A mong the rolling hills of Thousand Oaks, surrounded by cookie-cutter housing tracts and custom-built Mediterranean-style villas, are 103 mid-century modern homes unique to California.
They’re known as The Eichler homes, a three-block community off Lynn Road and Camino Manzanas.
The exteriors are angular and unassuming. But step inside an Eichler home and prepare to be transported back to the modernist era, when designs were clean and simple and rooms were open to each other.
The houses have several design features that distinguish them. There’s usually an atrium surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass that serves as a kind of hub of the home. It’s flooded with sunlight and planted with greenery. Mahogany paneling, dyed orange by the sun, lines the walls. Round lighting fixtures, originals from the 1950s, hang above the kitchen tables. Thick beams run along the wood ceiling.
These details are what set Eichler homes apart from other production homes built during the California housing boom that took place just after World War II.
Joe Eichler, a real estate developer credited with bringing mid-century modern to the masses, built more than 11,000 homes in California between the 1950s and 1970s. He hired well-known architects including Anshen and Allen, Jones & Emmons, and Claude Oakland Associates to design homes for 12 California neighborhoods.
Nine Eichler communities are in Northern California—Sacramento, San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. Three small communities were built in Southern California—in Granada Hills, the city of Orange and Thousand Oaks.
Eichler’s vision was to build the homes cheap, offering an affordable alternative for families interested in modern design.
As the majority of Conejo Valley homes grew in size and value in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Eichler homes faded into the background.
“For 10 years, nobody wanted to buy these homes, and some stood empty for several years,” says Nicole Hobbs, a Thousand Oaks-based realtor and interior designer.
But today, a younger generation of homeowners is discovering them.
Nicole and her husband, Glenn, are a real estate and design duo that sells and markets the Eichler homes in Thousand Oaks. They have sold about 20 percent of the homes in the neighborhood, mainly to young homebuyers or Europeans, who appreciate modern design.
“The younger generation is really rethinking the big house with granite countertops and a huge master suite,” Nicole says. “They want minimalism. They compromise space for style. And they don’t want what everyone else has.”
Segolene and Fabien Reille were looking for something different when they moved to the area. But every home they toured in Thousand Oaks was a disappointment until the couple stepped into an Eichler in November 2008.
“So many other homes felt bland and, being from France, we were looking for something that had soul and a story,” says Segolene, who works at Amgen.
The couple toured an Eichler home on Fordham Avenue on a Saturday. On Sunday, they put in an offer.
“We literally fell in love with this house because it had so many unique aspects to it,” Segolene says.
“Unique” comes with its own challenges, though. Eichler homes don’t have air conditioning, which can be rough during the summer months. Installing electricity channels or cable cords can be difficult because there are no drop ceilings with space between the roof and interior. And, floor-to-ceiling glass is expensive to replace when broken.
“You can’t just run to Home Depot when you need something,” says Fabien. “We like to keep things original, and even though the company that made the original still exists, they often don’t have the same model, so we have to hunt it down from our neighbors or other
About Joe Eichler
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.”
Reprinted with permission from The Eichler Network
Most homeowners choose to compromise and live with the home’s original character rather than renovate.
Brad and Stephanie Tucker moved into their Eichler home in 2011 with their two young children. Stephanie jokes that she would like a bigger kitchen, but has no plans to expand. “We would never want to destroy something this beautiful.”
Glenn Hobbs, who studied architectural design, says Eichler homeowners like Stephanie appreciate the home’s integrity and place in history. They often see themselves as stewards of the home, a type of gallery owner living in the space for the time being.
“The people that buy these homes are artisans in the first place and they buy them to experience the Eichler home, not make it their own,” Glenn says.
In that sense, an Eichler home is a piece of California’s architectural history. It’s more than a house with a roof or a home with a hearth for families. To many, it’s art.