With Sunny, Modern Homes, Joseph Eichler Built The Suburbs In Style

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After World War II, developer Joseph Eichler built well-designed and well-crafted tract homes that dotted California suburbs. (Stephen Schafer)
After World War II, developer Joseph Eichler built well-designed and well-crafted tract homes that dotted California suburbs. (Stephen Schafer)

In Palm Springs, Calif., a $1 million home was just built — with plans resurrected from 1951. The original sold for about $15,000, and was called an Eichler, after developer Joseph Eichler, who offered well-designed, well-built tract homes to the masses a half-century ago.

Bernie Grossman and his wife, Lyla, bought their Eichler home in 1963. Bernie was starting a law practice, and a client told him about these new modern houses going up in Granada Hills, about 45 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. "He said way up here in this wasteland there's some crazy builders building a house ... I looked at them and, I dunno, they're kind of weird," Grossman recalls.

Single-story homes, with open spaces, floor-to-ceiling glass walls and clean, serene lines. Bernie fell in love. He paid $30,000, and raised three children in the house. In fact, Parents Magazine once said an Eichler was the best house in the U.S. for raising children.

"You had two wings completely — with toilet and everything so that each side is independent," Grossman explains. "You can separate the adults from the children without [their] killing each other."

The house has five small bedrooms, arranged in two separate wings around the living area and open air atrium (there's a tree growing up through the roof). Each wing has bathrooms (which has helped keep the peace between the Grossmans). It's a house designed for California living and sunshine.

This new home in Palm Springs, Calif., was built from a design created in 1951.
This new home in Palm Springs, Calif., was built from a design created in 1951.

There are 108 Eichler homes in this tract; it's called Balboa Highlands. And Lyla Grossman says Eichler not only built handsome, affordable modern homes for the masses; he wanted everyone, and anyone, to have them. "My greatest respect for all these homes is that he wanted integration," she says. "And that was very new in this area — completely new ... And that's why I loved it so much."

The Grossmans' neighbor, Adriene Biondo knew a couple — they've since died — who were the only African-American owners at first. She remembers that they told her: "We felt confident in moving here because we heard that the Eichlers' nondiscrimination policy meant that if we didn't like our neighbors, he would buy our house back."

Biondo, the author of Modern Tract Homes of Los Angeles, worked for 10 years to get "Historic District" status for Balboa Highlands. She says Eichler's philosophy, and the houses that his architects — A. Quincy Jones and partner Frederick Emmons — designed were magnets for certain kinds of buyers.

"It's not just the modern architecture," Biondo says. "It attracts people who love to live in a modern way."

Flowing spaces, no boxy little rooms, all the glass (the Grossmans' house survived three earthquakes without one cracked window wall). Early buyers were artists, a Disney animator, many elementary school teachers — "we even had one Republican," Bernie Grossman says.

Lyla and Bernie Grossman bought their Eichler home for $30,000 in 1963.
Lyla and Bernie Grossman bought their Eichler home for $30,000 in 1963.

Movie and ad-makers shoot in these California-modern Eichler houses all the time. A few years ago, Taco Bell used the Grossman's 2,500-square-foot home in a Super Bowl commercial.

Architecture historian and writer Alan Hess says after World War II, Eichler built some 11,000 single-family homes in California. Most of them are in the San Francisco Bay area. But some went South.

"Southern California was booming after World War II," Hess says. "Many soldiers and sailors had come through here on their way to the Pacific, and many of them came back to stay."

They left Kansas and Idaho and Illinois for jobs in aerospace, oil and entertainment. They wanted to start families, and buy homes with backyards, homes made with materials developed during the war and now available to everyone — like plywood, plastics, formica for the countertops and, of course, stainless steel for all the new appliances. The houses were modern, optimistic about the future — they were what these soldiers been fighting for.

During the war, Eichler's family had rented a Frank Lloyd Wright house outside of San Francisco. He loved its simple modern lines and spaces. He began building houses like that — and kept tabs on them. Not long after the Grossmans moved into their Balboa Highlands house, Eichler came to look at it.

The Grossmans raised three children in their home, located about 45 minutes from downtown Los Angeles.
The Grossmans raised three children in their home, located about 45 minutes from downtown Los Angeles.

"He was just like someone from the East who was in business," Lyla Grossman remembers. "He was not a California boy. He was not easy. He was a bit gruff."

But he built houses in the sun, which make residents like Adriene Biondo feel free and artistic. "The architecture really does inform the way you live," she says. You can tell the time of day by the light outside. "Suddenly you look in the living room and it's engulfed in a pinkish-orange glow and you realize: I've been working all day and it's sunset."

Biondo has been in her Balboa Highlands Eichler home for 20 years and says it's the best place she's ever lived. "It's not like living in a normal house at all," she says. "There's nothing conventional about it."

The creation of suburbs after World War II marched rows of ticky-tacky tract houses across America. The houses Joseph Eichler built rejected ticky tack — and offered stunning modern spaces on graceful curving streets to generations of families.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Palm Springs, Calif., a million-dollar home was just built with plans resurrected from 1951. The original home sold for about $15,000, and was called an Eichler, after developer Joseph Eichler. Eichler offered well-designed, well-built tract homes to the masses half a century ago. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports on Joseph Eichler and why anyone would want to bring back his homes.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Bernie Grossman and his wife, Lyla, bought their Eichler home in 1963. Bernie was starting a law practice and a client told him about these new modern houses going up in Granada Hills, about 45 minutes from downtown LA.

