Picture this: A single-story post-and-beam home in California. A property surrounded by fencing to deliver incredible privacy: Your own bakyard oasis. Large glass sliding doors that blend indoor and outdoor environments. Living in an Eichler Home just outside of San Francisco in the 1970s sounds amazing, but it also put residents in a community that was ransacked by the Golden State Killer. Did the design of Eichler homes play a role in these horrific crimes?
By now, it's old news that the so-called Golden State Killer has been both unmasked and arrested. Part of the investigation that led to the closing of this decades-old cold case was led by true crime writer Michelle McNamara, author of "I'll Be Gone in the Dark."
In this book, which details the investigation into the identity of the Golden State Killer, there is a surprising focus on architecture. Perhaps that's because McNamara grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a well-known hub for Frank Lloyd Wright architecture.
The book discusses the "Bermuda Triangle of Contra Costa County," an area rife with serial killer attacks, violent crimes and burglaries, including two attacks by the Golden State Killer. This Bermuda Triangle of Crime wasn't a particularly dangerous neighborhood, a gang-ridden part of the inner city or any other spot you might traditionally associate with crime. Instead, it was a suburban neighborhood primarily made up of Eichler Homes. The Golden State Killer (known then as the East Area Rapist) attacked two Eichler Homes, just 100 feet from one another, in the same month in 1979.
Joseph Eichler is perhaps the developer most closely associated with the California Modern Style. He created Rancho San Miguel, a community of 563 homes, 375 of them being Eichler homes, just outside of San Francisco in an area known as Walnut Creek. The homes were the antithesis of cookie-cutter design, and they are still highly desirable and expensive today. However, some of the Eichler attributes we all know and love contributed to Rancho San Miguel's reputation as a serial killer's dream destination.
Large Glass Expanses
Part of what makes an Eichler home an Eichler home is that while there is privacy from the front, the back is made up of lots of glass. This is modern architecture at its finest, bringing in natural light. At night, it means that those outside the home can see in with ease. It also means that from the inside, your view is limited to your own reflection. Even if someone is standing right outside the glass, you won't be able to spot them if the lights are on inside the home (especially if you don't have much exterior lighting).
Flat or Low-Sloping Roofs
As a resident of a flat-roofed home, I can safely say that I appreciate this style. Nonetheless, it may be part of the reason that criminals gravitated toward the area. A flat roof was easier to climb onto and move around on. Compare that to a steep pitched roof, which poses far greater challenges for an intruder.
Many mid-century modern homes were built in a ranch style without a second story. This was appealing to attackers like the Golden State Killer, who didn't have to worry about neighbors spotting him from their second-floor bedrooms. Criminals could prowl and then escape without fear of being identified.
In addition, the single-story construction created multiple points of entry. Compare this to a two-story home with stairs, which funnels people into a singular route of entry and exit.
High Fences Surrounding Backyards
Many Eichler homes did away with the white picket fence and instead installed higher, completely private fences to create secluded backyards. This helped protect the privacy of the home's interior, especially because of all that lovely glass. These fences created oases for residents, but they also protected criminals from view.
Sliding Glass Doors
The beauty of siding glass doors is that they could quickly turn an interior living space into an outdoor area. Unfortunately, they could also be pried open with a basic screwdriver. Criminals in the area almost exclusively entered Eichler homes this way, eschewing the front door for the much easier to unlock sliding glass door around the back of the home.
It goes without saying that home security has improved substantially from the 1970s to today. Tempered glass, home alarms, security systems and neighborhood watch groups have all created a greater sense of security for residents.
However, it is impossible to ignore that certain modern homes of the past were greater targets for criminals. This idea is played out in films like The Glass House, Fracture and House on Haunted Hill, all of which take place in modern homes. Is there something inherently scary about modern architecture? Or is the idea of living in a glass house, despite all that natural light, truly a terrifying prospect? I can't say for certain, but I will be sure to turn on the house alarm tonight.
House & Home Magazine, July 1955
House & Home Magazine, January 1954