Who is Joseph Eichler, and Why are Millennials Buying his Homes by the Boatload?
Developer Joseph Eichler and his Eichler Homes, Inc. built nearly 11,000 iconic single-family homes in California, beginning in the late 1940s. In Northern California, they can be found in areas in and around Marin county, the East Bay, San Mateo county, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, San Jose, San Francisco, and Sacramento. Together these thousands of “Eichlers” reflect the beauty and uniqueness of the Eichler design and the integrity and daring of the builder behind it. Fifty years later, the house that Joe built endures as a marvelous legacy.
By the mid-1940s, Joseph Eichler had become intrigued by modernist design and in particular one of the creations of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who had designed the Bazett house (Hillsborough, California),a rented home for Eichler during World War II. Triggered by Wright’s inspiration, Eichler began to fashion a vision short on home-building acumen, yet long on modernist aesthetics and his own iron will. Beginning in 1949, when it was still uncommon to find merchant builders engaged with architects, Eichler became engrossed with building communities of homes characterized by both flair and affordability.
Aligning himself with a stable of progressive, empathic architects — first the San Francisco firm of Anshen & Allen, then Jones & Emmons, later Claude Oakland — Eichler realized his dream, styled with imagination. As regional architecture designed for the Bay Area’s benign climate, their house designs befuddled the traditional masses — emphasizing boldness, change, and optimism through indoor-outdoor living, walls of glass, atriums, and radiant-heat floors.
Joseph Eichler passed away in 1974 at age 73. Now, 35 years later, when it comes to painting a picture of Joe Eichler, his family and peers remain clear about what he stood for and what made him tick.
One side of Eichler was a relentless go-getter who knew what he wanted, how to get to it, and how to get around the roadblocks and even his own shortcomings. “Before and even after 1947,” recalled Joe’s son, Ned Eichler, “my father never held a hammer, a saw, or a wrench in his hand. Still, he became a master builder.”
Another side of Eichler’s character was his enormous charm, wonderful humor, and absolute honesty. He refused to be swayed by associates who saw greater profits in design shortcuts and inferior materials. “By making construction easier and less costly,” added Ned, “the architectural principles my father had come to hold dear would have been violated.”
A strong proponent of fair housing and deeply opposed to racial discrimination, the liberal Eichler was the first large, tract builder to sell to minorities, and even built a home on his own lot for an NAACP leader. Joe resigned from the National Association of Home Builders in 1958 in protest of racial discrimination policies and, according to reports from long-time Eichler owners, offered to buy back homes from those who had trouble accepting their neighbors.
“If, as you claim, this will destroy property values,” Joe once told some disgruntled Eichler owners, “I could lose millions…You should be ashamed of yourselves for wasting your time and mine with such pettiness.”
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