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Little Boxes: Discovering Doelger
August 26, 2013, 05:00 AM By Bill Silverfarb Daily Journal

The Westlake neighborhood in Daly City is comprised entirely of Doelgers, suburban tract homes built after World War II. Henry Doelger, bottom left, built 11,000 of the homes in San Francisco and San Mateo counties in the late 1940s and early '50s.

Rob Keil

Rob Keil had published a book titled “Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb” about Daly City’s Westlake neighborhood back in 2006 and decided after that the best way to tell the iconic suburb’s story was to make a documentary film about it and its creator Henry Doelger.

Keil grew up in Doelger homes and after publishing the book started to give talks with slideshows about the history of the neighborhood and its builder. He compiled interviews on video of some of the early architects and first homeowners who bought into the neighborhood back in the 1950s but never quite compiled all of the material into a documentary after spending years on it.

Keil was then featured in an article in California Home+Design that told of his work on the documentary and his trouble completing it.

After reading the magazine article, mid-century modern home specialist Monique Lombardelli gave Keil a call expressing her interest in the topic as she had just completed an award-winning documentary herself entitled “People in Glass Houses: The Legacy of Joseph Eichler.”

The two shared a passion for homes built in the era and became fast friends. Menlo Park-based Lombardelli, who owns Modern Homes Realty, even sold Keil’s Doelger home and then helped him buy an Eichler-type home in San Bruno.

She also offered to help Keil finish his documentary and the two co-produced it together. “Little Boxes: The Legacy of Henry Doelger” is almost complete and will debut soon.

It tells the story of Doelger, born in San Francisco, who left school in the eighth grade but went on to become one of the nation’s top home builders. San Francisco’s Sunset District is filled with Doelgers and he built all of the Westlake neighborhood. There are 11,000 Doelgers in San Francisco and San Mateo counties.

Westlake is known for its long rows of Doelger’s boxy houses which allegedly inspired Malvina Reynolds’ folk song “Little Boxes” which became an anthem for anti-suburbanism in the 1960s.

Lombardelli, however, embraced the song and has even purchased the rights to use it in the film.

“The homes are historically significant although sometimes ignored,” Keil told the Daily Journal. “There’s the mythology that they are little boxes, tacky and inconsequential.”

Doelgers do have a “funky character,” Keil said, but are far from inconsequential.

“They are really efficient. There is no wasted space. They are well laid out and well constructed. They also have this pop-modern look. There is a cuteness to them. They look happy and upbeat,” Keil said.

They are also affordable.

The same Doelger in Daly City that will sell between $500,000 and $700,000 today will sell for more than $1 million if it were located in Palo Alto, he said.

“It’s the best affordable housing if you like mid-mods,” Lombardelli said.

The two hope their collaboration will bring a new respect to the two-story suburban icons and their slanted roofs and Keil is thankful Lombardelli gave him that call.

“Her passion and enthusiasm helped kick-start this,” he said.

To watch the film trailer go to

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106



Tags: doelger, lombardelli, documentary,

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