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Green Gables Historic District

Palo Alto City, Santa Clara County, CA

The Green Gables Historic District (known also as Eichler's Green Gables subdivision) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Portions of the content of the web page were adapted from a copy of the original and revised nomination documents. [‡]

The neighborhood of Green Gables, today a catch-all name for a number of distinct neighborhoods, was annexed by the city of Palo Alto shortly before World War II, but tract housing did not begin to appear there until the late 1940s. Developer Joseph Eichler was among the first merchant builders to develop the area, and he named his development after the larger neighborhood.

Built in 1950, the 63 homes in the Green Gables Historic District were originally all single-story, three bedrooms, one bath, residences designed in the mid-century modern style using slab-on-grade post and beam construction. The condition of the homes is remarkably good overall. In all, 46 of the houses are considered "contributing." The overall appearance of the district is essentially unchanged since it was built except for changes in landscaping over the past five decades.

Some changes to the exterior of the buildings have occurred, the most common being garage doors and front doors replaced with doors that differ in various ways from the original. Some garage doors are now of the rollup type, and front doors that were originally a plain slab of wood now sometimes have molding or inset windows. In some cases, carports have been converted to garages, or a carport was added to create parking spaces for two cars. Driveways may have been replaced with newer concrete or asphalt surfaces. Fencing was an option, and after five decades most of the original fencing has been replaced with a wide variety of fencing types.

The subdivision did originally have sidewalks, street lighting, and curbs, and they remain intact. The shape of the subdivision is irregular, the reason for this is unknown, nor is anything known about the surrounding housing developments except that in 1955-1956 a later Eichler subdivision was built on the east side of Green Gables. The following description of the interior of the homes is based on the inspection of a single house, 1914 Channing Ave., which is still occupied by the original owners. They have verified the original condition of the interior of their home, and it closely matches photos taken when the house was new (it was the model home for the subdivision). No other interiors were inspected, and undoubtedly many of them have been modified from their original appearance. Because other homes were not inspected, this report cannot state when they may have been modified.

As in all Eichler-built homes from 1950 on, the homes in Green Gables employed a post-and-beam structure on a slab-on-grade foundation. Douglas fir tongue-in-groove planks comprised the roof, redwood plywood was used for interior paneling, and the exterior cladding was redwood tongue-in-groove. The post-and-beam system enabled the architects to design the dining, kitchen, and living areas as an open plan in a single rectangular space beneath a sixteen-foot free-span roof, with a centrally located kitchen and an open plan inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian designs. Radiant heating systems were standard, another Wright inspired feature.

The design emphasizes privacy for the residents, presenting a relatively blank facade to the street but employing extensive areas of floor-to-ceiling glass along the rear elevation to open up the house to the outdoor concrete patio area. Both the living room and the master bedroom look out onto the patio, with the three bedrooms aligned along one side (master bedroom to the rear) and the kitchen, dining, and living room area on the opposite side. From the living room, a wood-framed glass door opened out to the patio. The front entrance area was in the center, allowing quick access to the kitchen, living room, or bedroom hallway, and was placed well back from the street at the rear of the garage, further simplifying the front elevations.

The living area was separated from the hallway by a head-high storage partition, with a fluted obscure glass screen resting on a built-in redwood cabinet and shelving unit. The partition did not extend to the ceiling, allowing for air circulation between the bedroom wing and living area. The kitchen had Formica plastic countertops and a pass-through "snack bar" connection to the dining area, above which are built-in redwood storage shelves.

In keeping with the modern style, the exteriors were clean and simple, essentially devoid of decoration. Siding was horizontally placed redwood boards, originally stained in earth-tone colors. The Green Gables exteriors no longer have their original stained surfaces, as over the years they have been painted. Garage doors were finished with matching siding so they blended into the overall design. Fireplaces were constructed of brick. Rooflines were flat or gently sloping: no peaked or gabled roofs were used. Extensive overhangs at the rear of the house provided shade in the summer but let in sunlight in winter. The 1-car garage or carport was placed at the front in keeping with the increasing reliance on automobiles as primary transportation. Each house included a concrete driveway from the street to the garage.

Living space averaged 1,100 sq. ft., and lots are six to seven thousand square feet in size. The houses had fenced yards at the rear and part way along the sides. Redwood fencing was optional (little of the original fencing remains today). No parks, common areas, pools, or non-residential buildings are located within the district. Backyards were not inspected. Therefore backyard buildings, structures, objects, and buildings have not been counted. The topography of the area is flat, and the district is surrounded by residences of more recent vintage, including, along the east side of Wildwood Lane, a later Eichler development constructed in 1955-1956.

