September 12, 2022

In the shadow of the Eichlers, four little-known neighborhoods lie low as the North Bay’s ‘last frontiers’ of affordable mid-century modern

Before there were Eichlers in Marin’s Terra Linda, there were Alliance homes, which arrived in 1954 to put a new face on the area with affordable, low-slung modern housing, like the home pictured above.
Alliance home under construction, mid-1950s.
Terra Linda grew quickly. This aerial shot, from 1959, shows a mix of hundreds of Alliances and Eichlers.

Few places possess as rich a collection of mid-century modern dwellings as Marin County.

Besides its hundreds of custom homes by Bay Area master architects reaching back to the mid-1930s, Marin is a treasure trove of tracts built by Joe Eichler, ranging from his simple, early models in Terra Linda to his enchanting, little hideaway at Sleepy Hollow to the grand, high-peaked beauties in Lucas Valley and overlooking the Bay in Strawberry Point.

Fans of modernism in this most sophisticated of counties appreciate what they have.

Or do they?

Consider the tale of Leo Bersamina, an artist, college instructor, and surfer who was determined to live in a mid-century modern home in Marin but couldn’t bear the price tags coming from the Eichler tract in Terra Linda, where he had been renting.

It’s a common tale. People love Eichlers—Terra Linda and, of course, Lucas Valley are great neighborhoods—fans get priced out. But then…

“I saw this thing—and I thought ‘what is this?!'” Bersamina recalls.

What he saw was a photo of an L-shaped house, low gabled with a clerestory window, and with living area glass-walled on both sides.

And it wasn’t in San Rafael, which is known for its modern tracts—but in Novato, a city at the northern end of the county that’s one of its sleepier suburbs. “I saw where it was, and I thought, ‘where the heck is that?'” Bersamina says.

The photo appeared in a realty listing that ignored the home’s mid-century modern style. “They were not playing it up at all,” he says, adding, “For me, I was looking for something like this.”

What Bersamina bought into is Lynwood Park, one of Marin’s forgotten mid-century modern developments. It’s a particularly interesting neighborhood for Eichler fans because it was designed by Anshen and Allen, Eichler’s original architects.

Novato’s two other forgotten modern tracts, Orchard Park and Ferris Gardens, also come with history. Their homes are co-designed by the legendary Cliff May—he was the inventor, or at least chief popularizer, of the suburban ranch house—with design partner Chris Choate.

A fourth non-Eichler tract in Marin is better known than the three Novato neighborhoods, but still too little known. These are the Alliance homes of Terra Linda, which were built in the early 1950s, shortly before the Eichlers that sprouted up alongside them.

The Terra Linda Corporation behind the Alliance homes won attention and praise when the company helped to build “the first planned town in this country to have all contemporary houses,” according to the shelter magazine House + Home in 1954. At build-out, the magazine projected, “Terra Linda will have the largest number of contemporary houses ever built in one place.”

How strange is it that in Marin mid-century modern neighborhoods can hide in plain sight, when there are admirers out there who are looking for something more affordable in that category?

Two looks inside an Alliance—from 1954 (top) and now (bottom).
Longtime Alliance owners Kristi and Bill Fish with daughter Hannah and Cash the Giant Schnauzer.
Choice Alliance exterior.

It’s more than that these non-Eichler homes are overlooked. There almost seems to be a deliberate disregard for them.

Ironically, it could have something to do with all the Eichler homes in the county. In Marin, when people think ‘mid-century modern,’ they only think ‘Eichler’—so anything else has to be, well, a cheap knockoff?

One of Leo Bersamina’s neighbors casually referred to the Lynwood Park homes as ‘Eichlers’ when asked about their history. Gene Kelly, who’s lived in the tract 50 years, says he was told the homes were built as Eichler imitations, adding, “These are what is called a poor man’s Eichler.”

In Ferris Gardens, 30-year resident Rich Rinck said, “I don’t know if anybody I know in the neighborhood has any idea who the original architect or builder was. Some people believe they are Eichler knockoffs.”

