The Eichler Atrium Home: A Mid-Century Classic


 Joe Eichler’s career as a builder took off after the family rented a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  As Ned describes it, Joe was never the same after the experience.  Touched by Wright’s designs, Eichler sought to bring a similar simplicity and modernity to suburban American homes.  In doing so, he began a long professional relationship with architect Bob Anshen of Anshen & Allen, a follower of Wright. Anshen was one of a new breed of designer who was bringing modern architecture to middleclass, postwar developments. The classic Eichler home at 728 Gailen Ave. in Palo Alto was designed by Anshen and Allen.

Eichler Atrium Entry: As Joseph Eichler envisioned it in his sales brochures
The Eichler Atrium as Joseph Eichler envisioned the space: an outdoor room suitable for entertaining

 Given the control Eichler held over his models, it is interesting that one of the most recognizable features of his homes, the atrium, was adopted almost by accident.  After a young Japanese-American designer in the firm first sketched up an atrium design,  architect Anshen refined this ancient Roman and Japanese architectural feature until it became the culmination and greatest flowering of Eichler home design.  Eichler’s E-11 & E-21 models, such as 728 Gailen Ave., were the first to incorporate the atrium as it is now recognized.  Although fewer than 10% of Eichler homes feature atriums, this element aided in making these houses incredibly popular and made Eichler a household name.

 The Adobe Park & Adobe Meadow subdivisions were among the most luxurious Eichler homes built.  They incorporate the very best ideas of the Eichler design/building organization.  These two subdivisions had larger lots than before, with a minimum lot size of a 9,000sq ft, each laid out with the utmost privacy in mind.  Adjacent cul-de-sacs create an even more private feel to each home’s backyard, especially at 728 Gailen Avenue.  The lot sizes are irregular, providing more space between the home’s side yards, allowing potential room for expansion of the master bedroom and bath.  The master bedroom has a very private view of the yard and potentially its own separate garden area with the very large side yard.

 The E-11 and E21 atrium designs contained 4 bedrooms and a second bathroom, features considered a luxury for developments of the time.  Another forward-thinking design element was the integrated kitchen, family room and bonus room.  What is striking about these designs is how prescient the architects were in providing  spaces that homeowners could use for a variety of purposes.  For example, the one bedroom that shares a sliding glass door with the atrium can also be used as an office.  Visitors to the office can enter through the courtyard and hence avoid disturbing the family.  Another user -defined space is the bonus room which accommodates an indoor laundry.  When the laundry closet doors are closed, this space can function as a guest room, office, exercise room or hobby room.  

 In this model design, the family room is larger than the living room, and the kitchen is completely integrated into the family room.  Eichler architects offered something that is very popular in today’s new homes and remodels: a combination kitchen/family room or “great room” in which families and guests can gather without traditional boundaries.

Eichler E-21 floorplan Meadow Park Neighborhood Palo Alto CA
Excellent Atrium Entry Floorplan: Pinnacle of Eichler design

 The genius of the atrium is the light that it brings into the central ”heart” of the home.  Most homes built in this era had windowless hallways with natural light only coming in through the back or front yard.  Most tract homes in Palo Alto and on the San Francisco Peninsula have bedrooms situated along the side lot lines with a view of a 6’ tall fence separated by  a five-foot setback.  Very little light that comes into these bedrooms, and hallways are like dark tunnels.  By contrast, imagine walking into an Eichler atrium style home where all hallways have floor to ceiling glass walls along the atrium, and the kitchen and family room have light streaming in not only through the glass walls facing the yard, but on the atrium glass walls as well.  The result is a natural light-filled home like no other available.

 The atrium design creates a transitional space of calm, quiet serenity in contrast to the sleek, but architecturally austere exterior of an Eichler home.  The visitor has a beautifully landscaped, transitional space to walk through so the home itself does not need to devote interior square footage to an impressive entry space.  For many, the atrium provides a further layer of security, as visitors can be screened through an intercom, videocam or simply their voice, before they are admitted inside the home perimeter.

 The atrium “heart” of the home also provides the family with strong visual connection.  Wherever you are in an Atrium home, you can look out and see any family in public spaces such as the kitchen or great room.  On the other hand, just closing a bedroom door ensures privacy.  In an Atrium style home you have connectedness and solitude as you need them.

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