Eichler homes, with their low-slung efficiency and modest roots, aren't known to be showstoppers, at least not from the curb. Typically, these post-and-beam residences with wooden siding and lots of open indoor space are single-level, with few if any windows facing the street. Privacy is ensured. But Mark Wuotila's Eichler, in the Highlands subdivision of San Mateo, is anything but conventional. For starters, it was the result of a commission by Life magazine, back in the heady days of the mid-20th century when a weekly publication could do things like get a house built just for the sake of a story.
Architect Pietro Belluschi, renowned for his simple yet elegant designs, partnered with developer Joseph Eichler to construct what aficionados today call "the Life house," full of light, dazzle and soaring lines. Coincidentally, it's only two blocks from another custom Eichler classic, the all-steel X-100, built in 1956 as a promotional lure.
The Life article, which appeared in the Oct. 6, 1958, issue, prompted an avalanche of requests for plans for the home. (All were denied.) This dwelling, however, would be unlike any other Eichler. From the late 1940s through mid-'70s, nearly 11,000 Eichlers would be built in the Golden State, the vast majority of them in Northern California. They were meant to be affordable at less than $10,000 and -- aside from their innovative, casual-comfort aesthetic -- not attention-seekers.
Wuotila's home was built almost 55 years ago for $25,000. (According to Redfin.com, comparable homes in the same neighborhood would sell for $1.2 million today.) It features not one, but four levels on a sloped site. It's topped by a chevron-shaped roof that juts majestically over deep eaves and wraparound decks. Even more startling are the drapeless, towering windows that seemingly invite passersby to witness what Wuotila, a business developer/consultant/programmer, is up to indoors. It's a notion he disputes.
House is 'mysterious'
"People think they can see into it, but it's subtle," Wuotila says in "People in Glass Houses," a 2012 documentary on Eichler homes executive-produced by area Realtor Monique Lombardelli. Thanks to strategic lighting and landscaping at his lofty abode, "there is privacy. It's mysterious."
Wuotila and his wife, Gail, came to the Highlands in 1979, originally from Washington state and West Virginia, respectively. He worked in Silicon Valley, she in San Francisco. A mid-Peninsula home made sense. "Our Realtor took us to the Highlands, and we said, 'Stop, this is exactly what we want: open, lots of glass, a blended outside/inside.' " So they purchased a typical one-story Eichler with three bedrooms, two baths and an open floor plan. Three years later, a chance walk through the neighborhood and a sighting of a "for sale" sign at the "crown prince of the Highlands" culminated in the purchase of the custom creation.
Despite its historical significance, the Wuotilas found various ways to improve the Life house, from adding a downstairs bathroom/steam room to double-paning all the windows. "We have made substantial changes, but always maintained the architectural integrity to the nth degree," says Mark, who lost Gail to illness in December 2010. "I would say, in my heart, we improved on the architecture."
Other renovations through the years included expanding the width of the decks, installing a hot tub big enough for four, putting in a walkway, tiling the floors, enhancing the landscaping and adding drain tiles plus a sump pump. The last effort took care of the carport flooding that would occur when the adjacent hill received too much precipitation.
That was a particularly wise move, considering the first level now also contains the master bedroom and bath/steam room. Two more bedrooms and a bath take up the second floor, while the living room, dining room and small but serviceable kitchen occupy the third level. At the very top is another master bedroom and newly renovated bathroom, complete with a 6-foot slipper tub that Wuotila proudly points out cost him only $400 at Costco. Including the expanded decks, the home's square footage is about 2,800 on a one-third-acre lot.
In the mid-1980s, Wuotila installed a hydronic solar system consisting of a 500-gallon storage tank, pumps and nine solar panels on the roof. It didn't heat everything, but was efficient enough that PG&E came out to do an audit because the couple wasn't using enough gas. "We were way ahead of the curve ecologically speaking," Wuotila says. The system survived until about six years ago, when a new roof had to be put on.
The heart of the home is the third level, with its 13-foot windows and leafy views. Most of the furnishings are spare and a bit prosaic -- "We worked on infrastructure instead," Wuotila explains -- but the counterbalance is two original art pieces signed by a master glass sculptor. They are displayed almost nonchalantly on wooden book cases in the living room.
The best part of living in an Eichler, says Wuotila -- who still owns the first one he bought -- is the "freedom and liberation of open space; you can control what is there. The second is the blending with nature and the visibility through glass, the symmetry of contiguous shelter and nature."
It's a treasure he's happy to share with fellow Eichler fans, even ones who might show up unexpectedly at his door.
'Labor of love'
"It's like a big ego trip for me to have people come look at the place. I like to show them around," he says in the Lombardelli documentary (available on DVD at www.buyeichlerfilm.com, or streaming at http://bit.ly/10d1c61; see the trailer for this film at www.mercurynews.com/home-garden). "I take a lot of pride in the home and in the fact that we've built it up. It's been a labor of love for the last so many years."
That labor continues unabated, as Wuotila finds ever more projects to undertake. He's in the process of possibly renting out part or all of the Life house, now that he's free to roam the globe as owner of his own business. "I'm into continual improvement -- call me a control freak, a perfectionist," he says. Well, make that a programmer/industrial engineer with the heart and soul of an artist. His beloved home is his medium.
Pietro Belluschi and Joseph Eichler would be proud.