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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Hiding in Plain Sight