Joseph Eichler’s Homes Get Me Off [Yesternow]

Just looking at an Eichler home gets me off. The clean lines and mastery of design make me quiver with delight. Bright, bold colors and bursts of light. Large floor-to-ceiling windows. Open-air atriums smack in the middle of the home. Backyard boomerang pools to take advantage of the California weather the state is famous for.

Joseph Eichler’s legacy is in the undisputedly iconic homes he brought to the common man from the late 1940s to the ’60s. Often mistaken for an architect, Eichler was a San Francisco Bay-area builder and real-estate developer. He used the top architects of the day—including A. Quincy Jones, Frederick Emmons, and the Anshen + Allen firm—to help him achieve his modernist vision.

During World War II, he lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright home in the Palo Alto area, so he almost couldn’t help being influenced by the architect’s seminal style. Eichler found success building tracts in the surrounding Bay Area, with the first set built in Sunnyvale in 1949. The houses were intended for families in the then-booming middle class and sold for between $12,000 and $15,000, a paltry sum when compared to the million-dollar price tag they can now carry. He also had a non-discrimination policy and was adamant about selling to people of all ethnicities and religions—all this during the height of the civil-rights movement.

“By the early 1960s, he wanted to expand his business elsewhere in California, and one of the places he chose was Orange,” explains Alan Hess, an Irvine architect and historian. It was in Orange that Eichler developed 343 homes divided among three tracts: Fairmeadow, Fairhaven and Fairhills. “Over the years, they have grown in their own way, as any neighborhood does,” says Hess. There’s a whole community within the neighborhoods, which they’ve affectionately dubbed “Eichlerville,” with block parties and yard-sale days.

Rockabilly singer Abby Maharaj of Abby Girl & the Real Deal and her husband, Davan, a former LA Times editor-in-chief and publisher, have owned an Eichler home in the Fairhaven tract since the summer of 2000. I met Maharaj last year while I was walking in her neighborhood. She pulled over to comment on my outfit—a red 1950s ensemble that looked right at home in my surroundings. She told me it’s common in their neighborhood to have admirers wandering about.

But the place wasn’t love at first sight for Maharaj. “When my husband first took me driving around the Fairhaven tract of Eichlers, I honestly thought they looked very prefabricated,” she says. “From the outside, they seemed designed for privacy. . . . But when we toured a few, I loved the atrium, the glass walls, how light and bright they were.

“The open layout meant I could be in the kitchen and look through the atrium glass to see my son’s room,” she continues. “From the front door, you can see straight out the back glass wall to the pool and garden.”

Eichler’s vision and life’s work is an absolute gift to Orange County, culturally speaking. The structures are large art installments that can be viewed from a public sidewalk as well as allegorical time capsules. “There’s a certain bias against Southern California architecture,” Hess says. “There wasn’t as much awareness in the Bay Area that there was good modern architecture, not just in Los Angeles, but also as far south as Orange County.”

Eichler changed that. And if that isn’t just typical of the outside world’s view on Orange County, I don’t know what is. Of course, we know better.

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