built many small 1-bath homes in Midtown west of Middlefield during the very early '50s, but this 1954 development on Price and Stern is a bit more deluxe, consisting of 26 3/2s of 1170 sq.ft. on slab with forced-air heat. With their front courtyard, these could easily be mistaken for nearby Mackays but the board-and-batten siding gives them away. Similar in many ways to earlier S & Ps, but these use as an accent wall the darker mahogany-veneered plywood more commonly associated with Eichlers. While most of the builders mentioned here moved on to build homes (usually conventional ranchers) in the South Bay, this small development may have been Stern & Price's last. Freelance graphic designer and MCM aficionado Joe Barthlow suggests that these homes were designed by Anshen+Allen. One block south is a small Eichler tract of 18 homes called Midfair ("fair" is often found in Joe's tract names, and "mid" is an obvious nod to Midtown). Dating from 1953-54, these show Eichler in transition from the mostly small, economy-class homes of 1949-52 to homes that, while still small, at least had a second bath. The most popular model is a 3/2 of only 1056 sq.ft., about the same size as his earlier homes, but there's a handful of larger floorplans.

South of Loma Verde and east of Louis is Royal Manor, a huge (208 homes) tract of what I call "mature Eichlers”, built as Joe followed the mass market from entry-level to midrange housing. Royal Manor was built in 1957-58, one of the last of his many large-scale Palo Alto projects; after this, Eichler would focus on the wide open spaces of Sunnyvale. 3/2s are comparatively rare here, a sign that Royal Manor was intended for a fairly upscale market, with the most common floorplans of 1360 and 1437 sq.ft. 4/2s can be found as an entry-level 1494 sq.ft. model, but larger floorplans of 1659, 1674, 1698 and 1713 sq.ft. were more popular. That doesn't include the 25 or so atrium-style 4/2s of 1716 sq.ft., an Eichler signature that first appeared here and became the prototype for subsequent projects in other cities. Also something of a signature is the nearby Eichler Swim & Tennis Club.

Royal Manor can be a little close to 101 but somewhat similar Eichlers are found a few blocks west in three clusters: Faircourt on Richardson Court; Los Arboles along Ames between Middlefield and Ross; and an unnamed development stretching from Ross east along Talisman to Louis. Faircourt, built just before Royal Manor in 1956, is small at 28 homes evenly divided between 3/2s of 1584 sq.ft. and 4/2s of 1789 sq.ft., both big for their time. (The house at the corner of Richardson and Ross is one of only two sizeable old farmhouses still standing in the area. The Richardsons lived there for years after they sold out to Eichler, and I remember the old man slowly driving a mint-condition gold Packard he probably bought with some of Joe's money. Old photographs still at the house show it standing in the middle of a treeless empty plain.)

Just south of Richardson Court, along Ames and Rorke, are 75 small Stone & Shulte 3/2 contemporaries in a tract called Palo Vista. These homes, built in 1955, are on slab, have forced-air heat and were originally 1195 sq.ft. I've seen several with parquet wood flooring, so perhaps they all do (but always verify). Who were Stone & Shulte? Shulte shows up later in the South Bay, without Stone, who may have been the Commander Stone who used to live nearby in a sprawling rancher that once stood at the corner of Ross and Stone Court. Now that's insider stuff.

The unnamed Eichler tract I just mentioned, 50 homes between Barron Creek, Ross, Arbutus and Louis, is similar to Faircourt and was built at the same time, although the price leader here is a 4/2 of 1636 sq.ft. and the most common floorplan a 4/2 of 1771 sq.ft., with some expanded to 2000 sq.ft. or more. Just south of this is a small Mackay tract of 3/2 contemporaries of 1302, 1389 and 1412 sq.ft. Built in 1956, they're all on perimeter foundation and have hardwood floors and forced-air heat. I've seen the sales brochure for this development, and it locates the Mackay sales office in downtown Menlo Park on Chestnut, about where a Christian Science Reading Room is now.