BERNIE GROSSMAN: And he said it's way up here in a wasteland some crazy builder is building a house. And he says I looked at them and I thought I don't know, they're kind of weird.

STAMBERG: Single-story, open spaces, floor-to-ceiling glass walls so the outside sweeps inside. Clean, serene lines, Bernie fell in love; paid $30,000, raised three children in the house, says Parents Magazine once said an Eichler was the best house in the U.S. for raising children.

B. GROSSMAN: The thing that I thought was great about the architecture is that it has two wings completely with toilet and everything so that each side is independent. You can separate the adults from the children without killing each other.

STAMBERG: Lyla Grossman shows the original plans - five small bedrooms arranged in two separate wings around the living area and open air atrium. There's a tree growing up through the roof. Each wing has bathrooms - that's how the elders and kiddies avoided murder. It's a house designed for sunshine - California living. There are 108 Eichler homes in this tract; it's called Balboa Highlands. And Lyla Grossman says developer Joseph Eichler not only built handsome, affordable, modern homes for the masses, he wanted everyone and anyone to have them.

LYLA GROSSMAN: My greatest respect about all of these homes is that he wanted integration. And that was very new in this area - completely new. He wanted people of color, he wanted Asians, and that's why I loved it so much.

STAMBERG: The Grossmans' neighbor, Adriene Biondo, knew a couple - now dead - who were the only African-American owners at first.

ADRIENE BIONDO: They said, and we felt confident in moving here because we heard that Eichler's nondiscrimination policy meant that if we didn't like our neighbors he would buy our house back. They felt that that makes an Eichler.

STAMBERG: Biondo, the author of "Modern Tract Homes Of LA," worked for 10 years to get historic district status for Balboa Highlands. She says developer Eichler's philosophy and the houses his architects - A. Quincy Jones and partner Frederick Emmons - designed were magnets for certain kinds of buyers.

BIONDO: It's not just modern architecture. It attracts people who love to live in a modern way.

STAMBERG: Flowing spaces, no boxy little rooms, all the glass - the Grossman's house survived three earthquakes without one cracked window wall. Early buyers were artists, a Disney animator, there were teachers.

L. GROSSMAN: Most of them were elementary school...

B. GROSSMAN: We had one Republican (laughter) poor guy.

STAMBERG: Well, how was he allowed in?

B. GROSSMAN: I don't know. We said that the Constitution said we had to take one (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, double beef, fiesta salsa, delicious.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Super delicious.

STAMBERG: Movie and ad-makers shoot in these California-modern Eichler houses all the time. A few years ago, Taco Bell used the Grossman's 2,500-square-foot home in a Super Bowl commercial.

B. GROSSMAN: They had this famous actress - who was it?

L. GROSSMAN: Carmen...

B. GROSSMAN: Carmen Electra. Carmen Electra was running up and down the atrium and she kept stumbling and they had to do so many takes.

L. GROSSMAN: Carmen Electra was outside banging on the glass door over and over and over repeating her line let me in, let me in. I miss you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

CARMEN ELECTRA: I miss us. Take me back.

STAMBERG: Architecture historian and writer Alan Hess says after World War II, Joseph Eichler built some 11,000 single-family homes in California. Most of them are in the San Francisco Bay area, but some went south.

ALAN HESS: Southern California was booming after World War II. Many soldiers and sailors had come through here on the way to the Pacific and many of them came back to stay.

STAMBERG: They left Kansas, Idaho, Illinois for jobs in aerospace, oil, entertainment. They wanted to start families and buy homes with backyards, homes made with materials developed during the war and now available to everyone.

HESS: Plywood, for example, plastics, Formica for countertops, stainless steel.

STAMBERG: For all the new appliances, ranges, dishwashers, disposals - modern, optimistic, about the future, what they'd been fighting for.

HESS: Joe Eichler had a real vision.

STAMBERG: During the war, Eichler's family rented a Frank Lloyd Wright house outside of San Francisco. Joe loved its simple modern lines and spaces. He began building houses like that, and kept tabs on them. Not long after Bernie and Lyla Grossman moved into their Balboa Highlands house, Eichler came to look at it. Lyla remembers the moral, aesthetic builder.

L. GROSSMAN: He was just like someone from the East who was in business. He was not a California boy. He was not easy. He was a bit gruff.

STAMBERG: But he built houses in the sun that make residents like Adriene Biondo feel free, artistic.

BIONDO: The architecture really does inform the way you live.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

STAMBERG: She sits down at the Grossman's old upright piano, painted yellow with chipped keys, and says you can tell the time of day by the light outside.

BIONDO: Suddenly you look in the living room and it's engulfed in a pinkish-orange glow and you realize, oh, I've been working all day and it's sunset.

STAMBERG: Adriene has been in her Balboa Highlands Eichler home for 20 years, says it's the best place she's ever lived.

BIONDO: It's not like living in a normal house at all. There's nothing conventional about it.

STAMBERG: The creation of suburbs after World War II marched rows of ticky-tacky tract houses across America. The houses Joseph Eichler built rejected ticky-tack and offered stunning modern spaces on graceful curving streets to generations of families. In Southern California, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

INSKEEP: And you can see all kinds of Eichler homes at npr.org. Never a place for ticky-tacky, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR news. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.