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Douglas Fir in California Design: San Francisco Homes

March 1, 2012 by | Nicole | There have been 0 comments

Douglas fir in home design dates back before the days of the Gold Rush in 1849. Douglas fir had a big impact on San Francisco Victorian architecture from the 1850s to the early 1900s. The 1906 Earthquake and fire destroyed over half of the burgeoning Bay Area. Thousands of homes burned, including many Doug-fir-framed Victorians that dotted neighborhood streets.

We’d like to look at the use of Douglas fir from the start of Art Deco in the 1920s on through the Great Depression, WWII, and through the 1970s to today’s New Modernism approach to sustainability.

Douglas fir goes utilitarian

We won’t bore with you the details, but there were a wide variety of architectural aesthetics popular in San Francisco beginning in the early 1900s on through the 1940s. Art Deco, Beaux-Arts inspired New Revival Mediterranean and Marina homes, and Art Moderne designs which all featured an eclectic mix of materials. New revival homes were outfitted with wrought-iron balconies and clay-tiled doorways which mirrored Spanish elements and emulated Beaux-Arts design with its brick and stone figural sculptures and classical details. If any wood was used, it was minimal in appearance – balustrades or wood shingles.

Between the 1920s on through the 1940s, Art Moderne architecture reinforced innovation with design. The International Style became a façade trend in the mid-1920s, emphasizing a less is more aesthetic. The advent of new building materials - stainless steel, aluminum, Formica, and pigmented structural glass – figured prominently in these design movements. Meanwhile, factories churned out abundant supplies of steel in preparation for war and Old Fir went utilitarian, being made into automobile running boards, wall sheathing, and military applications.

In response to a depressed economy, a Northwest fir trade association set out to promote plywood and the milling industry. Founded in 1933, The Douglas Fir Plywood Association –dubbed American Plywood Association today – sent out on a national mission to bring fir back.

Douglas fir Boom and Bay Area Modernism

After the war, the nation needed more housing to keep up with the 1940s baby boom. Thanks to the housing boom, Douglas fir was back in business. In 1955, the Douglas Fir Plywood Association put together 52 Fir Plywood Home Storage Plans. The 50 cent black & white booklet featured 65 do-it-yourself home projects based on a you-can-build-anything-with-fir-plywood motto. Crisp illustrations and clear plans outlined everything from drawer construction to edge treatments.

In San Francisco, five years before the issue of 52 Fir Plywood Home Storage Plans, local architects were inspired by the old rural wood-clad buildings in the area. The decorated shed and building as billboard aesthetics turned into the next big design aesthetic and Old Fir had a home. Coined Bay Area Modernism – Third Bay Style, these wood-dressed homes featured wood paneling and flooring. Outside, vertical wood board siding, wood shingles, and vertical exposed sticks were dominant features. For wood enthusiasts, this was a welcomed change from the Art Deco and Art Moderne stucco-fashioned designs of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s.

However, it was Joseph Eichler’s innovative use of Douglas fir post and beam construction, that popularized Old Fir into something entirely new. Starting in the 1950s, Eichler homes “invited the outside in” by using structurally graded 4 X 10-inch fir beams and 6 X 4-inch fir posts for the housing frames. Eichler’s signature fir grid held the expansive floor to ceiling windows – a second distinctive feature of his architecture. This allowed natural light in creating an airy living space. Mahogany was also used for interior paneling. Eichler’s aesthetic was seen in San Francisco homes until the ‘70s. Today, Eichler homes are just as important to the progression of San Francisco architecture as the city’s turn of the century Victorians.

Eichler’s use of exposed post and beam construction influenced many residential designs across the nation during this time. In AltruFir’s own backyard, Portland home-builder Robert Rummer, inspired by Eichler’s post and beam grid, constructed 750 Rummers throughout the city in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And, perhaps in response to the Eichler fir grid trend in the Bay Area, the Douglas Fir Plywood Association put together its 1958 Leisure-Time Homes in Fir Plywood. The book was popular among families looking to build a second vacation home. Was it coincidence that the five models featured in the book featured fir post and beam construction? We think not.

In 1965, 77 Ideas For Remodeling Your Home With Fir Plywood was published. The Douglas Fir Plywood Association promoted a variety of “worthwhile leisure-living projects you can make with fir plywood,” including a built-in book rack, demountable music wall, and a potting bench. As an introduction, the association wrote, “For remodeling… inside, outside, all around the house – there’s a fir plywood panel for every job!” A black and white diagram was included to pinpoint the places fir plywood fit perfectly in the mid century home. It’s no doubt that Douglas fir helped define mid-century modernism.

Postmodernism and New Modernism

Interestingly, Postmodernism and its contextual aesthetic, starting in 1960, retracted from Eichler’s signature fir post and beam construction. Postmodern homes emphasized a maze of juxtapositions in layout, materials, and motif. This aesthetic relied less on the durability of natural materials such as Douglas fir and more on flamboyance and cut-out construction.

In 1980, Third Bay Style and Eichler designs gave way to New Modernism, which emphasized the use of modern materials and technology to their greatest advantages. Humane Modernism reintroduced nature into living spaces, similar to Eichler’s architectural achievement. Wood cantilevers and wood trellises shaded windows. A post and beam both supported the entrance awning and added structural expression to a home’s front porch. Stone, wood paneling, and stucco were distinctive elements used purposefully in these façades. And conscious use of naturally energy-generating methods were incorporated into homes and buildings – photovoltaic panels.

Today, Douglas fir is very much a part of the architectural and design movements in San Francisco. Victorian homeowners rely on Old Fir to renovate and maintain the authenticity of say, an 1890 Queen Anne dining room floor. An Eichler enthusiast knows how to treat the fir post and beam frame when stripping paint to reveal its natural grain. Homeowners of a wood-clad Third Bay Style home trust Douglas fir to bring their home’s vertical board siding back to life. And, savvy first time homebuyers expect to see Old Fir show up in the reclaimed flooring of an industrial loft, a trellis shading the front window of a LEED-certified complex, or on the paneling of a secluded yet sustainable private residence. Douglas fir is as versatile as the homes in San Francisco.

- Nicole Morales


This post was posted in Douglas Fir Flooring, Douglas Fir Trim, History and Interest and was tagged with Douglas fir flooring, douglas fir design, douglas fir beams

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