In neither of the Cliff May tracts did anyone say they’d ever heard of Cliff May—even though a real estate broker in Marin who focuses on modern, Renee Adelman, identifies the homes as Cliff May homes on her encyclopedic website, and they have been listed as Mays in some realty ads.

Even in the Alliance homes developments of Terra Linda, where many if not most people appreciate the architecture, the Eichler myth persists, abetted by some real estate brokers. When Marcia Rey and her husband, Mac Johnson, bought there two years ago, their broker falsely said their home was an Eichler.

“I believed Eichler designed these,” says Rey’s neighbor, Marcia Cummings, who has lived in an Alliance home since 1962. “I was told that, and I believe it.”

In spite of continued tall tales, it should be pointed out that Adelman’s Marin Modern Real Estate firm has done a superb job of identifying not only the Alliance neighborhoods, but pretty much all modern residential areas in Marin, on their website. Both tract and custom homes are included, plus their condition and even a good bit of history.

Still, the word needs to get out more about these tracts. As Leo Bersamina says about his new neighborhood, “Where is the information? It’s not readily available.”

Although many people see these homes as Eichler copycats, in fact each of these neighborhoods has an architectural and historical heritage all its own—and it’s worth rediscovering.

Will these neighborhoods one day win the fame and panache of Marin’s Eichlers? Maybe so.

“The areas are a little more blue collar in Novato,” Adelman says, noting that during the economic downturn of the past decade many suffered foreclosures. “Historically there has been less interest [there] in modern architecture versus affordable housing—although there are some owners that know what they have and have made their homes quite lovely and updated.

“But it is a longer battle to bring the neighborhoods up to where they were when they were built.”

About the Terra Linda homes, Adelman says, “They are getting renovated and are selling for good prices. The Alliance neighborhood is quite nice.”

Today, Leo Bersamina lives in the intact A&A design pictured above.
While shopping for an MCM home, Leo Bersamina (pictured here at home) was surprised when he stumbled across the Novato neighborhood of Lynwood Park.
Another Lynwood Park exterior in good shape.

Lynwood Park of Novato

Walking through this neighborhood of about 100 homes built in 1954 and 1955 by developer Rudy Lang, Jr. makes clear the danger of forgetting a tract’s history. Many homes here have been altered in ways that hurt their character. Clerestory glass has been replaced with plywood, exposed beam ends covered, wood siding stuccoed over, shutters added alongside windows.

The good news, though, is that most of these changes can readily be un-changed—and some people are doing that. Also, many of the homes seem fairly intact, from the outside at least.

“People are buying them and fixing them up,” says Leo Bersamina, who counts himself among this crowd. He says, “The newer people are buying them for the architecture.”

He says Lynwood Park today is a mix of ethnicities and largely working class, with designers and artists moving in.

The homes resemble Eichlers from the same period, with open plans, sliding-glass doors, and radiant heat. Living areas in some models are glass-walled on both sides, with a courtyard providing privacy by a fence.

“The windows on both sides, that’s a big one for me,” says Bersamina, describing why he likes his home. Living in it is much like living in an Eichler, he says, adding, “I would say this feels a little cozier. I mean cozy in a good way.”

Bersamina’s home, at 1,260 square feet, cost several hundred thousand dollars less than a larger Eichler in Terra Linda, Bersamina says. The enclosed patio, which provides full privacy, adds to the feeling that the home is larger. It is shaded by an oak, he says, that may be 500 years old.

One significant way these homes differ from Eichlers is that Lang used standard stud construction, not post and beam. He also provided “fire resistant wallboard interior walls,” which Eichler homes lacked. Lang’s ads bragged of “plastic floors (easy to clean).”

The Lang homes were not built on the cheap. In a rare move for the time, many came with swimming pools, and landscaping was provided by the famed modern firm of Osmundson & Staley. Homes came with a ‘patio bar,’ in one of three separate patio areas.

