Real estate mogul helped develop Lucas Valley
If you live in an Eichler home, play a round at McInnis Park Golf Center or take in the symphony at the Marin Civic Center, some might say you have Catherine Munson to thank.
Munson, 84, owner of the real estate and property management. "[Editor's note: Lucas Valley Properties has changed its name to LVPMARIN REALTORS®.]" has much of Northern Marin residential and commercial real estate on her 40-year resume.
She is the principal developer of McInnis Park Golf Center, works with the Mexican relief organization Project Amigo and serves on the Marin Symphony Board of Directors.
But her long association with modernist residential housing developer Joseph Eichler has garnered her the most attention. Munson has, to date, sold approximately 3,200 Eichler homes in Marin, San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara County. "He was a phenomenal mentor to me," she says in an interview in the colorful Eichler home she's owned since 1966, festooned with lively artwork, exotic masks and large safari animals. "Eichler homes are a lifestyle home," she says. "This is a way of living. You either love it or you don't, and most people do."
Born Jan. 21, 1928, in Omaha, Neb., Munson grew up in the Midwest, living in several Nebraska towns before spending her high school years in Salina, Kan., after her father, a war department civilian employee, was assigned to the area. Graduating from Washington High School in 1945, Munson studied microbiology and biochemistry at the University of Nebraska. She earned Bachelor of Science degrees in both fields in 1948, and went on to earn master's degrees in both disciplines in 1950. In 1948 she married William Munson, whom she met at the University of Nebraska. After graduation, the couple moved to Chicago. They both worked for Armour and Co., the largest meatpacking business in the United States at the time before moving to San Francisco in 1954. She got a job working with the Atomic Energy Commission at the University of California at San Francisco, before quitting to give birth to her first child. Lisa was born in 1954, followed by Shelley in 1956 and Adrienne in 1958.
The family during those years moved to Strawberry before buying an Eichler in Terra Linda. The move to North San Rafael would change Munson's life. "I got so intrigued, right away I started working in the sales office one day a week when the salesman was gone," she says of her burgeoning affiliation with the prominent developer.
In 1963, her husband was transferred to Texas and the family moved, returning to Marin a year later. "The day we got back Mr. Eichler said there was a great need for me to go run the subdivision in Burlingame," she recalls. "I said, 'I have three little children, I can't.' He said it was only for two weeks and he'd get a replacement, but of course he never did."
"There's no hype in her presentation," says Marty Arbunich, director of the Eichler Network, a group devoted to the preservation and appreciation of Eichler homes. "Everything she says about Eichlers and Joe Eichler comes from the heart, and is filled with great passion, and reflects so many of her personal experiences of the lifestyle she lives and loves daily," he says. "She remains the Eichler home's greatest ambassador."
Munson enjoyed success selling for Eichler, but great challenges were yet to come. In 1967, her husband died after a battle with cancer. That same year, the Eichler Corporation - without Joseph Eichler, who had already sold the business - went belly up. "It was difficult," she says. "God, it's horrible to have your husband die ... and it wasn't too great having the company you work for go bankrupt."
Houses were left unfinished and somebody had to get the job done. The court appointed Munson to oversee the completion of 66 homes in Lucas Valley.
Without an employer, Munson decided to go into business for herself. In the fall of 1967 she founded Lucas Valley Properties. "I really got serious about real estate," she says. She went back to school to become a Certified Commercial Investment Member, one of about 8,600 professionals in North America with such a designation. "That opened up a whole different world for me," she says of the distinction, which she earned in 1975.
She married Bud Sthymmel, a longtime friend with his own realty business who worked with Munson as part of Eichler's sales staff. With exchange students, a niece and Munson's three girls coming and going, the house was full, she says. "We had a menagerie," she says.
That year doors would open for Munson. In 1975 she and Sthymmel's company were given an opportunity to buy Pacheco Valle, a luxury development with more than 500 homes in Ignacio.
The project was huge "for us, because we didn't have any money," Munson says. "It really gave us a solid foundation."
