One fine spring afternoon in 2009, on a routine prospecting run through Sunnyvale, Calif., a rather glamorous young real estate agent named Monique Lombardelli drove her Volkswagen sedan into a better, bygone world. Lombardelli had spent her first several months as a Realtor in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Nevertheless, based as she was in Silicon Valley, there were still plenty of potential clients in the market for an ersatz Spanish mission or an overblown ranch home that made up in bonus bathrooms and surround-sound theater seating what it lacked in restraint.
In the neighborhood she had stumbled into, she discovered a street rippling like a wave, along which stretched late 1950s tract homes. Their geometry of rectangles and triangles had much more in common with the post-and-beam monuments of midcentury architecture than it did with the gimcrack plaster and stucco of Levittown, or certainly the nouveau-riche glitz erupting through the surrounding Silicon Valley. "You know when you play a sport," Lombardelli says, "and something happens where out of blue, out of nowhere, you hit a home run or you catch a ball, and you say to yourself, Oh my God! It was that kind of euphoria, an instant feeling."
Pulling her Volkswagen to the curb, she approached a gray-haired man, probably in his 60s, out with his little dog. He told her he had been living in the subdivision most of his life, and soon enough he revealed himself as a design fanatic. "You see this," he said, frowning down at the ridge of a foundation that some neighbor in their insolence had slathered with gray. "Mr. Eichler had these painted black, and he wanted us to keep these black, but some people don't do it."
Mr. Eichler was Joseph Eichler, who spent the first half of his professional life in the wholesale dairy and poultry business, during which his artistic ambitions seemed to go not much farther than bespoke suits and a fondness for Fred Astaire. In middle age, Eichler, based in the Bay Area, found a new calling—to bring midcentury modern living to the common man. Eichler Homes, which he founded in 1949, sold 11,000 of these post-and-beam residences, most of them in the vicinity of America's future tech capital. The earliest Eichlers were priced at $9,600 for just over 1,000 square feet, and though the models increased in price and square footage during the company's late 1950s heyday, a vet could still purchase one with $800 down. Among the architects Eichler hired were Los Angeles–based A. Quincy Jones—who designed media mogul Walter Annenberg's mansion in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and actor Gary Cooper's estate in L.A.'s Holmby Hills—and Robert Anshen, co-founder of San Francisco–based firm Anshen + Allen, which was acquired by Stantec in 2010.
Until Lombardelli stumbled into that Eichler tract, her career had been mostly shaped by parental expectations and her appearance. After college, she interned at MTV, and though she never managed to get on air, a Hollywood agent was impressed enough by her reel to take her on as a client. In Los Angeles, her roles tended towards eye candy—a Budweiser ad here, a music video there. "I was just doing commercials, delivering stupid little one-liners." She headed north to Silicon Valley, where she began in software sales before switching to real estate.
Lombardelli returned to the Sunnyvale tract the day after her epiphany. She knocked on doors, trying to find someone who would grant her a glimpse inside. One lady opened up and showed her into the living room. Absorbing the narrow earthen brick of the fireplace, the beams of Philippine mahogany soaring above, the glass wall that bathed the room in velvet sunlight and dissolved the boundary with nature outside, she experienced a sense of liberation. "It was just like coming out of a cage," she recalls. "It was a sort of a space that would allow you to be bigger than you were, expanding your thoughts, experiencing more and making you more alive—more visually alive."
On a recent Saturday morning, on the ground floor of the duplex that serves as both the headquarters of her real estate firm and her home, Lombardelli confers with Thomas Sylvia, a 26-year-old designer from New Hampshire. Together, they are evaluating a few of the tract home plans that Lombardelli unearthed in the University of California at Berkeley archives, or requested from Anshen + Allen. Sylvia is explaining some updates he’ll make to these plans so that they conform to current California safety and environmental codes.
With his mop of side-parted hair and smart sport-coat recalling a young Burt Bacharach, Sylvia scrutinizes the newly computerized blueprints of a Claude Oakland–designed Eichler. "Personally," he says, "on the passive environmental scale, I'd like this one to have a [Home Energy Rating System Index Score] of 88." (The lower the rating, the better. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a standard new home has a rating of 100.) Recently, Sylvia did a little work on an original Eichler whose rating spiked at 250. "So what they [originally] did is use a whole house fan for air circulation," he says. "I mean, there’s crap being blown up from all kinds of corners."
Lombardelli seems confident that Sylvia will find a better solution. "Everybody else was saying, this was going to cost me $50,000 or $60,000 to do," she says. "Their fees were astronomical. And then Tom was basically just this angel that came out of nowhere—he’s the reason that this is happening."
Lombardelli has defined herself as an Eichler specialist who represents only clients intent on preserving or restoring midcentury modern architecture, and not those seeking a teardown or base material for a McMansion graft. In 2012, she poured a chunk of her earnings into an Eichler documentary called "People in Glass Houses," which she produced and briefly appears in. Though the film had modest DVD sales, it made her into perhaps the most recognizable Eichler Realtor in America, which had to be good for listings. Now she is taking her most counterintuitive step yet. While not in the position to finance spec Eichlers of her own, she’s hoping developers and at least some Eichler fanatics will purchase her updated blueprints at $5,000 apiece—80 percent working drawings ready to take to a site builder.
In January, Lombardelli paid a pilgrimage to 83-year-old Ned Eichler, Joseph's son, at his Bay Area home. She asked for his blessing to market these long-forgotten blueprints under the Eichler name, and for his advice on how to compensate the heirs of the architects. "She thought she needed legal clearance to sell the plans or alter the plans," Ned recalls. "Totally absurd. Who is there alive who cares?"
