Famed ‘Little Boxes’ lauded in new book

Post-war houses of Westlake in Daly City receive high marks from Bay Area author

DALY CITY — Jim Grealish, a World War II veteran and 53-year Westlake homeowner, takes umbrage with anyone bad-mouthing the district’s signature “little box” houses.

Built by the legendary developer Henry Doelger after World War II and lambasted in singer Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” for their homogeneity, the homes and their architectural significance are the subject of a new book out in stores this month.

“I don’t think you’ll talk to any veteran who doesn’t think it’s the greatest thing since night baseball,” Grealish said of the opportunity the houses afforded to him and many others to own a new home after the Great Depression and war.

Grealish’s home on Weston Drive is one of roughly 6,500 that Doelger built, along with 3,000 apartments, in the Daly City area after the war, said San Francisco graphic designer Rob Keil, who authored “Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb.”

“The slant of (the book) is trying to make people try to appreciate these houses that are under appreciated,” Keil said. “These kinds of houses were made fun of but in retrospect you can see how a smartly planned, well-built community can be a good place to live.”

Keil said that Doelger, a San Francisco native with an eighth-grade education, built approximately 26,000 housing units in the Bay Area, and he estimated that 75,000-100,000 people live in Doelger houses today.

Mitch Postel, the director of the San Mateo County History Museum, said that Doelger’s developments helped Daly City boom from 15,000 residents after the war to 60,000 in the 1960s.

“As far as a post-war building boom, he was the archetypal developer,” Postel said. “Everyone looks to him as the first of the first suburb developers.”

In his book, Keil highlights the style and structural integrity of the houses, noting that some with their sloped rooflines and slanted windows were “stylistically ahead of their time.”

Doelger’s own house on Northgate Avenue, he said, was built in 1953 but looks like it was built in 1960, a tribute to the plans of Chester Dolphin and Ed Hageman, who designed the floorplans and exteriors, respectively.

But what’s also impressive is not just the structural soundness and progressive designs of these mass-produced houses for the middle class, but that Doelger constructed whole communities including medical buildings, churches, restaurants — he built Joe’s of Westlake — and shopping centers, the author said.

The concept is similar to the very popular mixed-use, transit-oriented developments now popping up on the Peninsula, he said.

“It really isn’t a new concept,” Keil said. “It’s been done and done well a long time ago.”

Grealish recalled shopping for his home in 1953 with his wife, describing the experience as being “like we were buying a pair of shoes,” in that they walked from house to house to choose one.

“At that time, (Doelger’s work) made homes available for people who wouldn’t have been able to buy one,” Grealish said.

The book is available online at littleboxesbook.com and local bookstores.

dsmith@examiner.com

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