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Mid-Century Modern Living

History of Where We Now Live
by Robert Brownbridge

The 1950’s: Eichler Homes, Joe Eichler and more
Imagine that it is mid-November 1954. You enter a well-lighted room in Walnut Creek’s old City Hall. You watch and listen as snappily dressed 5’9,” 160 lb. Joseph Eichler puts down his chewed cigar onto a green glass ashtray. He adjusts his dark rimmed thick lens glasses and rises to help two associates lay out their architect’s map showing 563 housing lots on 176 acres adjacent to Ygnacio Valley Road, across from the old Heather Farms Race Track.

Eichler has named the tract Rancho San Miguel. The City’s men seem pleased. This, after all, would be the largest tract yet to be developed in Walnut Creek; and Eichler is one of the most respected developers in the West if not the nation. The dapper, ambitious Eichler proposes that his unique and affordable housing will enhance the city’s reputation for luxury living at affordable cost, that it will meet both the city’s and buyers’ desire for comfort and style in a safe suburban neighborhood. The move away from big cities is bringing thousands of new residents: Walnut Creek should be ready.

It would be more than four years, however, before Eichler’s master plan would be completed. Eichler’s Rancho San Miguel development was but one of many major changes sweeping Walnut Creek and Ygnacio Valley: The village’s 1950 population of 2400 would more than triple in a few years. In November 1951, Broadway Plaza opened its 38 new stores. Kaiser’s first Contra Costa County hospital opened in 1953.

Our Rancho San Miguel Homeowner’s Association (RSMHA) was incorporated in 1956.

Eichler the developer and man

Joseph Eichler, of course, saw such rapid social, civic and economic changes as opportunity. Walnut Creek was ideal for his first major East Bay project. While Eichler was hailed as villain by some for his mercenary deeds and tough style, others saw him for his vision, risk taking, and relentless pursuit of excellence and innovation. But he saw himself in more practical terms – meeting real needs of working families while making an honest living for himself.

In 1942 at age 42, a time of “mid-life crisis” in some men, Eichler abruptly announced to his wife and family they were moving from their “average” home to one in San Mateo, a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright – the first hint of the future entrepeneur’s budding architectural interest. A few years later, in 1949, he joined with Wright’s pupil Robert Anshen to launch Eichler Homes.

The first “Eichler” was built in Sunnyvale in 1949: 900 sq. ft., 3 BR’s, 1 Bath, redwood siding and paneling, post and bean ceilings, floor to ceiling glass on the rear facade, open interior planning, radiant heated concrete floors. The selling price was $9,500.

The famous Atrium was added in 1957, prompted by a need to boost poor sales. Anshen designed it and sold the idea to a doubting Eichler. Once convinced, the builder went into production despite its construction and drainage problems. With an enormous and instant impact on sales, it has remained one of Eichler Homes’ most popular features.

More than 350 Eichlers were built and sold in Rancho San Miguel. Today they share our streets with 150 Jordan & Reed homes. More than 10,000 Eichlers were built and sold in California from 1949 to 1967.
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References:
1 CC Times: Nilda Rego;
2 Eichler, 1995, Chronicle Books;
3 Old Times in Contra Costa, 1997, Tatam;
4 Public Information Office, City of Walnut Creek;
5 RSMHA Archives;
6 “Walnut Creek Sun,” 11/7/56 Issue;
7 Ygnacio Valley, 1982, G. Emanuels;
8 Walnut Creek,1999 G.Emanuels.

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