Pomeroy Green

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1960–1963, Claude Oakland; Sasaki, Walker Associates, site planning consultant and landscape architect. NE corner of Pomeroy Ave. and Benton St.

Pomeroy Green, located just outside San Jose at the southern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, is a group of 78 two-story, attached row-type units in 16 structures on 8 acres, which announced a major new trend in U.S. housing: the suburban-style town house complex.

Between the mid-1930s and early 1960s the overwhelming share of multifamily housing in the United States was arranged in two-story garden apartments. Relatively little of it, at least after World War II, was designed for families with children. But as many U.S. cities began to run short on close-in open land in the 1950s and conservationists, especially in the Bay Area, sounded alarms about the loss of natural open space, architects and planners began promoting higher-density types for a greater range of households.

Developer Joseph Eichler heeded their call. Eichler had entered the building field in the late 1940s to offer families sophisticated modern architecture at mass-market prices—and on a racially integrated basis—having previously been turned on to the value of good design while living in a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house. He had toyed with the idea of building apartments in the Bay Area suburbs as early as 1951, but in an era when Americans were rapidly moving to detached houses, financing was difficult for anything but efficiency (studio) and one-bedroom units. Instead, he built critically acclaimed subdivisions such as at The Highlands, with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of single-family houses designed by the talented young modernists Robert Anshen and Claude Oakland, in San Francisco, and A. Quincy Jones, in Los Angeles—all of whom shared Eichler’s liberal politics.

As discussion among designers and real-estate experts turned toward density in the late 1950s, Eichler plotted out an ambitious program of experimentation to test the market for various types—high-rise and low, row types and flats—in a variety of metropolitan locations, from city center to urban edge. Pomeroy Green, built on the site of a small family farm and surrounded by a growing number of single-family tracts, was among the first to go forward.

According to his multifamily project coordinator, land costs were rising, especially in easy-to-build flat areas (an important concern in coastal California). Additionally, multifamily designs would allow the firm more freedom to “place the housing units in locations that are appropriate and leave the other areas undisturbed.” Also of concern were new patterns of demand. Eichler customers, he noted, seemed to be “tired of mowing the lawn and painting the fascia and trimming the hedge and this sort of thing.”

As with many of his multifamily projects, Eichler invited two architects to propose designs: A. Quincy Jones of Jones and Emmons, with whom he had worked since the early 1950s, and Claude Oakland of Anshen and Allen, whose principal, Bob Anshen, had designed the first “Eichler home” and many models since. (While working on Pomeroy, Oakland, at Eichler’s suggestion, left Anshen and Allen to set up his own office.)

Both concepts appealed to young families. Units were arranged as two-story duplexes (no little feet above head) and included two features previously all but unheard of in garden apartments: private carports and patios. Both designs also broke from stylistic norms in U.S. multifamily housing, which since World War II had skewed heavily toward historicizing expressions like Colonial Revival. Jones’s proposal, which recalled Richard Neutra’s Channel Heights public-housing project, was streamlined and elegant, with each of the 11 buildings he imagined reading as a single composition. Oakland’s, however, which also employed rigid geometries—along with risky novelties like exposed square concrete blocks at both exterior and interior—gently articulated each unit with projecting party walls at the front and rear elevations; Eichler selected this design.

To further cater to families, he marketed the apartments on a for-sale basis, securing financing under the Federal Housing Administration’s program for limited-equity cooperatives. He also included generous community amenities, including several play areas for children, a community building, and a large outdoor swimming pool staffed by a lifeguard—features previously tested at his popular subdivisions of detached houses.

The site plan, by Modernist landscape architects Sasaki, Walker Associates, also emphasized safety, by separating pedestrians from cars. The complex was bounded by main roads to the west and south (it backed up to subdivisions to the north and east). To minimize through traffic, most of the houses were arranged in clusters around the edges of the site, accessed from the main streets by a series of dead-end drives. Rear patios, in a nod to earlier experiments in U.S. suburban planning like Radburn and Park Forest, opened to pathways lined with southern magnolias and evergreen elms that connected to play areas and, with the exception of 4 buildings, the pool and clubhouse.

The apartments themselves, which marketing material referred to as “suburban town houses,” all contained 1,570 square feet, with 4 bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, a living-dining room, “multipurpose” room, and kitchen purported to be similar in size, arrangement, and equipment to those of conventional Eichler houses.

The project, which included triple the number units allowed under single-family zoning in the area, proved a great sales and social success. Even before its completion, Eichler launched an addition, called Pomeroy West, with double the number of units, including somewhat larger models—some with atriums recalling those in his detached houses—along with enclosed garages. Pomeroy Green also quickly became a normative model, regionally and nationally, for higher-density family housing, featured alike in Santa Clara County Planning Commission materials and in books such as William H. Whyte’s Cluster Development, published in 1964 by the American Conservation Association, which helped to make the town house complex a mainstream U.S. dwelling type.

Beloved by generations of owners who took to what one referred to as the “Eichler way of town house living,” Pomeroy Green remained in excellent physical condition, and under the original cooperative plan of ownership, well in to the early twenty-first century.

References

Lasner, Matthew Gordon. “Eichler Homes and the Reinvention of Affordable Housing in the Bay Area.” College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley, October 10, 2017. Video recording. https://archives.ced.berkeley.edu/news/video-matthew-gordon-lasners-gall....

Lasner, Matthew Gordon. High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

Whyte, William H. Cluster Development. New York: American Conservation Association, 1964.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Matthew Gordon Lasner

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