History of San Lorenzo, California

Every Lot a Garden Spot: ‘Big Dave’ Bohannon and the Making of San Lorenzo Village

By Elaine B. Stiles (2015)

“In planning San Lorenzo Village we were not satisfied to supply merely shelter, but were resolved, in spite of war-time obstacles, to provide quality houses that would be real and enduring homes. Thus, our two-fold objective was to help speed Victory by meeting urgent war-housing needs, and at the same time to create an attractive and permanent modern community. It is highly gratifying to be able to say that our objective has been attained.” – David Bohannon in American Builder (1945)

In 1944, housing developer David D. Bohannon bought 350 acres of farmland in unincorporated Alameda County at the corner of Lewelling and Hesperian Boulevards, just southwest of the small settlement of San Lorenzo. On these former orchards and fields, Bohannon planned to carry out the largest homebuilding program in the nation at the time: a group of 1,392 homes costing more than $7 million. His venture was part of a larger program of federal government-sponsored housing development happening all over the Bay Area to shelter the tides of war industry workers flowing into northern California. Bohannon was the fastest and most prolific house builder of the period. He embarked on his San Lorenzo project having already completed 1,500 houses for iron foundry and shipyard workers in Sunnyvale, Napa, and San Pablo. Unlike his earlier projects, Bohannon envisioned San Lorenzo as a “complete community,” containing not only homes, but commercial, recreational, civic, and eventually, industrial development. His efforts resulted in one of the earliest planned communities in California and one of the first large-scale implementations of what came to be known as the “California method” of homebuilding.

“Big Dave” Bohannon

David Bohannon (1899-1995) began his real estate career in the roaring 1920s as a land salesman in San Carlos. In 1928, he founded his own company, the David D. Bohannon Organization, and began building houses for sale in 1932. U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 changed the housing industry and the Bohannon Organization. Wartime industrial expansion and massive influxes of war industry workers created intense demand for housing, but wartime materials restrictions left precious few resources to construct housing units. Bohannon was among a small group of builders in the Bay Area who took on the task of producing war worker housing. His decision launched a long career in housing, commercial and industrial development in the Bay Area. By the late 1970s, Bohannon was an acknowledged giant in the national homebuilding industry, having constructed tens of thousands of dwelling units in northern California. Bohannon was also active in the political, research, and organizational aspects of homebuilding, serving as the first president of the National Association of Homebuilders, president of the Urban Land Institute, and president of the National Association of Realtors.

A Homebuilding Revolution: Operative Building and the California Method

Bohannon owes much of his early success to San Lorenzo Village and the attention it brought to his work. The development received national attention in magazines like Life and Fortune. Why so much press for wartime housing? Bohannon was an active participant in an informal partnership between the federal government and the housing industry to reduce costs, improve efficiency, and increase housing production in the United States. Public and private housing interests had a vision of improved housing stock and the extension of home ownership to greater numbers of the middle and working classes -– groups who had historically been unable to afford a home of their own. The big question was how to construct the volume of housing needed and wanted in the US in a way that kept homes affordable for buyers and profitable for builders. Intense war-time housing needs proved an ideal environment for experimentation among builders and designers, and Bohannon was at the forefront of these experiments with San Lorenzo Village.

At San Lorenzo village, Bohannon employed a development method called “operative building.” With this method, developers purchased land, laid out roads and utilities, built houses, and sold the finished products directly to the consumer. Integration of land development, housing construction, and sales created greater efficiencies and lowered costs in home building, and held great promise for producing large volumes of moderately priced homes. San Lorenzo Village was also the site of the largest-scale use of the regional “California method” of building. Years before William Levitt began his now-iconic Levittown on Long Island, NY, Bohannon and Bay Area builders were using what was essentially a mobile assembly line of building to speed housing production. Bohannon set up a saw mill on site that precut all the lumber needed for each house and constructed door and window frames, kitchen cabinets, and other finish items. Workers assembled these materials into “kits” that operators then sent to specific house sites for assembly. All pieces were keyed for assembly, another innovation that accommodated the skilled labor shortage during the war. Unskilled laborers could assemble the houses by following the keyed pieces without ever having to look at a blueprint or plan. With this method, the 2,500 workers at San Lorenzo Village broke wartime housing production records, completing nearly 1,300 houses in the seven months between May and December 1944.

Building methods were not the only innovative element of San Lorenzo Village. Looking ahead to after the war, Bohannon envisioned San Lorenzo as a complete, enduring community with educational, recreational, and civic amenities. This was a relatively new concept in real estate development, quite different from the housing subdivisions of the 1920s and 1930s that were limited to housing only. In the absence of local planning authorities, builders like Bohannon took on the planner role themselves. Noted community planner Ronald L. Campbell laid out the San Lorenzo site plan, emphasizing safety and efficient movement. San Lorenzo Village streets, for example, have curvilinear paths to reduce traffic speed, discourage through-traffic, and keep the neighborhoods safer for pedestrians and children. Campbell and Bohannon also placed a “community center” at the heart of the layout, within easy walking distance for all residents. The center was to include a shopping center, parkland and playgrounds, civic services such as a firehouse and library, and schools. These elements were designed to recreate the idyll of compact village living and foster a sense of community in what was essentially an “instant town.”