“Indoor-outdoor barbecue…heretofore seen only in magazines, are now included in every home in Lynwood Park,” Lang Realty bragged. They also mentioned the “oversize two-car garage (space for hobby room).”

Homes originally sold for “$16,600 to $22,000. Without pools from $14,900.”

The three- and four-bedroom homes, each with two baths, originally had mahogany paneling in the public areas, and featured “kitchens of tomorrow,” according to an ad.

Gene Kelly, who has lived in the neighborhood since it was surrounded by sheep ranches and his family’s babysitter arrived on horseback, still has his kitchen of tomorrow—an integrated unit featuring a GE stove, oven, and sink. He plans to keep it as he remodels the house.

While adding insulation, Kelly went so far as to haul the original plywood paneling into the backyard for restoration. “I oiled it to bring the grain out,” Kelly says.

The homes, like anything designed by Anshen and Allen, show unique touches—including an extra-wide front door in Kelly’s house, and basket-weave-pattern sliding closet doors in Bersamina’s.

“In the scheme of good design, and good houses, in Marin County this is it—this is the last affordable area,” Bersamina says, perhaps with some hyperbole. “In terms of affordable mid-century modern, this is probably one of the last frontiers. Not just in Marin, but in Northern California.”

• The Anshen and Allen homes of Lynwood Park can be found on Sunset Parkway (east of Novato Boulevard), Greenwood, Lynwood, and Greenwood drives, and Leafwood Heights.

These three house photos, all of the same residence, are from a recent Marin Modern Real Estate listing in Orchard Park, Novato’s other Cliff May neighborhood.
The Havel family (L-R: Melissa, Declan, and Curtis), who have lived in their Cliff May-designed home in Novato’s Ferris Gardens for five years.

Cliff May homes of Novato

Few architects have made a mark on suburban living more than Cliff May, and he never trained as an architect. Getting his start in San Diego in the 1920s designing low-slung Spanish Colonial ranches, he won fame through Sunset magazine, which, in the mid-century, published many of his designs as covers, and published several of his books about ranch houses.

His ranches soon grew modern in look, and by the early 1950s he and younger partner Chris Choate were turning out thousands of small ranch-like modern homes in dozens of tracts. May and Choate were the developers of some; others were built by folks who bought May and Choate’s plans.

It’s not clear which category Orchard Park and Ferris Gardens fall into.

These are beautiful little houses entirely characteristic of May and Choate—board and batten or other wooden siding for an informal look, L-planned with glass opening from living and sleeping areas onto a patio hidden from the public by fencing, gate, and carport. The homes boast a simple, flowing plan, which features a living room, dining area, and kitchen formed essentially as a single room.

Originally the homes had French doors. Many have been replaced by aluminum sliders.

Orchard Park, the older of the two tracts, circa 1952 with about 60 homes, has suffered the greatest depredations, with many homes expanded, made to look like quaint cottages, or in one case turned into a two-story Arts and Crafts house.

Although the originality of a number of homes can’t be assessed because they hide behind forests of plantings and fences, this looks like a tract that’s unlikely to regain its Cliff May feeling.

That said, any number of homes look fairly original from the outside, and some owners have worked on them in a way that shows an understanding of their mid-century modern flavor. Grove Lane, in particular, has original homes and homes that may be easy to restore to their original looks.

Ralph Stancato, who has lived in his 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom home on Grove Lane since 1983 and raised a family there, knows nothing about its architectural heritage. But he has appreciated the home for all the features May provided—its openness, light, privacy, he says, “and it was affordable.”

May, who cared more about the functions of his homes than pure aesthetics, would have been pleased.

Stancato’s next-door neighbor, Abigail Walsh, whose home, like Stancato’s, remains largely original, has lived there since 1970. She particularly appreciated how the courtyard, which is surrounded by the home, carport, and a fence, provided her children a safe place to play outdoors.

A mile away, a roughly 60-home Cliff May neighborhood in Ferris Gardens, built several years later, has many more original-looking homes. Moreover, a growing number of homeowners there care about preserving the neighborhood’s architectural integrity against such changes as second stories.

