Orange Eichler homes declared historic district

Eichler homes in the Fairhaven neighborhood 

December 2018

By Tina Richards

The Orange City Council approved a historic designation overlay for the three tracts of Eichler homes within the city limits, culminating a multi-year effort by residents and city staff.

The designation recognizes the historic nature of these tracts and adopts design standards to ensure the integrity of the houses and neighborhoods is maintained. 

Orange’s Eichler neighborhoods include Fairhaven, with 140 homes built in 1960; Fairmeadow, 123 homes built in 1962; and Fairhills, 80 homes built in 1964.

The tracts are named for builder Joseph Eichler, who believed post-World War II subdivisions could be built of quality materials and include architectural elements not commonly found in mass-produced housing. The homes, featuring open interiors, glass walls, post and beam construction, and atriums brought Mid-Century Modern design, later dubbed California Modern, to the masses.

Long time coming
Homeowners recognized the unique value of their neighborhoods as far back as 2000, when they began garnering support for preservation. The city conducted a historic resources survey in 2005, which identified the Eichler tracts as potential historic districts. The idea languished until 2016, when the city held a community meeting to broach the topic. The next year, 80 percent of the residents in all three tracts petitioned the city for historic designation.

The resulting designation comes with design standards that most residents applaud.  The standards refer only to “public” portions of the properties that can be seen from the street, including the front façade, roof, landscaping.  The standards apply only when a property owner wants to change the exterior of the home.

Others are not enthused about the design standards. “This is way too detailed and controlling,” one homeowner complained.  “It’s too big brother.  You actually think someone is going to get approval to paint on unpainted surfaces?  This is big government at its finest.”

The most-argued condition was the addition of a second story. Several houses already have second stories, added long before design standards were considered.  Many residents wanted second stories prohibited because they were not in keeping with the Eichler character, and they also raised privacy issues. Eichler homes frequently feature glass walls facing backyards, making living areas visible from a neighboring second story. 

“The construction of second stories would undermine the look, livability and property values of these properties,” one resident noted. “It certainly alters the original intent of the architects who designed these unique homes.”

A second chance
Other homeowners, however, wanted to keep the option open. One couple moved into an Eichler that is next door to a second story, which gave them the “reasonable expectation” that they could add a second story if they wished. Both the city’s Design Review Committee and Planning Commission recommended disallowing second stories. The city council, however, unanimously approved the standards with that section prohibiting a second story deleted.

The historic overlay allows property owners to apply for Mills Act contracts, which provide a property tax reduction in exchange for money spent to rehabilitate and preserve a historic property.

A letter to request a state historic designation and to nominate the neighborhoods to the National Register of Historic Places will be the next step in the process.