It's a delightful neighborhood for a stroll, and not just because of its canopy of olives and birches, redwoods and more, or the absence of overhead utility lines. The homes are pleasingly varied, many with deeply recessed entry courts—and some with Sparks' characteristic grand double doors.
Many homes have original globe chandeliers in the entry, and others have a Japanese-style lantern of Sparks' own design. Most homes have vertically-ribbed or rough-sawn plywood siding, but some have siding with a board-and-batten pattern or scored stucco, and some facades include concrete block.
The unique touches that make Sparks' homes so delightful abound. A number of homes are approached by Sparks' characteristic quasi-ceremonial concrete aggregate steps. For his custom homes, Sparks often designed wooden doors with abstract geometric designs. Pat and Gail McDermid have a particularly appealing one on their two-story Streng on Purdue.
Because there's a mix of homes, University Estates may not come across to the casual visitor as a classic 'modern neighborhood.' Though there are blocks where every home is modern, some blocks are weighted towards ranch. Also, among the low-gabled and flat-roofed modern homes are Streng designs termed 'transitional.' They are modern in plan and detailing, but thanks to their ranch-like gables, they look just enough like 'standard' homes to pass, at quick glance. "We were trying to expand the market," Bill Streng says.
The name "University Estates" is largely forgotten. 'The university streets' some call the area, which take in such streets as Fordham, Radcliff, and Notre Dame. Nor do people see University Estates as a defined neighborhood. People's loyalties lie, rather, with their own block or court. There is no overall neighborhood association.
"We're very self-contained here," Omen Wild says of Fordham Drive, where he and his wife Alinia Asmundson are raising their son, Zephyr. Folks on Fordham brag about their little neighborhood's peace and quiet and its friendliness.
Just a few blocks away, neighbors on Notre Dame Drive say the same about their court. "We see ourselves as living in a little enclave," says Amina Harris, who moved there in the late 1980s with her husband Ishai Zeldner and raised two children.
Harris notes that choices of homes were limited in Davis, so many people bought Strengs—not because they actively wanted a modern home, but because it was near the university, in a good neighborhood, and affordable.
That remains the case. "What draws people is more the location than the architecture," says Christoffer Herner, who recently arrived with his wife Natalie Nelson and two young daughters. "The draw was the neighborhood, the good schools, then the architecture."
None of which is to say there's no choice involved. "Strange people—I mean, interesting people—buy Streng homes," says Martha Amorocho, who bought a home with her husband, a prominent hydrologist, when the neighborhood was new.
Still, more and more people in the neighborhood are 'design people'—including Carolyn de la Peñ a herself. She and her husband, architect David de la Peñ a, have renovated their home in keeping with its original character, opening up the kitchen to the rest of the living space by removing a wall and updating materials and colors.
"I saw potential in the flexibility of the only houses in Davis that have architectural character built in," says David de la Peñ a. The economic collapse has halted most renovations, but over the past few years many younger families have improved their homes with similar taste.
"You're not seeing what happened in the '80s, which was people buying the houses and deciding they wanted a country-style house and renovating them to some traditional style," he says. "Mostly when they get renovated these days, they go back to something more modern."
Noël Dybdal, who has lived in her low-gabled Streng since 1977, and her husband Paul Lutes, both scientists, renovated their home five years ago, keeping its original layout but upgrading materials, bringing in more light, and creating a tiny 'office' near the entry by adding a sliding barn door.
They also tried to 'green' the house by adding insulation and using such sustainable materials as bamboo for floors and cabinets. "It's not a restoration," says Dybdal, who worked with architect Dee Rosenberg. "But we wanted to keep that modern feeling to the house while updating it."