Neighbor Jennifer Schauer notes that many homes have been expanded. That can work, she says. “But it’s like totally weird when people add that second story. It totally changes the look.”

“We have a neighborhood full of relatively modest homes, and people walk out of their homes and they talk to each other,” says Schauer’s neighbor, Curtis Havel. “We have a really nice community fabric.”

• The Cliff May homes of Orchard Park are north of Tamalpais Avenue, on Grove Lane and Orchard Way, with a few on Center Street. The approximately 50 May homes of Ferris Gardens are on Ferris Drive and Nova Lane, with a few on Carolyn Way.

Mirror images of each other, these two Alliance homes in Terra Linda are separated by their respective garages and a shared landscaping strip.
Alliance owners Marcia Rey and Mac Johnson relax at home under their vaulted ceiling.
Two views of a different nearby Alliance.

Alliance homes of Terra Linda

Unlike the other forgotten Marin tracts, the 200-plus Alliance homes of Terra Linda, built in 1954 and 1955 by developers Cal Wheeler and John P. Boswell (operating as Alliance Construction Co. and the Terra Linda Corp.) to designs by W.F. Severin, are widely appreciated for their modern architecture.

For one thing, the homes border a large neighborhood of Eichler homes. Eichler took over the Terra Linda project after Wheeler went bankrupt, Catherine Munson, Eichler’s longtime saleswoman and a force for many years in Marin real estate, told an oral historian from the Marin Free Library.

Alliance won praise in September 1954 in House + Home for creating “Terra Linda—California’s newest planned town,” with homes, apartments, schools, shopping, churches, and a business district.

‘Terra Linda – a New City is Born,’ one headline blared in a special section of the Marin Independent Journal on May 28, 1954. ‘Cow Pasture Almost a City,’ read another.

The special section focused on such features as radiant heat, patios, cork floors—and the promise that every buyer received for free, a three-hour meeting with San Francisco color consultant Elizabeth Banning.

House + Home focused on the outdoor-indoor aspect. “The entire lot becomes part of the living area,” the magazine said, adding, “Everyone gets [a] handsome paved terrace.” House + Home also appreciated the streetscape, writing, “Designer W.F. Severin has proved that even when a row of houses turns its back on the street, it can form a handsome neighborhood.”

“These houses have what buyers want,” the story continued, “the appearance and livability of bigger, more expensive homes.”

The article noted the tongue-and-groove plank ceilings and heavy exposed ceiling beams. “Louvered windows were strong sales features,” the magazine said, and “60 percent [of buyers] paid $400 extra to get cork floors.”

The magazine honed in on one salient feature: “At ridge, the ceiling is 11 feet high, sufficiently high for tall men.” Unlike Eichlers, the Alliance homes have sloped ceilings in all or virtually all rooms.

Severin was identified as a man who’d studied at top schools, had worked for the pioneering modernist Richard Neutra, and was “a leader…in harmonizing contemporary architecture with the requirements of family living.”

Over the years many of these homes have been altered in ways unsympathetic to the original design, though overall the neighborhood retains its modern look.

Marcia Rey moved into the Alliance neighborhood two years ago and has become a prime fan, researching its history while she and her husband restore their home “to keep it in character and respectful of the architecture of the house.”

“A lot of people here are trying to do that,” she says.

Kristi Fish, who has lived in the Alliance tract for 17 years with her husband Bill and two daughters, says it has improved over the years, becoming friendlier. Tall fences that once hid houses away have largely been removed.

“It’s common now to see new young families outside with their kids playing out front,” she says. “They put camping chairs outside and sit in them, order pizza. It’s very family friendly.”

• The Alliance homes can be found in San Rafael on Holly Drive, Hibiscus and Hyacinth Ways, Hickory Lane, Whitewood Drive, Las Colindas Road, Las Pavadas Avenue, and nearby streets. 

Photography: Sabrina Huang, Ernie Braun; and courtesy Renee Adelman and Marin Modern Real Estate, Marin History Museum, House + Home magazine