California dreaming: the homes where the spirit of the 60s lives on

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California dreaming: the homes where the spirit of the 60s lives on

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California dreaming: the homes where the spirit of the 60s lives on
Betty Toole’s Eichler home. / Photo: David Fenton

‘Nobody ever thought of leaving here unless they were carried out’: why many of the original residents of these elegant Marin County homes still live there

The residents of Starboard Court, Marin County, have been living the mid-century modernist dream since the actual mid-century. Of 10 original owners, five still live there, and no houses changed hands until 1991. Most of the residents are in their 80s and 90s, though their sprightliness suggests there’s a fountain of youth nearby. What’s more, they’ve barely changed their homes since they were built in the mid-60s. They simply haven’t needed to: it all worked fine and still does. If evidence was ever needed of what postwar American design got right, it’s all here, in an idyllic cul-de-sac outside San Francisco. As one resident puts it, “Nobody ever thought of leaving here unless they were carried out.”

It’s not hard to see what kept them here. Downtown San Francisco is a 15-minute drive away, over the Golden Gate Bridge, but Marin County feels like a different country. It’s a landscape of rolling hills, wooded valleys and rugged coasts, and unsurprisingly has become the habitat of weekend cyclists and celebrities (George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch is just up the freeway). But, despite appearances, the 10 houses of Starboard Court are not bespoke luxury residences; they are mass-produced tract housing, albeit of the highest standard.

They were built by a property developer named Joseph Eichler, a familiar name in northern California but virtually unheard of elsewhere. Between 1950 and 1974, he sold more than 11,000 homes across California. He knew next to nothing about architecture to start with – his family was in dairy farming – but Eichler made it his mission to bring the modernist dream within reach of ordinary Americans. Partly inspired by a Frank Lloyd Wright house he’d rented, he commissioned a team of San Francisco architects to come up with affordable designs that would be light and open, in terms of both their general ambience and their construction. True to modernist tenets, Eichler’s homes offered open-plan living areas, clean, geometric lines, exposed timber post-and-beam structural frames, and a continuum between indoor and outdoor space via skylights, floor-to-ceiling glass and, in the latter years, internal atriums, which became an Eichler trademark. […]

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