There were essentially only two plans offered, one with a single-car garage, one with a single-car carport. Copies of each of those plans appeared in the December 1950 issue of "Architectural Forum."

The Green Gables subdivision, built by Eichler Homes in 1950 in Palo Alto, California, is architecturally significant in the context of post-World War II residential development. It is a well-preserved example of Mid-Century modern design applied to one of the early tract housing developments built by developer Joseph Eichler. 1950 was a watershed year for Eichler, as it was the first time he built homes using designs by the architectural firm of Robert Anshen and Steve Alien, and at a time when few merchant builders employed architects. These early Eichler homes employed modern designs that elevated the homes above typical, entry-level builder prototypes. From his company's offices based in Palo Alto over the next 15 years, Eichler went on to become the leading California developer in the modern style with a national reputation for quality construction targeted at middle-income families. Anshen and Alien became a growing firm whose fame soon spread internationally, though they continued to design for Eichler Homes throughout the 1950s.

In 1943, Eichler spotted a rare opportunity for his family when he rented one of Frank Lloyd Wright's so-called Usonians in Hillsborough, the Bazett residence. Two years of living in the Bazett House may very well have loosened Joe Eichler's spirit enough to allow him to feel his own internal stirrings for creative self-expression. "I began to dream," he said, "of building homes for sale that would incorporate some of the same advantages I enjoyed in my own house." Eichler learned by this experience what others have since concluded that Frank Lloyd Wright's genius for design often achieved its most profound effect in his small residences, where his singular attention to function and detail were so complete and so deftly handled as to transform everyday life into art. Wright's attention to the intimacies of everyday life sprung from his strongly populist philosophy, and he designed his Usonians specifically for middle-class homeowners. As the architectural writer Herbert Muschamp said, "Frank Lloyd Wright was a Mr. Everybody ... He was a genius of the conventional, a supreme artist of everyday living..." Eichler said, "I admired Wright's rich design, with its wooden walls and beamed ceiling, and I asked myself if such houses could be built for ordinary people." Joe and Lillian Eichler left the house as "devotees of contemporary architecture."

When Eichler eventually built his first subdivision of architecturally designed homes, observers perceived the results as daring. Even the architectural press that had been touting the advantages of modernism for middle-class American homes since before the end of the war seemed surprised with Eichler's boldness. Architectural Forum, the most elite of the nation's professional journals during the postwar, in 1950 called architects Anshen and Alien's first Eichler subdivision a "gamble in modern."

The Green Gables tract is typical of the houses Eichler built during 1950. Their cutting edge design featured combination flat and pitched shed roofs and post-and-beam construction that enabled the architects to design the dining, kitchen, and living areas as an open plan in a single rectangular space beneath a sixteen-foot free-span roof, with a centrally located kitchen. The open plan was likely inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian designs, as Anshen and Alien, like other modernist architects of the day, were strongly influenced by Wright's work. Radiant heating systems were standard, another Wright inspired feature.

Eichler's architecturally designed subdivisions, with their unabashedly modernist features, resulted in widespread critical acclaim. When Eichler built his first subdivision of architecturally designed homes, observers perceived his efforts as daring. Even the professional journals of the architectural press that had been touting the advantages of modernism for middle-class American homes since before the end of the war seemed surprised with Eichler's boldness.

The style of the Eichler homes is endemically Californian. The look may seem in some ways almost generically 1950s, but that is partly because during the postwar the fashion in residential architecture often resembled work originated in California. California modernism was a social and aesthetic movement that derived ideas and practices from the modern movement in Europe. Many of the innovators of postwar American residential design, particularly designs suited to moderate-income buyers, were California architects. William Wurster, a Dean of the College of Environmental Design at U.C. Berkeley, Joseph Esherick, John Funk, Gordon Drake, and many other lesser-known practitioners constituted a loose-knit but consistent school of designers that helped define a Californian aesthetic. This style emphasized modest-scaled homes with informal open plans and indoor-outdoor relationships, and often employed post-and-beam structures and natural finished wood inside and out.

‡ Marty Arbunich, Eichler Historic Quest Committee, Green Gables, Santa Clara County California, nomination documents, 2003 & 2005, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
Channing Avenue • Greer Road • Ivy Lane • Wildwood Lane

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