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Leslie and Christopher Dow found their dream house by looking at the one they lived in.

B ack in 1989, those funny houses in the Bay Area had a terrible reputation. Some people called them “pre-fabs”, although it wasn’t true. The distinctive structures had started out years before as modern design, but armies of vinyl-siding salesmen, stucco contractors, and remodelers had marched over them, trying to “correct” their unusual construction. Once open to the breezes and the sun, they’d been turned into human Habitrails by central air-conditioning and shutters. Eichlers, they were called, and Leslie and Christopher Dow leased one as the latest in a long string of rentals, finding nothing better.

They were accustomed to better, that was for sure. "One of my first memories is of sitting on my grandmother's lap in her Eames lounge chair while watching the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969,” says Christopher. His aunt and interior designer uncle influenced his taste for modernism at a young age, and later in life he worked on building projects with his uncle. "In the summer of 1980, I stayed with them in their fantastic early Sixties house, which had glass walls, atria, birch paneling, and terrazzo floors. The great room (a living/dining area combined with a kitchen) was about 40 feet long with 20-foot ceilings, and one wall was completely glass. After spending the summer in that house, I knew I someday had to live in a modern home."
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Stir It Up: The Living Room is anchored with blue-chip collectibles like a Knoll sofa by Hannah & Morrison, a Noguchi coffee table and an Eames Lounge with the ottoman. More playful pieces ranging from Pop to Scandinavian keep the room from feeling like a Mid-Century museum.

Leslie also had memories of top-of-the line modernism; her Pasadena grandmother had a Weimer & Thurber-designed house built in the Fifties. Stacked against the Dows’ childhood experiences, their rental Eichler didn’t seem like much. "I must say that the differences between Eichlers and the modernism I'd seen before, combined with the atrocities many Eichler owners had committed against their homes, made it difficult for me to see the fabulous dwellings hiding inside Eichlers. I developed the same snobbish attitude toward them as others I knew," Christopher remembers.

Still, a house in the Bay Area - any house - was nothing to be sneezed at, and the Dows worked on putting their own decorative imprint on the rented house’s interior, to give it some personality. Their thinking at the time was that it also compensated for their feeling that this subdivision full of remuddled Eichlers was not the place they wanted to live forever. In 1995, some new friends opened their eyes, and changed not only their minds, but their lives.

Sweet Inspiration: The Living Room of K.C. and Mark Marcinik's Eichler was the setting that proved the architectural worth of Eichlers to the Dows.

Principals in their own architectural firm, Greenmeadow Architects, K.C. and Mark Marcinik reveled in Eichler architecture, living in an Eichler themselves. Their enthusiasm for the houses was contagious: "Come ON,” they told the Dows, “They're the only mass-produced modern homes ever built." It took a while, but guided by Mark’s patient pointing out of remaining Eichlers that had not suffered “upgrades…assaults upon modernity,” the Dows began to see the obvious. They’d been living in real architecture all along, something finer than coach lamps and shag carpeting would suggest.

Home and Hearth: This view of the Living Room reveals that the collectibles and architecture are backdrop for the comfortable family life of the Dows. The usual line between indoors and out is demolished by the distinctive Eichler mantel, surrounded by glass.

From the Cover: Inexpensive Heller plastic dinnerware is mixed with Dansk's revered Fjord flatware for an everyday table setting in the Dining Room. The Poul Henningsen PH-5 light fixture is a classic still available new from Louis Poulsen.
Adding to their new-found enthusiasm was a tour of the Marciniks’ Eichler, un-remuddled, with a dizzying array of Mid-Century furnishings and accessories presenting the architecture in its best light. They also bought the book in which the Marciniks’ home appeared, Eichler Homes: Designs for Living. "We suddenly realized why Mark liked Eichlers so much,” the Dows say today. This was the look they remembered from childhood, and with the energy of new converts, they began to search for an Eichler all their own. In January of 1998, they found it: the first one they toured was the one they bought.

"I loved the atrium, and saw that the floorplan could be modified to make a fantastic space. When we bought it, we decided we wanted K.C. and Mark to help us remodel it, but we wanted to wait," says Christopher. They put in new floors and did some painting, but left the house otherwise untouched for sixteen months before beginning renovation. One of the problems with the place was its closed feeling. In the early '70s, builder Joseph Eichler had commissioned Claude Oakland to modify the original Jones and Emmons atrium models to appeal to the home-buyer fads of the time, one of which was walk-in closets. Oakland turned a hobby room into a laundry, closed off the space between the living and dining areas with a pantry, and added walk-in closets in the master bedroom. Leslie and Christopher felt the whole house seemed like a series of walk-in closets and small spaces, instead of the open plans of earlier models.

Hot and Cool: Primary colors combine with neutrals in the Kitchen; oversized pulls on the cabinetry contribute a bold touch to a space that might have been bland or fussy with other hardware. The tile floors extend out into other spaces, making the area feel larger.

Enduring Style: Far from being the usual "junior" space of lesser distinction and quality, the Children's Bath uses stone and stainless steel for durable good looks. The Dows' affection for period detail is evidenced in the 1950s-style embossing of the vinyl shower curtain.

In the summer of 1999, the Dows got busy, using plans conceived by the Marciniks. Doing much of the work themselves, they reclaimed the open feeling they expected from an Eichler. K.C. Marcinik contributed one of the renovation’s most striking features, a double kitchen. Feeling that the laundry room was an extravagant use of expensive space ($500 a square foot in Palo Alto then, and closer to $750 today), she proposed combining it with other footage to create two areas. One serves for impromptu entertaining, with a bar area, and capable of producing coffee and snacks. The other is for serious cooking, with everything readily accessible, but out of the sightline of guests.

Glorious Technicolor: An Office mixes the classic and the camp effortlessly, and is practical for both grownups and children to use.

Before There Was Disco: The early 70s are revived in one corner of the Master Bedroom; a Djinn chair by Olivier Mourgue sets off a stylish collection of plastic Pop accessories and furniture.

Today, the Dows have it all. Their house is a piece of unique modernist history, a living artifact of one of the few times a merchant builder ever tried to give ordinary home-buyers real modern dream houses instead of conventional ones with a few trendy touches. It’s a comfortable, beautiful space that houses their lives and their collections perfectly. And, oh yes - it’s a GREAT investment. After all, since 1989, a few other people have discovered Eichlers too.

The authors wish to extend special thanks to K.C. and Mark Marcinik of Greenmeadow Architects. Readers interested in learning more about the firm’s architectural, design, and restoration services may visit the Greenmeadow Architects Website at www.greenmeadow.cc, or may telephone at 650.856.8354.

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Hiding in Plain Sight
Copyright © 2003 D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, www.jetsetmodern.com Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher. First posted to the Web on April 7th, 2003.