A pair of local, independent filmmakers will soon release “Little Boxes: The Legacy of Henry Doelger,” a short documentary about the architecture of Daly City’s Westlake neighborhood and the developer who built it.
The documentary’s name is a reference to folk singer Malvina Reynolds’ 1962 song, “Little Boxes,” a critique of suburban America famously inspired by the houses of Westlake.
Filmmakers Rob Keil and Monique Lombardelli say they are fascinated with the midcentury modern architecture pioneered by developers like Doelger, and they find it ironic that such unique homes inspired Reynolds to sing about houses “made of ticky tacky” that “all look the same.”
Keil said that, contrary to what the song implies, Doelger’s homes were well built, with an emphasis on individuality. Describing the typical Doelger home, Keil said, “It was a box, but it was a really well-designed box…Doelger was very conscious of the need to make houses look different from each other.”
Keil noted he grew up in a Doelger home in Pacifica’s Fairmont neighborhood, and was about 12 years old when he took an interest in the architecture and began to learn about the developer. When Keil and his wife bought their first home, he said they naturally chose one of Doelger’s Westlake creations.
Keil published a coffee table book about Doelger and Westlake, entitled “Little Boxes: The Architecture Of A Classic Midcentury Suburb.” When Keil had speaking engagements related to the book, he said people requested that he include multimedia presentations. This lead him to film interviews with former Doelger employees and to seek out archival footage of Westlake’s construction. The process soon progressed into a documentary film project, he said.
Lombardelli recently released “People in Glass Houses: The Legacy of Joseph Eichler,” a documentary about a Doelger competitor whose Bay Area homes have a following of their own. After reading a magazine article about Keil, she soon became his friend and Realtor.
Unlike most Realtors, who tend to cover geographic territories, Lombardelli specializes in homes of a particular style. She said she only sells midcentury modern homes like the ones created by Eichler and Doelger, because she’s passionate about enjoying and preserving them.
Lombardelli said Keil’s film project had been stalled for about five years because his job as an advertising art director kept him too busy to work on the documentary. When she learned how much work Keil had already put into the project, Lombardelli told him she wanted to help him finish the film.
The filmmakers had initially hoped to include Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” song in the film’s soundtrack, but learned it would have been too expensive to license the recording. Therefore, they paid a much lower fee for the right to use the lyrics and music, and Lombardelli made a recording of herself singing the song.
Lombardelli said she’s not just a fan of Doelger’s architecture, but also of the man himself. She praised the developer for his loyalty, both to his employees and to the neighborhood he created.
“Henry Doelger himself was such an engaging man,” she said. “He was the true definition of a passionate entrepreneur. And he was smart; so smart. He could have moved into a ‘McMansion,’ but he chose to stay in Westlake.” Keil and Lombardelli plan to release the documentary in January. Keil said it will be available on DVD through Amazon.com, and they also plan to hold screenings in Daly City. One possible location for the premiere is at Joe’s of Westlake restaurant, which was built by Doelger.