Photo by James BunoanWhile there's nothing cooler than the slope of a 1957 Chevrolet's tail fin, that same car is a smog-spewing, gas-guzzling metal coffin with functional flaws aplenty. Similarly, don't let the clean, distinctive lines and mass-market appeal of an Eichler fool you—it's the '57 Chevy of homes.
Joseph Eichler's post-and-beam design followed the anti-ornamental ethic of Bauhaus and Craftsman and created an iconic California backdrop for the middle-class of the 1950s and '60s. Framed glass walls produce the illusion of bringing the outdoors in, where ambient light did the hand jive with interior space. The home invited you to pull up your Eames side chair, sip a pink martini and spin Les Baxter on the hi-fi.
But Eichler was no architect. He was an ex-poultry business manager whose epiphany came after renting a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. That prompted him to join a pair of California's architectural young lions (Anshen & Allen in San Francisco in 1949 and Jones & Emmons in Los Angeles in 1953) to form Eichler Homes Inc.
The partnership went right to his chicken-rancher's head. "Beauty is achieved by the architect's skill in designing details, his blend of materials and proper proportions, and above all, the exercise of good taste," Eichler said. "In short, we produce a work of art that has gained an international reputation."
In short—depending on your perspective—Eichler homes are either pristine or sterile, sleek or monotonous, classic minimalist cool or snobbish sub-urbanity. Once, when a prospective buyer inquired about cracks caused by natural aging in the exposed beams of an Eichler living room, Joseph Eichler exploded like a temperamental artist. "You can get out of my house right now!" he ranted. "Just get out! You don't deserve to have one of my houses!"
People who did deserve an Eichler home often wished they could get out. Like a finned Chevy, Eichlers could be unworkable schlock. The flat or slightly pitched roofs were prone to leak and sag. The plumbing, located beneath a concrete slab floor that contained heating coils, offered no access for normal maintenance or repairs. Nothing in an Eichler was standard size, so upkeep was pricey. And, due to the ubiquitous windows, Eichlers were hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
Eventually, Eichler Homes Inc. went the way of the Chevy fin. By 1967, the enterprise was bankrupt. Today, you can see Eichlers in their native habitat bordered by Hewes, Fairhaven, Prospect and La Veta in Orange. Some have canary-yellow paint jobs and daisy whirly gigs. Others are Frankensteins of Provincial and Modern styles, with the occasional pickup parked on the lawn out front. A fair number are show-quality—and unfortunately, an Eichler in primo condition can still seduce, just like that 1957 Chevy. You may be tempted to buy an Eichler, fill it with Heywood-Wakefield furniture, sunburst clocks and Melinamade fabrics; put Thievery Corporation on the CD player and Pollack on the walls; and watch Rebel Without a Causeuntil your style-o-meter hits the red zone. You could cruise to these words from an article on Eichler homes in the July 12, 2002, Orange County Register: "The sleek lines and flowing open space of the home . . . speaks of a time before the American soul—and its living quarters—were crushed by consumerism."
Wait a minute. You're overheating. Your Chevy's in the shop, and your Eichler is a piece of high-maintenance kitsch—its sleek lines speaking to a retro-future in which style masked defect.