The Life of an Exceptional Architect & Watercolor Painter
By Bruce A. Marwick
Bruce A. Marwick is the Walking Tour Director and former Vice President for the Sacramento Art Deco Society. He spent many years as a marketing and graphic design professional in Los Angeles and Sacramento. His interest in Alfred Eichler stems from a presentation he created in 2017 titled, “Three Art Deco Artisans of Sacramento, Taliabue, Polifka & Eichler.”
Alfred W. Eichler (1895–1977) joined the California State Division of Architecture in 1925 as a senior architectural designer. His career spanned thirty-eight years, during which he designed dozens of buildings, bridges, and monuments all over California. Notable examples of his work are Sacramento’s Tower Bridge and the Departments of Employment, Personnel, and Rehabilitation (formerly Education) Buildings on Capitol Mall.
What is less known about Eichler was his passion for watercolor painting. Throughout his life, Eichler traveled the cities and backroads of California looking for vintage buildings to paint. He stated in a Sacramento Bee article in 1959, “I’m most interested in the early architecture of California. I’ve taken my sketch pad all over Sacramento and the Mother Lode country looking for houses that have what I call the ‘spirit of the West’”(1).
Eichler created dozens of watercolor paintings over his lifetime. Some were displayed in art shows, some were sold, but the majority were held as a collection by Eichler. Towards the end of his architecture career he realized that the painting collection needed to find a home. What follows is the story of Eichler’s remarkable life and how his substantial collection of watercolor paintings was preserved at the California State Library.
The Road to Becoming an Architect and an Artist
One must first look at Eichler’s early years to appreciate his remarkable accomplishments. He was born in Missouri in 1895, the oldest son of Dr. Alfred and Laura Eichler. The family moved to San Francisco in 1896 where his father became a surgeon at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Young Alfred excelled as a student who enjoyed doing art. His future was full of potential until age thirteen when he contracted spinal meningitis and became deaf.
Eichler continued his studies at St. Ignatius High School and College in San Francisco. The Jesuit priests of St. Ignatius pushed Eichler in the face of his disability. He learned to read lips, but never learned to use sign language as it was discouraged in the early part of the 20th-century. Eichler’s big break came when he apprenticed with the architectural firm of F.D. & H.A. Boese in San Francisco at age sixteen. He stayed at the firm from 1911 to 1916 learning the necessary skills to become an architect. Eichler secured a position as a civilian architect with the U.S. Navy in Washington D.C. from 1917 to 1918.
While on the East Coast, Eichler attended classes at prestigious art schools, such as the Corcoran School of Fine Arts in Washington D.C. and the Arts Student’s League in New York City. Eichler undoubtedly saw, and was influenced by, the art he saw on the East Coast. The painting style of the period was much looser and freer than the technical drawings he did as an architect. One could imagine that Eichler developed his love for watercolor painting during this period.
Returning to the Golden State
Alfred Eichler returned to California and decided to continue his career in Los Angeles. He worked for several highly regarded architects, including Myron Hunt, the designer of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. In 1922, Eichler successfully became a certified licensed architect.
In 1925, the California State Division of Architecture (CSDA) hired Alfred Eichler, where he was to remain for almost four decades. Eichler had found an employer who appreciated his unique talents. He designed buildings in a variety of architectural styles, including Beaux Arts, Arts and Crafts, and Italian Revival. He created exquisite presentation drawings using ink pens, color pencils, chalk, and gouache (opaque watercolor). Eichler was such a talented artist that many of his fellow architects asked him to illustrate their designs.
Eichler became a respected architect in the CSDA during the 1930s and 1940s. He was assigned ever larger projects, such as designing the master plan and buildings for the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley. By 1949, Eichler had been promoted to supervisory architect. Yet, the stresses of life began to build up, and he turned to painting as therapy from the daily challenges of his professional life.
The Alfred Eichler Painting Collection
Alfred Eichler donated his painting collection to the California State Library in June 1959. There are seventy-five pieces in the collection and they date from the 1930s to the 1950s. Many of the paintings are of buildings which had been lost to urban redevelopment during the 1950s.
The Prints Room of the Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building displayed sixty-three of Eichler’s paintings in a one- man-show in November 1959. Eichler had displayed his paintings in the Prints Room before, but this was by far the largest exhibition. C. K. McClatchy, the editor of the Sacramento Bee wrote an article about the exhibition titled, “State’s Chief Architect Leads a Double Life”(2). McClatchy went on to say about Eichler, “He builds modern buildings on his job and then during his leisure time he makes water color sketches of the oldest buildings he can find”(3).
The collection’s earliest paintings are of Sacramento’s Tower Bridge. Eichler visited the Tower Bridge often during its construction and after its completion, documenting how the structure related to its surroundings. A 1935 Tower Bridge painting shows its steel towers rising majestically above the wooden warehouses along the Sacramento River. The Tower Bridge has its first coat of rust resistant paint prior to receiving its final silver finish. The painting presents a vivid contrast between two eras: the old river wharf dating from the 19th century and the new streamline automobile/railroad bridge of the 20th century.