Other projects, both residential and commercial, soon followed, including:
- 13 industrial condominium projects in Novato and San Rafael on Andersen and Galli drives, and Kerner, East Francisco and Commercial boulevards.
- 66 waterfront luxury condominiums at Sunrise Pointe in Mill Valley.
- A seven-building office campus called Creekwood Professional Center in Novato.
- 16 custom homes at Quarry Mountain Estates in San Anselmo.
Ranch transactions also were big. Lucas Valley Properties sold Skywalker Ranch to George Lucas, Sorich Ranch to the Renaissance Faire, which is now StoneTree Golf Club, and parts of the Silveira and Burdell ranches north of Novato to World College West, now the Institute for Noetic Sciences.
In 1990, Munson- who was widowed that year when Sthymmel died of a heart attack - and two partners collaborated on McInnis Park Golf Center. Open in 1993, the nine-hole public golf course boasts a driving range, teaching center and a clubhouse. Miniature golf and batting cages also were built at the site, which is part of a county park. The golf center's lease expires in 2023. "I'm extremely proud of it," she says of the golf center. "I think it has filled a major niche in Marin."
Munson is serving this year on the board of directors for Atlantic Pacific Bank in Santa Rosa; the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato; the Marin Symphony in San Rafael; Wednesday Morning Dialogue in San Rafael; the Marin History Museum in San Rafael; Project Amigo in Cofradia, Mexico; and the Frank Lloyd Wright Civic Center Conservancy in San Rafael.
"I would say Catherine is a board member's ideal. She participates actively in the three ways a board member ought to - readily sharing her sage and thoughtful advice on key issues and challenges we face, generously sharing her material resources and diligently sharing her time to further the public awareness and support of the symphony," symphony board president Jim Boitano says.
She no longer does development work, but still has some strong views of where Marin housing is headed. Closing the housing gap will require infill construction near transit centers, she says. But will Marin's housing prices spiral out of control to the point where no one can live here? She thinks not.
"I simply believe in an integrated community in all ways, whether it is racially or socio-economically," she says. "I think it is a moral imperative that housing exists for all socioeconomic levels.
"I think we're too sensible in Marin that it would become so skewed that we'd lose our balance," she says. "I think we're pretty realistic at heart."
Jennifer Upshaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article describes the hugely successful Eichler Home Tour in September 2006. An even greater Eichler Home Tour to benefit Hospice By The Bay will take place September 15 and 16, 2007.
Happy 50th to Eichler Homes
Catherine Munson has lived in one or another Eichler home for most of her adult life. "Once I got converted, I didn't want to unconvert," she laughs gently.
At first she didn't understand contemporary architecture, but "once I did, it was nirvana for me," she says. "The post and beam architectural design - what the house is all about - results in glass walls, atriums, lots of light and a real integration with the outdoors. It's a kind of tranquility and it's very special."
This special quality is being celebrated, as the bulk of the Marin Eichler homes reach 50 years, with a self-guided Eye-on-Eichler house tour on Sept.16, part of a three-day benefit for Hospice of Marin Foundation's Open Hearts, Open Homes. The event, co-chaired by real estate professionals Katie Beacock, Melissa Prandi and Kerry Gallagher, also includes a 1950s-style sock hop, classic car show and family fair.
"This thrilling event gives people the opportunity to enjoy many mid-century modern homes which have been beautifully preserved or carefully updated," says Munson, the owner of LVPMARIN REALTORS® aka Lucas Valley Properties and honorary chair of the event.
Her own relationship with the Eichler home is special. A member of Joseph Eichler's sales team from 1958 until his death in the mid-70s, she came to appreciate not only the homes but the man behind them.
And who wouldn't? He built an amazing number of homes - more than 11,000 - throughout California from Sacramento and the Bay Area to Southern California.
Eichler holds the distinction not only of being the first large tract builder to sell to minorities and to disavow racial discrimination in housing but also as the only builder in America to build mid-century modern homes on a large scale, designed by skilled architects and using quality materials.
The houses provided a wonderful opportunity for returning veterans and their post-World War II families. "They wanted to buy homes, and Eichler homes were so entirely different," Munson says. "Most people thought they were stunning, but all people thought they were unusual."
