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Los Altos History Museum wraps up Eichler exhibition

Photos Elizabeth Barcelos/Town Crier
Stories of how real estate developer Joseph Eichler touched the lives of people who lived in his homes, above, became part of the Los Altos History Museum’s exhibition “Eichler Homes: Modernism for the Masses,” which is set to close Oct. 8. Among the items on display are local building plans, left; mid-century artifacts, below left; and Eichler’s personal effects, below.

Time is running out to take a step back into a more affordable era of homeownership.

The Los Altos History Museum exhibition “Eichler Homes: Modernism for the Masses” is scheduled to wrap up its five-month run Oct. 8.

Inclusive vision

Real estate developer Joseph Eichler (1900-1974) built mid-century homes known for their simple lines, open floor plans and floor-to-ceiling windows. Designed to bring the outside in, they were never meant to be exclusive – Eichler built and priced his homes for the middle class.

It’s impossible to discuss Bay Area homeownership without imposing the filter of today’s housing market.

“I have to believe that it wouldn’t really work today,” said Eichler’s grandson, Steven Eichler, of his grandfather’s vision. “My grandfather, if you think about it, was one of the early entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. It just wasn’t in high-tech. Housing was needed then. It’s still needed now. But the ability to deliver was far easier.”

However, Steven Eichler, a driving force behind the exhibition, emphasized the need for perspective.

“His houses weren’t the most expensive, but they weren’t the least expensive, either,” he said of Joseph Eichler’s prototypes. “The difference was that he was selling the approachable. The quality of life was part of the deal.”

Joseph Eichler’s inclusive vision went further than pricing homes reasonably. His nondiscrimination policy meant that anyone could buy one of his homes.

Los Altos Hills resident Jeanette S. Arakawa, author of “The Little Exile,” which chronicles her youth spent in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, was one of the beneficiaries of Eichler’s inclusive policy.

“At that time, Eichler was one of the few developers who would permit nonwhites,” Arakawa said in a Town Crier profile that appeared in the Sept. 9 Senior Lifestyles section.

Then and now

With the current high cost of housing in the Bay Area driving many people to consider relocating to more affordable markets, would Joseph Eichler have been among them?

“If he were doing this today, I would have to say – if he had the bandwidth – that he would actually look outside of California,” Steven Eichler said.

While today’s home-buying process requires a realtor, a bank, a loan officer and other often impersonal, institutional hoops to jump through, building homes was a personal enterprise for Joseph Eichler.

His personal touch is evident in the museum’s display, which includes a guestbook and a wall of sticky notes that serve as testament to the enduring connections.

“Joe Eichler was very helpful, and you can see it in some of these notes,” said Jane Reed, a member of the Los Altos History Museum Board of Directors. “‘Joe helped me.’ ‘I could just pay rent until I could buy the house.’ ‘He gave me a long-term loan.’ It was a personal relationship.”

Los Altos and beyond

There are 50 Eichler homes in Los Altos, 37 of them clustered on Clay Drive in the Fallen Leaf Park area. Neighborhood representatives initially pursued historical designation in 2015, but they put their efforts on hold last March.

The local popularity of Eichler homes explains the museum’s decision to showcase their lasting appeal.

“They asked,” Steven Eichler said of the museum’s requesting his participation in perpetuating his grandfather’s legacy. “This was the space that could accommodate the story.”

According to Reed, the exhibition “has hit a home run.”

“It’s reached the hearts of so many people,” she said. “People are coming from all over. Eichlers stretch from San Jose all the way to Marin County.”

Museum employees have reported an uptick in attendance.

“We’re not the museums of San Francisco, but we’ve had some very good shows here,” Reed said. “We’ve had the Duvenecks and the Packards, we’ve had some interesting shows. But I would say, based on attendance, if this isn’t the top exhibition, it’s sharing first.”

As “Eichler Homes: Modernism for the Masses” winds down, Steven Eichler is already looking toward the future.

“This needs to go to a bigger venue,” he said. “There’s more to be told.”

The Los Altos History Museum is located at 51 S. San Antonio Road. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Admission is free.

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