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RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT

San Francisco, with its fabled Victorians, may not spring to mind as a bastion of mid-century style. But a prime example of 1950’s suburban residential architecture lies right here in the city’s backyard – the Westlake district of Daly City. It’s a meticulously planned neighborhood of 6,500 houses, 3,000 apartments, as well as several strikingly modern schools and one of the first malls in America.

Developer Henry Doelger was America’s largest homebuilder during most of the 1930’s, and ended up building much of San Francisco’s Sunset district. In 1945, he purchased a large tract of land adjoining San Francisco. This sandy, foggy area, comprised of pig ranches and cabbage farms, seemed remote and unappealing to Doelger’s advisors, who thought he’d made an expensive mistake. But his legendary business foresight proved 20/20 again– the postwar housing boom was poised to begin.

If there is such a thing as a “good” suburb, that’s what Doelger wanted Westlake to be – a fully planned “city within a city” of houses, schools, shopping centers, offices, medical facilities, churches, and parks, right next to San Francisco. But in order to be economically viable, the homes had to be affordable to average people, so Doelger and his company had to invent ways to keep construction costs down while making them attractive enough to lure buyers from the city.


The Westlake lumber mill, located on Poncetta Drive

By reversing and flipping a couple dozen basic floor plans and varying exterior styling, literally thousands of house variations were built at a relatively low cost. A working lumber mill was set up right on the site, and large quantities of redwood were purchased rough-sawn to get the highest quality raw material at low prices. Then the pieces for nearly an entire house, down to the custom-made windows and doors, were milled, loaded, and delivered on trucks to each foundation and assembled there. Theodore Tronoff, civil engineer and site planner for Doelger during Westlake’s development, recalls, “They had the floor plans of each of the models they were building. They knew at the mill what [lumber] was required, so he had a carpenter running it who was capable of doing that… Doelger was ahead of his time in the way he was fabricating the parts of the houses, and it was very efficient.” At the height of Westlake’s development, there were about a thousand people on the payroll.

About a third of the Doelger construction vehicle fleet, 1950’s

Doelger found other ways to keep construction costs down, like re-purposing several surplus US military transport vehicles he’d purchased at auction at the end of World War II and making them part of his construction fleet. He also set up his own gas station and vehicle maintenance facility on site to reduce reliance on expensive outside services.

Chester Dolphin (left) and Ed Hageman

Longtime Doelger employees Chester Dolphin and Ed Hageman were the two men primarily responsible for the design of the homes in Westlake. Dolphin created many of the floor plans, while Hageman was commissioned to design exteriors. Henry’s brother, John Doelger, was ultimately responsible for the look of the houses and the neighborhood. Drawings of the front of each house were put up on the office wall and evaluated in relation to every other house on the block, to achieve the desired streetscape variety. Even exterior paint colors were planned in advance so neighboring houses wouldn’t clash.

Despite Doelger’s meticulous planning, Westlake has earned some unflattering nicknames over the years. Malvina Reynolds’ folk song “Little Boxes” was inspired by Westlake’s “ticky-tacky” houses, visible along the highway during a car trip she took through Daly City in 1962. Some dubbed Westlake an “instant suburb,” and Architectural Forum magazine went as far as calling it an “unchecked desecration of the landscape.”

But 50 years of hindsight changes things. In 1975, Westlake was named one of America’s ten best suburbs by Ladies’ Home Journal. The homes have kept their value well over the decades, and many are in excellent condition today after half a century. Although Westlake certainly was never a perfect place to live, many of its residents felt that it delivered on its promise of a better way of life for San Francisco’s postwar population. Original homeowner James Grealish says, “It was a tremendous feeling because you felt rich, really. It was ridiculous but that was actually the situation… It was a kind of feeling of ‘boy, we’re really lucky to be here.’”


 

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