When builder and developer Joseph Eichler teamed with architects Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons to design affordable modern homes, they transformed the California suburban living experience. Connecting back to ideas developed in the glass botanical structures of the 1800’s, German architect Bruno Taut’s 1914 Glashaus, Mies van der Rhoe’s Farnsworth House (1945-1951) and Phillip Johnson’s Glass House (1949); Jones and Emmons dynamically changed the residential tract home in the 1960’s. One of their innovations involved combining the technology available to create large plate glass windows with the ancient idea of the courtyard as part of home living space. The entire back wall of many Eichler homes, as illustrated in the photo above, was constructed almost entirely of floor to ceiling glass as were three sides of the interior courtyards included in most floor plans. The result was that Eichler homes were filled with light and a wonderful sense of spaciousness. Even as a child, I distinctly remember experiencing this in contrast to the much darker feel of our previous 1950’s ranch style house. This wonderful photograph of a new Eichler home obtained with permission from Ernest Braun’s son, captures the experience of standing in our living room and looking out at the hills beyond. My mother even bought the same chairs on the patio and put them in our family room.
Another feature of the many windows in Eichler homes was to minimize the separation between outside and inside. Writer Christopher Hawthorne expresses this aspect in his Architectural Digest article titled, “The Glass House.” He quotes architect Thomas Phifer’s comments on visiting Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1983. Phifer says, “I remember being particularly struck by how its transparency allows the landscape to flow right through the house.”
Glass House photograph by Christopher Peterson
On a sunny day in Orange County the light shone on the new back yard square grid cement patio of our Eichler home and on our new seeded grass lawn. My father had planted five maple trees right outside our living room/dining room windows, possibly to remind himself of the Pennsylvania forests he had left behind to come to California. We also had an expansive view across a huge field to the hills beyond because he pulled off about 16 feet of redwood fence boards behind the trees to open up our rectangular back yard. It truly did seem as if the warm, bright, dry southern California landscape flowed right through our house.
The winter of 1969 brought another dimension to the Eichler home outside-inside connection. 1945 to 1969 had been drought years in southern California with only two wet winters in 24 years. Then in February, heavy rain began to fall day after day. In her Los Angeles Times article, “Day of the Deadly Mud: 1969 Floods: Tragedy and Heroism Mix” Lucille Renwick explains: “For a solid month, an average of 7 inches of rain had fallen each day, swelling creeks and flooding streets throughout the region.” I knew it was really bad when my atheist parents started discussing Noah’s Ark in all seriousness over dinner, and I remember this storm vividly in small details. One was that there was so much water pouring down that I actually stopped complaining about the hated clear rubber galoshes my mother made us wear over our school shoes. Another was that our street crossed a deep cement drainage ditch, usually empty, but now filled to the brim. On the way to the school bus stop we would put our fingers through the wet chain link fence and stare with silent, grim fascination into the brown water rushing by just a few feet below. Another memory was sitting on our brick fireplace hearth with my back to one of the living room walls being mesmerized by the endless rain sheeting across one of the plate glass windows. Fat drops and rivulets and streams of water flowed down, divided and reconnected. It seemed as if I were floating, transported somehow like a fish into some mysterious, glass walled watery world.
Our new housing tract never flooded, but just one third of a mile away was the Santiago Creek channel which suffered devastating washouts as the 100 year storm raged.
This 1969 archival photograph provided by the Orange County Public Library shows a typical scene.
Just east of our tract, the Santiago Creek channel had been greatly expanded by years of gravel mining by the Sully-Miller company. East Santiago Canyon Road had once dipped down to cross the flat bottom of the gravel pit then risen up a hill to join our new development with the community of Villa Park on the far side. A large section of this road washed away in the ’69 flood and in March after the rain finally stopped, our usual pack of siblings and friends ventured out to assess the damage. Sully-Miller had thoughtfully put up a temporary chain link fence at the end of the broken asphalt to keep people from falling into the now sharply eroded sides of what had become a vast crater. Gone were immense piles of loose gravel that had once covered the bottom of the pit and now, the familiar dusty mining landscape had been magically transformed into a magnificent lake with waterfalls running down orange sandstone bedrock on the far side.
We all gasped in stunned surprise. We were awed, we were ecstatic; it was so beautiful, so unexpected. We promptly shinnied under the fence and slid down an extremely steep and very long rocky slope to the edge of the water to better to appreciate the scene. Here we jumped around for a while yelling splashing, laughing and planning Huck Finn rafting and fishing expeditions. Then after a few of the younger ones fell in the water (either accidentally or on purpose), it dawned on me that we really didn’t know how deep this new lake was and no one actually knew we were even here. I made everyone turn around and make the long climb back up the slope. We returned home safely that day; however, one other memory involves a group of us somehow managing to get across the lake to the waterfall area a few weeks later. The flood had scoured bedrock ridges into a giant undulating rock waterslide and since we conveniently happened to be wearing our bathing suits, we had the delirious fun of climbing up and riding the water down into deep rock pools. I only remember doing this one time—perhaps my parents finally decided the whole area was just a bit too dangerous for the thirteen and under crowd.
This 2013 Google map image shows the washed out end of what was once East Santiago Canyon Road. Now, Blue Ribbon Landscaping (bottom left corner) occupies the narrow spur of land where we once stood looking down into the gravel pit lake. Most of the water on this side is gone, but you can still see the seasonal creek flowing down the bedrock areas on the far side of the old gravel pit (top left). The photo does not do justice to this immense, deep space that was utterly transformed on that wonderful day. It did make me happy to think a satellite was able to let me know it still existed.
Sometimes a 100 year rain storm might fall in our personal lives. A raging flood might develop which will tear out roads, bridges, power lines. It might change everything, permanently— and we might lose home, family, friends. Yet paradoxically, all that devastation can result in radical space transformation. One day, many years later the sun will come out again for us, and we might walk to the end of a washed out road. We might see something very surprising.
I went through a storm like this and now live in a transformed space both emotionally and geographically. I now live on the edge of a rural area surrounded by agricultural fields to the east, south and west.
It is peaceful and serene; it is comfortable here. I love the spaciousness and openness. I would never have chosen the storm that so drastically changed my circumstances but it gave me a gift—the time and space I needed to start writing. I was surprised by that.
Photograph of Eichler home, circa 1960’s by Ernest Braun. Website: http://www.ernestbraun.com/
Photograph of Glass House, date unknown, by Christopher Peterson. Website: http://christopherpeterson.com/
Photograph of Silverado Canyon Road, 1969 Flood, creator unknown. Source: Orange County Public Library and Calisphere University of California.
Google Map data, 2013. Source: Digital Globe, US Geological Survey
Photograph of sunflower field, 6-10-13 by Laurie Gates