Next in line from the Surreal Suburbs archives. This was a series I put together back in 2005 featuring notable and oddball midcentury suburban communities in the Bay Area. Earlier I recapped the iconic Eichler Fairmeadows subdivision in Palo Alto; here we go back to Westlake in Daly City.
Westlake in Daly City, California: Your House is Your Castle
The vast subdivision of Westlake in Daly City offers a striking example of post-World War II design with a particularly kitchy 1950’s touch.
The place was built by Henry Doelger, who had earlier built the vast Sunset District in San Francisco. The Sunset District itself has a surreal suburban charm, with exceedingly (some would say overly) cute Tudor, Spanish, French Provincial and Colonial architecture along with horrifyingly banal stucco boxes, depending on the block and phase of development. But Westlake took the prototype a step further towards the suburbs. Unlike the Sunset District, where each house is attached to its neighbor in a rowhouse pattern, the Westlake houses are all detached. Also significantly, each Westlake house sits behind a neatly kept lawn, which is required to be maintained into perpetuity by the community’s CC&R’s.
Extending from the San Francisco city limits south to the sprawling Serramonte Shopping Center, and from the Pacific bluffs to Interstate 280, Westlake forms the major part of Daly City. It coherently obeys the “neighborhood unit” principles that were coming into vogue at the time, with each residential unit having an elementary school at its center, and no through traffic. There is an articulated recreational open space system, and a town center complex of shopping, community, and high school facilities just as the textbook said it should.
The town center district, built in phases between 1950 and 1960, provides a particularly good example of the transitional form between downtown-style strip commercial development and the later enclosed shopping mall prototype. There is a shopping center with big parking lots, but there are some mixed-use commercial buildings facing some of the side streets that still exhibit a downtown character. The blocks surrounding the shopping center consist of well-maintained garden apartments with fussy Colonial styling.
One of the social centers of Westlake is the Westlake Joe’s restaurant on John Daly Boulevard. Stop by this place at 5:30 PM and everything starts to make sense: Westlake is the place that the San Francisco middle class fled to in the 1950’s as it abandoned the old Victorian neighborhoods. Those same folks, now getting on in their years, fill the tables at Westlake Joe’s for early suppers (you won’t be able to get a table at 6:00). The food is marginal, but that’s not important. This is a social scene of unmistakable comraderie.
Touring the neighborhoods, there is a mixture of French Provincial, Colonial, and Moderne architecture. The 50’s modern ranch style is perhaps the most characteristic, however, and with today’s styles it has gained a renewed hip appeal. Meticulously trimmed lawns and wildly shaped succulent plantings just add more to the visual.
Since this write-up was originally put together, a really great book on Westlake was released titled Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb by author Rob Keil, and more recently a 44-minute documentary was released. Worth checking out!