House 1 in 1961.


As an architect, it is impossible to predict what the future holds for one’s projects and sometimes it is better not to try. This is the story of two residences, both designed for friends but very different in timing and aesthetic approach. Looking at them now, it is clear they have evolved in very different ways.


This is not the full life history of the houses. Primarily, it is what can be gleamed from a look at their street views when first built and today. No attempt is made to trace successive ownership and today’s owners have not been interviewed.


The earlier of the two—let’s call it “House 1″—was my first solo commission from concept to completion. It was designed and constructed in late 1960, and was located in the San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Los Altos. At 1,750 square feet it was a small house by today’s standards but at the time regarded as quite adequate for a family of four.


It was on a flat lot, situated in a cul-de-sac, and was flanked by two bland and conventional new houses. In the absence of exterior views of any merit it was decided to omit windows on the street frontage and thus the house presented an entirely blank façade to the street and was entered through a small landscaped court. Its architectural style was based on financial economy as the predominant determinant, however purely aesthetic concerns were not wholly absent. For instance, to improve the façade proportions, a few unnecessary feet were added at the each end of the façade wall. The house cost $23,000, which was inexpensive even in 1960. It is now estimated by Zillow at $1,742,000.


“House 1” plan: note the short wing walls added at each end of the front wall.



“House 1” and neighborhood context in 1961.


Looking at this today I am amazed at the uncompromised simplicity of the street view and that the original façade is completely preserved, but the beautifully scaled symmetrical landscaping provides the house with a new grandeur.


“House 1” façade today.


Successive owners’ spirit of preservation extended to the entry court, as well. The only change there is updated doors and windows, but the openings remained intact. Even the wall lighting fixtures are original. The bare pergola (or its identical successor) is now a lush sun screen to the entry door.


“House 1” entry court in 1961 and today.


The original entrance is also unchanged ,except for a new light fixture and a fine wrought iron gate. The modest metal street numbers are original. The first owners (who occupied the house for 32 years) initially intended to add a gate, but never did so, preferring to save the money and maintain a direct entry to the front door. There were some changes over the years. For instance, 250 square feet were added to the bedrooms, but that did not affect the front façade.



“House 1” entrance in 1961 and today.


In spite of some early successes in residential architecture, I followed a different course from 1962 onwards and I designed only the occasional house in special circumstances. The second house, which I will refer to as “House 2,” was one of those occasional houses. 


The client was a friend who had decided to retire early to a different community in 1985. He owned a handsome 1925 Spanish revival house on a large lot in downtown Palo Alto. The scheme was to move the existing house about sixty feet, which would permit the construction of a new house on the same lot. “House 2” is this new house. At 3,000 square feet including four bedrooms and baths, it was quite large. Unlike the aesthetic simplicity of “House 1,” “House 2” made an effort to relate to the context of its neighboring Spanish revival houses on either side, which were of the same era. It was designed in a quiet variation of Spanish revival. After completion of “House 2,” it was sold, as was the existing house. Because of the owner/contractor arrangement there was no record of the original cost but, in 2010, “House 2” was sold for $2,400,000 and is now estimated by Zillow at $2,850,000. 


“House 2” in 1985.


Left to right: the owner’s existing house that was moved (photographed in 2012), “House 2” in 1985, and the original neighbor to the right of “House 2” (photographed in 2012).


Whereas “House 1,” with its minimalist approach, has remain largely as it was designed and built, the fate of “House 2”  is far different. About two years ago I passed by  “House 2” by chance and saw that considerable remodeling was taking place: a Tuscan Loggia had appeared in front of the entry wall. I hoped that this would be the only addition, but when I returned a few months later the remodel was complete. Besides the loggia, the decorative tiles had all been obliterated, the paneled double garage doors had been replaced, two-car width gates had been added, and a mysterious turret had forced its way up behind the entrance. Today “House 2” looks very different than when it was originally designed and built.


Contextual overkill: “House 2” in 2012.





  1. I was fortunate to have grown up in “House 1”, and have fond memories of my years there. As Chris mentioned, it was a simple design. But the nuance and timeless details made it a very special place. Dramatically different from the standard ranch-style homes around it, it claimed its space and made its own statement.
    With few alterations, the house you see in the floor plan is the one that I will remember with fondness. Living with this design for twenty years taught me that difference has value. For that, and much more, I will always be indebted to Chris Arnold.

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