Greater Sacramento Strengs: Valley of the Atriums - Page 3

Who are the Streng brothers—and what's the story behind their fascinating modern homes?

Sparks was tall, blond, fit and gregarious, a tennis player, and thoroughly enjoyed life. "Carter Sparks was happy with Carter Sparks," Bill says. "He had enough. He knew he had that talent he could turn on—he could attract clients when he wanted to attract clients." Jennifer Sparks remembers a man who loved working on his Lotus Europa sports car, skiing, and socializing. In the 1950s Sparks and his first wife raced their Austin Healy at Laguna Seca near Monterey. Unlike the Strengs, bedrock Republicans, Sparks was far to the left and very vocal about his beliefs, Jennifer says. Sparks built his daughter a set of Wrightian chairs, and a rectilinear canopy bed she still sleeps in.

John Siler, an interior designer who worked with Sparks on custom homes and Streng models, says Sparks stuck almost entirely with residential architecture, never moving into more remunerative commercial jobs. But Sparks had a solid niche, with many of his modern homes overlooking the American River. "He was unique in this area for doing this type of house," Siler says. "If anyone wanted a contemporary house, he was the one to go to."

Jennifer Sparks says her father built about 50 custom homes in his career. It was that same modern niche that worked for the Strengs. "Nine out of 10 people looking at models didn't like the contemporary," Jim says. "We were the one builder building for that 10 percent."

The antipathy towards modern architecture in the conservative Valley could be comical, the Strengs say. "One guy I remember looked around and said, 'Well, if I wanted to live in the barn, I would have stayed in Nebraska,' " Bill recalls. Jim adds: "A building inspector said, 'Is this a house or a drive-in dairy?' " The hesitation spread to the Federal Housing Administration, whose loan guarantees were needed for most buyers to qualify for mortgages. The FHA doubted whether Streng homes would retain their values. To make a case, Bill went door-to-door in Eichler's only Sacramento subdivision, South Land Park. Some Eichler owners complained about the radiant heat and poor insulation, he says, but 98 percent said they would buy another Eichler or Eichler-type home. The Strengs won FHA approval.

The 10 percent of the population that liked modern homes differed in predictable ways from the 90 percent that didn't. Jim remembers running into flak from some homeowner associations when they proposed building Carter Classics on lots in custom-home neighborhoods. "They were apprehensive this plain-looking house that didn't have any of those expensive shutters that didn't shut, and didn't have brick wainscoting would detract from the property values. And that strange people would move in. That was not an entirely unfounded fear."

A political campaigner did a count, Jim says. One Streng subdivision was 85 percent Democratic. The ranch subdivision next door was 70 percent Republican. Strengs attracted so many teachers—and tall people, entranced by the high ceilings—they brainstormed ways of directing advertising at these two groups. They never did—but their ads did boast how many licensed architects bought their homes—one count was 37.

transitional streng

Streng Bros. Homes was always attentive to cost. Uncle Phil told them overhead could be fatal, Jim says. They kept staffing tight, with 100 employees maximum, most of those on the job site. They were a union shop. Jim, who maintained the Sacramento office after Bill opened a Davis office in 1962, had a salesman and a payroll person. Bill had two bookkeepers. Their current office in Davis still uses their original furniture, some of which began as hand-me-downs.

The Strengs generally built between 100 and 200 homes a year, usually with two or three subdivisions active at a time. They wanted their jobs to be within an hour of their office. As they got older that dropped to a half hour. The firm was profitable every year, Jim says. The Strengs thought briefly of franchising, and occasionally of expanding, but the brothers were wary of delegating authority, they say.

One idea that did appeal, however, was a deal with their hero, Joe Eichler. It was the mid-'60s, they remember, shortly after Eichler had constructed Geneva Towers, a pair of San Francisco high-rise apartment buildings whose lack of success contributed to Eichler's financial downturn. The Strengs had the idea of building some of Eichler's designs in their market and asked for a meeting.

They met at Eichler's office in downtown San Francisco and spent a leisurely three hours swapping stories and talking business over lunch at Eichler's usual table at Jack's restaurant. Jim treated. "It was a marvelous experience," Jim says. "I felt like I was meeting with the president. To me, all the things he did, selling to minorities when no other builder would sell to a minority—he just was...he was a god. We both looked up to him."