In the 1940s, Eichler painted many buildings in a style reminiscent of the Ash- can art movement of the early twentieth century. Ashcan artists painted the grittier elements of urban landscapes. Their paintings featured dramatic brush strokes and dark, moody colors. Eichler’s 1942 Tower Bridge painting shows the influences of the Ashcan movement. The bridge stands firmly at the western end of Capitol Mall, with the buildings in the foreground casting long dark shadows. The overall effect is dramatic and a bit ominous. Eichler’s Heilbron Mansion painting has a similar feel. The Heilbron, a Victorian mansion dating from 1881, is rendered in muted tones with a streetscape of bare trees. Eichler appears to be asking a question through the painting, “Will this relic survive?” Ironically, the Heilbron has survived to this day and it will be undergoing a restoration by the California Department of General Services over the next several years.
The collection includes paintings showing new urban development. In 1941, Eichler painted the Tower Theatre in Sacramento’s Land Park neighborhood shortly after its construction. The painting has an abstract quality due to how the white buildings visually merge together. The painting actually contains three Art Deco buildings: the Tower Theatre, a restaurant, and a Texaco gas station. In 1954, Eichler made several paintings showing the construction of new buildings along Capitol Mall. One painting shows the Department of Education Building framed by construction materials. There are also two striking elements in the center of the painting: a slanted telephone pole and a steam-driven pile driver. The telephone pole looks strikingly like a Latin cross. Could it be that Eichler saw the telephone pole as a metaphor for the tearing down of the old neighborhood and the rising of a new one? The irony is that Eichler played a dual role in the story as a painter witnessing the tearing down of an old neighborhood and as an architect designing the new vision for the property.
Finally, the collection includes paintings of historic California state buildings that Eichler helped to restore as the supervising architect in the 1950s. These structures, both located in California State Historic Parks, include the Wells Fargo Express Building in Columbia and the State Capitol Building (1853–1854) in Benicia. Eichler painted the Wells Fargo Building in vibrant colors, a change from some of his earlier watercolors. The painting has another interesting addition, a figure in the lower left-hand corner. The figure is wearing a hat and appears to have a sketch pad under his arm. Eichler had subtly painted himself into the scene.
Life After Architecture
In 1963, Alfred Eichler began organizing his architectural sketches and color renderings into a second collection to be archived at the California State Archives. This second collection of architectural artwork could be considered the “fraternal twin” to the Eichler Painting Collection at the California State Library.
On November 8, 1963, Eichler retired from the State Division of Architecture. He looked forward to traveling abroad and spending more time painting. Unfortunately, his plans were sadly impacted when his wife, Virginia, passed away the day after his retirement. Virginia and Alfred Eichler had been married for thirty-eight years.
Eichler continued to participate in art societies and art shows throughout California. His paintings received numerous awards from juried exhibitions held by the Society of Western Artists, the University Club of Sacramento, and the Kingsley-Crocker Art Club.
Watercolor painting remained Alfred Eichler’s inspiration for the final years of his life. He continued to paint historic buildings, particularly those that had the “spirit of the west.” Ultimately, Eichler had achieved his dreams, and left a substantial body of work both as an architect and as watercolor painter. Alfred Eichler died on November 27, 1977 at the age of 82.
This article is from the California State Library Foundation’s Bulletin #120. For more articles, artwork or information please visit our website www.cslfdn.org
The author wishes to thank Paul D. Werts and Carl D. Werts, D.D.S, the grandnephews of Alfred W. Eichler, for providing excellent background information about their granduncle. The author also wishes to acknowledge the staff of the California State Library’s California Room, who carefully and patiently retrieved Alfred Eichler’s paintings for reviewing multiple times.
1. McClatchy, C. K. “State’s Chief Architect Leads A Double Life.” Sacramento Bee, November 15, 1959: Page L-8.
Cole, Allan, “Society of Western Artists, 10th Annual Exhibition of Art.” Catalog, 1949.
Eichler, Alfred. “Biographical Card,” California History Section, California State Library, Sacramento, June 1956.
_______. “Division of Architecture, Employee Biographical Date Sheet,” California State Archives, Sacramento, October 15, 1963.
_______. “History in Division of Architecture,” Handwritten Notes, California State Archives, Sacramento, October 25, 1963.
“Designer of State Buildings Will Retire.” Sacramento Bee, November 5, 1963.
“Index of California Sketches by Alfred Eichler.” California State Library, 1963.
“Miller Wins University Club painting prize.” Sacramento Bee, February 9, 1969.
“Wife of Retired Architect Dies in Nursing Home.” Sacramento Bee, November 9, 1963.
Werts, “Paul D. “Biography of Alfred W. Eichler.” Los Angeles, http://www.wertsdds.com/tag/ alfred-eichler/.