Palo Alto boasts a hodgepodge of architectural styles that span more than 100 years. This column takes a look at the history and significance of Joseph Eichler's Greenmeadow subdivision in south Palo Alto that the famed builder developed in 1954 as a place where average middle-class families could live in a tight-knit community of affordable luxury homes.
Joseph Eichler's work in Palo Alto's Greenmeadow neighborhood was unlike most other subdivisions in the city at the time: He developed the south Palo Alto neighborhood with 270 similarly styled midcentury modern homes (now known as "Eichlers") built around a centrally located community center that would serve as the core of neighborly activity.
Situated between Alma Street, EastCharleston, Middlefield and San Antonio roads, the 22-block neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its prevalence of pristine Eichlers, providing visitors a good look at the suburban utopia the builder envisioned when he developed the area nearly seven decades ago.
The Eichler style is immediately recognizable: clerestory windows (often triangular) at the front, vertical exterior redwood siding, concrete fireplaces, post and beam interior construction, open living spaces with high ceilings, and full plate-glass rear walls. All of his homes from this era were single-story to provide privacy to back-to-back homes while keeping flat or slightly sloped roofs.
Middle-class living re-imagined
The homes in Greenmeadow represent Eichler's early venture into a more upscale market for middle-class families. Designed by the architecture team of A. Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons, homes in the Greenmeadow subdivision came in six different floor plans, including a larger four-bedroom model that featured a double garage and a separate family room. Other features included kitchens with built-in appliances, modern laundry rooms and a second bathroom with it own exterior entrance so children could enter without tracking dirt into the home. Eichler's T-shaped floorplan also provided a view of the outdoor space from the kitchen, allowing women to keep an eye on their children while preparing dinner. The homes felt bigger inside than their square footage and more modern than other subdivision houses, which enabled Eichler to charge a little more while still keeping prices affordable. Homes in the neighborhood sold for an average of $17,000. Today, the average home value in Greenmeadow is $1.4 million, according to real estate site Trulia.
A strategically placed community center
Along with his modern architecture, Eichler strategically located the neighborhood in close proximity to five schools and Mitchell Park. He also established a swim club and mini-park in the center of the neighborhood that he sold to the homeowners' association at half his asking price. The center still serves as the neighborhood's primary facilities today.
Because of Eichler's fair housing policies, Greenmeadow also played a historic role in opening the door for Black and Asian homeowners in Palo Alto. Eichler was the first local builder to proclaim that he favored selling houses to buyers of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. The Greenmeadow tract welcomed Eichler's first Black homebuyers.
Eichler was not an architect and never swung a hammer, yet he built more than 11,000 homes throughout California, including 32 projects in Palo Alto, totaling 2,700 houses. The former San Francisco dairyman decided to become a merchant builder after moving to Hillsborough in 1942 with his wife and two sons into a home designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Eichler was reportedly taken with the home's innovative and open design.
A lasting legacy
He first built in Sunnyvale in 1949 with purchased flat-roof plans. He continued building custom homes until his death in 1974. Greenmeadow, which has been virtually preserved in time, remains a pristine example of Eichler's vision to create a utopian community for middle-class families in the post-war era. Those visiting the neighborhood can enjoy street after street and cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac of iconic Eichler homes.
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