We are always seeking out opportunities to spread a little holiday cheer this time of year, and to that end we are very pleased to announce that we have located Gordon Drake’s long lost East Bay Unit House.
Drake is not particularly well known today, but he is by some accounts the James Dean of the California architecture scene. His rise to prominence was nothing short of meteoric. The first home that he designed while attending architecture school at USC won an award and was featured at the Fisher Gallery. It also brought his talents to the attention of Harwell Hamilton Harris who would briefly employ Drake in his office during the time that the famous Havens House in Berkeley was designed.
After serving as a combat engineer in the Marines during World War II, Drake returned to southern California in 1946. Eager to begin his civilian design career, he built a home for himself in Los Angeles that would end up winning Progressive Architecture’s first annual design competition. That same year he would form a lasting friendship with acclaimed architectural photographer Julius Schulman. More commissions and more awards would follow. Drake relocated his office several times, eventually ending up in San Francisco in 1949.
Throughout his brief career Gordon Drake had an almost singular obsession with paring the home down to its bare essentials and making it easy to construct and inexpensive. He was an early proponent of prefabrication and standardization in order to reduce construction costs. His Unit House is perhaps the ultimate expression of these lofty goals. Designed on a three foot by three foot grid, the home was detailed so that there would be a minimum of waste, and so that it could be expanded as a family grew.
Unfortunately, Drake’s only commission in the East Bay would end up being one of his last. In January of 1952, shortly after the Unit House was completed, Gordon Drake would die in a tragic skiing accident in the Sierras. He was 34 years old.
For many years it has been assumed that the Unit House had been demolished. Julius Schulman kept notoriously detailed records about the locale of his various photo shoots, but the location of the Unit House was strangely vague. Likewise it seemed unlikely that such a modest structure could have survived our growing appetites for square footage. So it was with great excitement and some surprise that we discovered that the famous home is still extant and more or less intact.
We have not had the opportunity to step inside yet, but the owner tells us that some of the redwood interiors are still in place and that the home has had no major additions. Despite being the granddaughter of the original owners, she was not aware of the home’s storied past or that it had been featured in numerous shelter magazines and an SFMOMA exhibit. We were able to do a bit of leg work and track down the original floor plan for her, so we hope that armed with this information and an understanding of Gordon Drake’s important place in the pantheon of mid-century architects, she has a new appreciation for her exceedingly rare and special home.