Los Arboles, 80-plus homes built from 1959-61, is definitely a notch upscale, with floorplans of 2000 sq.ft. or more not uncommon. In fact, of the 80-plus homes in this development, only two are 3-bedrooms, quite a change from just a few years before. Most common is a 4/2 of 1880 sq.ft., but 4/2s of 1733, 1825 and 1859 sq.ft. can also be found. Some are atrium models.

South of Meadow is a huge tract of about 200 Brown & Kaufmann 3/2 contemporaries called Meadowpark, built in five phases from 1955-56. Just to give you an idea of how young some of these builders were back in the day, Brown & Kaufmann’s Vern Kaufmann was only 78 when he died in 2002. Most of these homes are 1421 sq.ft., although there's plenty of smaller 1204 and 1247 sq.ft. models.

Also part of the Meadowpark sub-division, but closer to Charleston on Gailen and Louis, is a sprinkling of 1957-vintage Eichlers. Most are 4/2s of 1717 sq.ft but there's also a variety of 3/2s between 1156 and 1508 sq.ft. Along nearby Grove are more Eichlers, these an upscale development dating from 1958 with homes that are invariably close to 2000 sq.ft. if not more. Even if you're a diehard Eichler-hater, if you've stayed with me this far you're probably beginning to realize that Joe's homes weren't always small and barebones; in fact, they're some of the consistently largest and most comfortable homes in this area.

Crossing Charleston you’ll find 78 more Eichlers in a development called Charleston Gardens. Built in 1954, when neighboring Greenmeadow was also started, Charleston Gardens isn't quite as deluxe. The homes are almost all small 3/2s of 1144 sq.ft., not much bigger than Joe's first houses in 1949.

Anyone into Eichlers but on a strict budget might be interested in a pleasant 35-unit condominium complex at the corner of Middlefield and Charleston called Las Casitas. These 1- and 2-bedroom units, built in 1961 and converted to condos in 1973, sure look like Eichler designs, but the central heating and perimeter foundation say no.

Green Gables:  The end of World War II brought the hordes of people and the easy credit that would soon blanket much of the mid-Peninsula, including this area, with new homes. During this time Eichler built three tracts here, Channing Park near present-day Duveneck (formerly Green Gables) Elementary, Green Gables Addition (now on the National Historic Register) from Greer to Wildwood, and Edgewood where Edgewood, Channing and St. Francis intersect. Joe also built Edgewood Shopping Center, his first and last such effort, and there's some debate as to how workable this novel design is.

Channing Park Eichlers near Duveneck Elementary were built in two phases, the first in 1951-2 on De Soto, Alester and part of Channing, and represent one of Joe’s earliest entries into a more upscale market. They’re big for the time, most between 1500 and 1800 sq.ft., and all have two baths and three or four bedrooms. A second phase of about 30 homes, located at the intersection of Channing and Newell, are also surprisingly large. Just to the east, the 55 Green Gables Addition Eichlers date from 1950 and are typical of Joe's earliest work, built to a more affordable standard. They're small, mostly 3/1s of 1216 sq.ft. and 3/2s of 1320 sq.ft. although many have been expanded. Unique among Eichler developments, some of these homes have the garage detached and in the back, a throwback to the pre-WWII days when garages (like the stables that preceded them) were located far from the house because of car (or horse) odors and the possibility of fire. This retrograde idea is just another example of Joe, still new at homebuilding and always an innovator, tinkering with the product. In some instances, two homes share a driveway, also unusual but not unique to this development. North and east of this tract along Edgewood are larger Eichlers from 1956, very typical of what I call the "mature Eichler” of that time found in many South Palo Alto neighborhoods. 4/2s of 1610 and 1614 sq.ft. are most common, complemented by a number of 3/2s of 1346 and 1368 sq.ft., although the block between Wildwood and St. Francis has 3/2s as small as 1153 sq.ft.

