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California modern: local residents celebrate qualities of Eichler homes

Photo By: Eichler Photos by Ellie Van houtte
Photo Eichler Photos By Ellie Van HoutteMonique Lombardelli produced a documentary, “People in Glass Houses,” extolling the virtues of Eichler homes. There are 50 Eichlers in Los Altos.

Los Altos boasts a little-known “cult” with ties to neighboring communities.

Members are owners of Eichler homes who share a passion for the California Modern homes built by visionary developer Joseph Eichler from the 1950s through the early 1970s.

For the uninitiated, Eichler homes feature glass walls, post-and-beam construction and open floor plans in a style indebted to Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. Exteriors sport flat and/or low-sloping A-framed roofs, vertical wood siding and Spartan facades with clean geometric lines.

“Eichlers have a cult following,” said Monique Lombardelli, a realtor with McGuire Real Estate in Burlingame. “It’s sort of like a religion. And they’re hard to find. It’s as though people want to keep them in the family.”

Lombardelli, somewhat of a cultist herself, should know because she spent two years and $35,000 to produce the just-completed documentary “People in Glass Houses – The Legacy of Joseph Eichler.”

She lives in the same house – the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Bazett house in Hillsborough – that Eichler sublet in the mid-’40s. It inspired Eichler to re-create the essence of his Bazett experience for others. He did that many times over by building 11,000 homes – several thousand of which are in Mountain View, Palo Alto and Sunnyvale.

Los Altos can claim only 50. But they’re impressive. The 28 or so homes in Fallen Leaf Park, on Clay Drive and Alexander Way in south Los Altos, are regarded as among the best maintained of all sizable Peninsula Eichler neighborhoods.

“I wanted everyone to know what Eichlers are and how great they are,” said Lombardelli, a broadcasting major in college. “I wanted to solve the mystery of why people are so affected and passionate about them.”


Maintaining an ‘artifact’

In the film, Palo Alto architect Mark Marcinik suggests Eichlers were “the iPhone and the iPad of the day.”

According to Lombardelli, there are two types of Eichler enthusiasts – the purists and the New Moderns.

“The New Moderns will swank things up and put in marble and slate,” she said. “If you’re a purist, you’re only allowed to restore. Even changing appliances is a sacrilege. Purists follow rules. I think there must be a book of unwritten laws out there.”

For some people, Eichlers are like artifacts.

“This is something from my past that no one can take away from me,” said one purist who spent a month finding the right knobs for the cupboards – and thousands of dollars on an old shag rug, which he rakes daily.

“Living in an Eichler is like living in a work of art,” said Mark Wuotila of San Mateo.

Los Altos resident Virginie Leborgne, whose Clay Drive Eichler is the antithesis of the stone houses in her native France, expressed a similar sentiment.

“It’s like a dream living here,” she said.

Leborgne, who is of the purist school, fell in love with the Eichler’s atrium and glass walls.

“One of Eichler’s signature concepts was to bring the outside in,” Lombardelli said.

He achieved the effect via skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking protected and private outdoor rooms, patios, atriums and swimming pools.

All can be found at the Le-borgne home.

“The dining room is like a cube of glass,” Leborgne said. “I’m trying to preserve the original spirit of the house by not adding or changing much. We also keep the furniture in the house to a practical minimum with a mix of vintage and modern design.”

Leborgne and her husband, Tanguy, did replace the kitchen cabinets, but they went for a similar style – simple and modern – and kept the original layout. The tile floor and light fixtures are all original to the house.

The couple and their two daughters have lived there 10 years.

“Our neighborhood is just perfect,” she said. “Open, always ready to help, while highly respecting mutual privacy.”

“Eichler communities have stayed intact, upholding traditional values, community spirit and pride in their neighborhoods,” Lombardelli said. “What an incredible passion these people have for their homes. … They band together to preserve the design and architecture of their neighborhoods.”


The cult lives on

Marcia and Dick Campbell have lived on Alexander Way in the same neighborhood as the Leborgnes for 40 years. Their Eichler has the same footprint.

The Campbells purchased it because the open feeling was appealing and reminiscent of Hawaii, where they lived when they were first married.

The downside: “It was a pile of rocks,” Marcia said. “There were 12 trees is the backyard but no grass. The atrium was nothing but rocks.”

Today, the atrium is shaded by an open lattice roof built by architect Dick, a master woodworker who also built the buffet in the dining room. The atrium is lush with plantings – orchids in one corner, hydrangeas, succulents, ferns, two lime trees and a Japanese maple. Four big maples – two red and two green – frame the backyard, which is visible from the atrium.

This see-through aspect of Eichler homes is among the features that disciples praise. As Maryanne Deierlein of Palo Alto says in Lombardelli’s documentary, “I feel like I’m living in a 7,000-square-foot house because the whole backyard is part of the house.”

“If you gave me a castle, I wouldn’t take it,” Leborgne said.

“Either you love an Eichler or you don’t. There’s no middle ground,” Marcia said.

“This cult phenomenon blows my mind,” said Eichler’s son Ned, who was his father’s marketing director.

To view a trailer of “People in Glass Houses,” visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZzoN7EKqxU&fetaure=youtu.be.

For more information, visit www.moniquelombardelli.com.

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