There was a new emphasis on indoor-outdoor living, open floor plans and radiant heated floors. Eichler homes were built in master planned communities designed to include green space and public recreation facilities.
"Working for him was a treat beyond belief," Munson says now. "He was a very exciting man, a futurist even though we didn't have those words then. He was always looking forward, never backward, and he was fearless and courageous when it came to being innovative."
With that innovation, came a respect for other cutting-edge thinkers of the time. Living in a rented Frank Lloyd Wright home during the war inspired Eichler, and later Wright's philosophy would inform the Eichler design and he became the consulting architect for Eichler Homes.
Generally, there were four model homes for each group of 60 homes. Matt Kahn, who headed up Stanford's Department of Design, was responsible for their interior design and he chose furnishings from contemporary companies such as Herman Miller, Knoll and Dux. Kahn accented the space with interesting art objects from all over the world and with large living plants, which were a novelty at the time. One model home was even designed by Gump's and featured authentic 17th-century antiques.
"Photographs by Ernie Braun - courtesy Eichler Network Archives. Rights reserved."
Notables such as Thomas Church, Laurence Halprin and Boby Royston were brought in to the landscape designs. "The model homes were a marvel to behold," Munson says. "People came to them as theaters of art."
In Marin alone, there are about 50 Eichler floor plans, and with each construction phase, Eichler would constantly tweak and modify the homes.
That flexibility is one of the reasons the Eichlers have continued to be beloved by their owners.
"They're like blank gallery spaces," Munson says. "When people move in they begin to think creatively and interpret the house for their own uses. Some are very artistic, others are eclectic, blending antiques and contemporary furnishings, and others are almost industrial-style contemporary. "
So with almost 20 houses to tour, what's the best way to see them? Tour the homes in a neighborhood with which you're unfamiliar, she suggests, and keep an open mind. "If you just observe, you'll find remarkable things to look at," she says.
Maps will be available to each and docents will be on hand to discuss basic elements of Eichler construction.
Here are five homes to see:
- An "Eichler Solutions" house staged by local retailers and designers. The Double-A frame house has five bedrooms - two of which have been enlarged - and a remodeled kitchen.
- A flat-roofed contemporary Eichler, which apparently is almost original and furnished with authentic mid-century modern items and accented by colorful accessories in the manner of Alexander Girard. The garden is softened with various grasses and bamboos.
- A modern interpretation of an early Eichler home features a "great room"
that was created by removing existing walls, a kitchen of granite, stainless steel and furniture-like cabinetry and a completely decked garden.
- An entirely rebuilt and re-landscaped Eichler showcases contemporary detailing, porcelain tile flooring, a birch kitchen with silestone quartz countertops and Pax storage systems in all closets. In the garden, there are diagonal hard- and softscapes.
- An ultra-contemporary interpretation of an Eichler with enclosed atrium, porcelain floors, international designer furnishings, stark bathrooms, bamboo flooring and architectural pool and waterfall.
Hospice of Marin Foundation's Open Hearts, Open Homes takes place Sept. 15 to 17 and the Eye-on-Eichlers house tour is 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 16.
Tickets are $40 for those 12 years and older or $30 for five houses. Tickets can be purchased at the Terra Linda Community Center at 670 Del Ganado Road in San Rafael the day of the tour or in advance at www.hospiceofmarin.org.
For more information, call 526-5580.
Other scheduled events for the weekend include a 1950s-inspired Sock Hop and Fun Family Faire. The Sock Hop features live and recorded music, contests, raffles and dining on Sept. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at McInnis Park Golf Center in San Rafael. Period attire is encouraged. Tickets cost $75. A 1950s Fun Family Faire with games, prizes, booths, food and music and a 1950s classic car show will be 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 17 at The Mall at Northgate in San Rafael. Admission is free.
PJ Bremier writes on home, garden, design, and entertaining topics every Saturday. She may be contacted at P.O. Box 412, Kentfield, 94914 or email@example.com.
"Reprinted with permission from the Eichler Network's annual Home Maintenance Directory. Photo: David Toerge."