South of Embarcadero but still in Green Gables, most Eichlers can be found in an apparently nameless tract—stop the presses! I just found out it's called Triple El, after the names of the three streets: Elsinore Drive, Elsinore Court and El Cajon. Built in 1955, these are more "mature Eichlers", bigger and more upscale than his earliest efforts and quite similar to Eichlers of the same vintage in South Palo Alto. They're mostly three-bedroom/two-bath homes of 1163 or 1486 sq.ft. or four-bedrooms of 1639 sq.ft., although many have been expanded.

Midtown: You'll find just a handful of Eichlers in Midtown in three locations, one west of Middlefield in the 600 block of Meadow, built in 1956, a row of homes in the 3300 block of Middlefield dating from 1959 and a 1972 development on Toyon. There may be a fourth location as well, going all the way back to late 1949, although the details are unclear. Apparently Midtown is the site of one of Joe's earliest projects, only his fourth, "at Ramona and El Dorado" in the Stanford City tract. Since he was still buying stock plans, and not using architect's designs with identifiable Eichler touches, nothing stands out here as positively Eichler, but it's likely that eight contemporaries built about that time in the 2800-2900 block of Ramona fit the bill. They're typical entry-level fare, 3/1s of 1062 sq.ft., clean but unremarkable designs that I would have taken for nearby Stern & Prices. So Midtown is one South Palo Alto neighborhood where Eichler didn't make much of an impression.

But this being South Palo Alto, there’s still an abundance of contemporaries here, particularly on the 3100 to 3500 blocks of Emerson and Ramona and from Ashton south to East Meadow. They’re Stern & Prices, sometimes similar in size and detail to the earliest Eichlers but with a few noteworthy differences. MCM enthusiast Joe Barthlow, mentioned above, tells me that these homes were designed by Cliff May, "the father of the California ranch home", and Chris Choate. They're remarkably small, 3/1s of 1027 to 1120 sq.ft. and even 2/1s of 840 to 925 sq.ft., although most have been expanded (and quite a few leveled). Heating is by conventional central forced air, not the sometimes problematic radiant. Midtown Stern & Prices use the same vertical tongue-in-groove siding found on early Eichlers, one reason the two are often mistaken. Garages are detached and partially define the private front courtyard. The clothes washer is sometimes in the kitchen. Interior walls use sheetrock except for an Eichler-esque light-veneered plywood on the fireplace wall. Like Eichlers they’re built on slab, have floor-to-ceiling windows and either flat or low-pitched roofs covered with foam or tar-and-gravel. Both have planked ceilings and pendant light fixtures and occasionally use cinderblock as an accent. The purist will appreciate finding one with its original laminate countertops (with that quintessentially '50s amoeba-like design) and battle-ship like Tappan gas stove. Stern & Prices are pleasant homes but don’t have the Eichler’s mystique, perhaps in part because while Eichler went on to larger, architect-designed tract and custom homes, Stern & Price moved on to build really cheap homes in Cupertino's Rancho Rinconada. Rancho's layout of winding streets suggest why Cowper, arrow-straight for miles, jogs here for no apparent reason.

West Charleston: With a few exceptions, West Charleston is typical suburbia circa 1950. Eichler built well over 100 of his first homes here in 1950 and 1951, in a tract called Charleston Meadows. They're typical early Eichlers (and typical of what was built for the mass market in those days), 8 floorplans, all of them small 3-bedroom/1-bath designs, ranging from 1069 to 1374 sq.ft. If you're wondering why you keep finding this minimalist housing in "upscale Palo Alto", it's because that's what new homebuyers could afford in the early '50s, and were happy to get—although that would soon change.

Eichler wasn't the only one building contemporaries here, with Whitmyre & Clements also making a modest contribution with a tract called Blossom Park. Found on Ruthelma, they're similar to the nearby Eichlers, small 3/1s of 1040 or 1052 sq.ft. dating from 1950. I've always wondered about the odd names of some of the streets in this area. “Whitclem” appears to be an amalgamation of Whitmyre and Clement, the builders. Maybe Edlee comes from their first names, and Ruthelma from the names of their wives. Maybe we should be glad this didn't catch on.

Feel free to contact me at jfyten@cbnorcal.com .

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