Better Houses for the Working Man: Every Lot a Garden Spot

The houses in San Lorenzo Village may appear common, but their design and construction represent an important time in the history of American housing design. Builders like Bohannon were on a mission to create comfortable, inexpensive, and modern housing for working families. Their experimental efforts at places like San Lorenzo during the war underwrote the unprecedented housing growth and access to home ownership after the war. Bohannon’s architect for the San Lorenzo houses was Lucien Stark, a graduate of the architecture program at the University of California, Berkeley. After graduation, Stark worked for the Farm Security Administration designing housing and camp facilities for the thousands of migrant farm workers streaming into California during the Depression. His expertise in low-cost housing construction eventually won him a job with the Bohannon Organization. At San Lorenzo, Stark designed a series of basic, compact floor plans and housing forms that the firm used for all the houses constructed in particular phases. Even in the 1940s, builders were sensitive to criticisms about monotony in their housing developments. To combat this, Stark and Bohannon reversed floor plans, changed roof forms and window locations, and varied house color and trim features to add interest. Early reviewers of the properties commented on the sizable front windows, which Bohannon claimed hearkened back to the large windows of Spanish colonial homes. Tiled bathrooms, linoleum (then a new product) floors, and the fireplace put San Lorenzo housing a cut above similarly prices properties. Also unusual for the period, each home also came with a landscaped front yard. The first phase of houses came with concrete slabs for later garage additions, as unnecessary building such as car shelters was banned during the war to conserve materials.

Bohannon constructed San Lorenzo Village under the supervision of the National Housing Administration’s (NHA) War Housing Program, which insured development loans for housing for war workers. Per NHA regulations, all households in San Lorenzo Village had to hold “V cards” identifying them as being employed in war industries. The NHA also required that two-thirds of the homes in any development had to be rentals, with an option to buy after six months. Houses in San Lorenzo Village cost approximately $6,000 in 1944, still a steep price for many working families. The houses rented for $33.00 per month. Many houses in the village had design features that helped families afford their new homes: a front “extra war worker room” with a separate exterior entrance that homeowners could rent out to supplement their income. Bohannon began promoting San Lorenzo Village as soon as he began construction, noting that the village was within commuting distance of twelve major shipyards and that several major manufacturers, including Chrysler, had purchased industrial parcels nearby. But he also held out the promise of comfortable suburban living in San Lorenzo with advertising slogans such as “every lot a garden spot” and descriptions of “convenient country living” in the “flowerland of the East Bay.” After the war and the end of material rationing, Bohannon was able to build 1,100 larger houses in San Lorenzo Village, but still with an eye toward affordability. These later models were “expandable houses,” designed and sited for easy addition of extra bedrooms and garages.

Bohannon devoted considerable attention to maintaining San Lorenzo Village as he and its designers envisioned it. He instituted restrictions common in the period that builders believed would maintain property values in new communities. In the 1940s, these practices included restrictions on the use and appearance of properties, and regrettably, a racial covenant that limited occupancy to whites only. (The US Supreme Court declared enforcement of these covenants unconstitutional in 1948.) [Editor's note: The case is Shelley v. Kraemer.] Othe rrestrictions regulated the number and height of accessory buildings; business uses; signage; fencing; keeping animals aside from chickens, rabbits, cats, and dogs; and house color. The San Lorenzo Village Homes Association, then as now, oversaw these restrictions. Bohannon idealized this small, elected body comparing it to the town meeting form of government in New England and a basic and pure form of democracy. Local control was particularly important to Bohannon, who consistently objected to San Lorenzo incorporating or being annexed to adjoining communities, and wrote a revision clause into the deed for community parcels if the Homes Association dissolved.

Historic San Lorenzo Village

San Lorenzo Village was a star development in its day, but the importance of San Lorenzo Village in American planning history has not gone unnoticed in the present, either. In 2000, the California Office of Historic Preservation determined the first two phases of the village eligible for inclusion on the California Register of Historical Resources and National Register of Historic Places. They found the village significant as one of the earliest post World War II planned communities in the Bay area and for its pioneering role in mass production methods for housing. The village was also deemed significant for its association with David Bohannon, a nationally-known and influential housing and community builder. Even San Lorenzo Village’s modest houses received recognition for their distinctive character as being at the fore of modern, mass-produced housing in the period. Much has changed in San Lorenzo Village since its creation, but its legacy as a planned, self-governed, and affordable community endures.

About the Author

Elaine Stiles is a PhD Candidate in the History of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation research on post-war suburban housing design includes San Lorenzo Village and the work of David Bohannon.