If Ned Eichler had only been able to get through to his intransigent father, perhaps Lombardelli would not need to resuscitate the long-dead brand. Back in the day, Ned's innovations in Eichler construction, and his analyses of the company's strengths and vulnerabilities, were more fundamental to its success or very survival than his father recognized, or at least publicly conceded. When the redwood beams and siding material used in early Eichlers proved too dark and dent-prone, Ned, as head of procurement, located Philippine mahogany as a replacement. When Philippine lumber mills couldn't maintain consistent quality, he shipped the logs to mills in Japan—for the time, a deft act of global materials sourcing. It was Ned's decision, as head of sales, to break down the color barrier imposed in much of the tract-home industry, embracing black home buyers redlined out of other projects.
In the early '60s, Ned warned his father against moving into luxury high-rise residential development. Joseph dismissed the advice, and his 32-story Summit tower on San Francisco's Russian Hill lost $2 million and pushed the company towards insolvency. Eichler tracts relied on a tight rotation of a handful of labor crews skilled in post-and-beam construction. They remained under close supervision as long as the company limited its developments to the future Silicon Valley region. Ned pleaded with his father not to expand into Southern California, or if he did, to at least allow him to relocate there to oversee operations. Joseph's answer? No on both counts. The company's tracts in Orange County and Los Angeles were plagued by lax quality and cost control, and were undercut by competitors unencumbered by union labor. Profits suffered accordingly.
From their inception, Eichler homes featured radiant heat coils embedded in the concrete foundation, precluding central air conditioning. Ned conferred with Jones, who worked out a solution for a below-surface duct system that didn't affect the home's profile, but Joseph Eichler would tolerate no such desecration of the modernist ideal. "It's ironic about my father," says Ned, who served as an executive for other real-estate companies after the family business collapsed. "He was probably more of a purist than the architects were."
In Eichler's time and place, conditions for making affordable tract housing were about as favorable as they'd ever be—strong postwar suburban demand; abundant, relatively cheap natural materials; undeveloped land; and plenty of middle-class workers who would have laughed in your face had you told them 23-year-old self-made tech multimillionaires would someday chase people like them out of the local housing market. In an era where the modern aesthetic was the darling of Madison Avenue, there was space for a developer like Joseph Eichler intent on building Case Study jewel-boxes in miniature.
Today, in some high-end areas of the housing market, the modern aesthetic commands a premium that neither of the Eichlers would ever have predicted. Troy Kudlac, a developer who has restored post-and-beam homes around Palm Springs, Calif., purchased one of Lombardelli's A-frame blueprints, and plans to follow up with a flat-roof one. Not only does he appreciate the design, but his decision was also a result of simple arithmetic. "In our area," he explains, "a midcentury home will sell for more than the traditional Spanish house next door, even though it's much smaller."
Leo Marmol, FAIA, managing principal of Marmol Radziner in L.A., has been conferring with Lombardelli about bringing new Eichlers into the world, though he doesn't consider himself to be the project's consulting architect. "I would more use the term, 'advising,' " he says. "I'm casually looking over her shoulder, giving guidance." Marmol, who led the restoration of Richard Neutra's celebrated Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, Calif., doubts a modernist home can be constructed for the same price as comparably sized homes heavy on stucco and sheetrock. But he does believe that costs can be controlled by retaining the modest footprints of the original designs, by implementing new energy efficiencies, by substituting some costly materials for cheaper ones, and by accepting a level of finish that may fall short of Eichler's exigencies but remains true to the ideal.
"We should appreciate that Modernism is often less about the aesthetic impression and more about lifestyle, efficiency of living, sustainability," he says. "What she's doing takes a certain boldness and audacity that is within the Eichler tradition."
Marmol says he would be thrilled to help buyers of Lombardelli's blueprints with overall strategies, and would consider working closely with them to make her vision of the 21st-century Eichler a reality. "Our firm," he says, "stands poised to help Monique in any way possible."
Eichler was never effusive about what made him tick, but he did talk to one researcher at length about the Bazzett House, a Frank Lloyd Wright design from the architect's Usonian period, located in the Silicon Valley town of Hillsborough. Eichler moved his family into the Bazzett House in 1943 and rented it for the next two years. "Each day," he told the researcher, "offered new experiences that were a revelation to me." It was there that Eichler began to dream of building homes that radiated that kind of spare beauty and transformative power.
Lombardelli met the current owner of the Bazett house while filming her documentary, and she came back in June to tell him that she just had to inhabit this chrysalis that apparently had transformed a middle-aged poultry executive into the most prolific modern home builder of his age. As it happened, the owner was about to embark on a three-month business trip. "He went away to Africa," Lombardelli recalls, "and then I got to experience it every day when I woke up. … Living there was sort of like living in a vortex of energy. There's something not from this world that you feel. It’s like an alien presence."
More recently, Lombardelli embarked on a pilgrimage to another Hillsborough residence. The elderly owner welcomed her into the backyard. She didn't need him to tell her that one of Eichler's architects had designed this home for the builder, or that he had lived there with his family in the '50s, at the apex of his career; she already knew what she was in the midst of—the purest expression of an Eichler ever commissioned. "I love this house," Lombardelli said to the owner.
The old man sensed right away what she wanted but wasn’t about to ask for. "Oh, when I die, you can live here," he told Lombardelli, smiling at his own joke. "Give me your card, and I'll let you know when I'm going to pass away."