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American Bungalow Styleby Robert Winter
At the turn of the century bungalows took America by storm. These small houses, some costing as little as $900, helped fulfill many Americans' wish for their own home, equipped with all the latest conveniences. Central to the bungalow's popularity was the idea that simplicity and artistry could harmonize in one affordable house. The mania for bungalows marked a rare occasion in which serious architecture was found outside the realm of the rich. Bungalows allowed people of modest means to achieve something they had long sought: respectability. With its special features — style, convenience, simplicity, sound construction, and excellent plumbing — the bungalow filled more than the need for shelter. It provided fulfillment of the American dream.
The bungalow was practical, and it symbolized for many the best of the good life. On its own plot of land, with a garden, however small, and a car parked out front, a bungalow provided privacy and independence. To their builders and owners, bungalows meant living close to nature, but also with true style.
THE BUNGALOW DEFINED
What is a bungalow anyway? Where does the name come from? And what is so good about bungalows?
The definition seems easy. Most dictionaries are explicit: a bungalow is a one- or one-and-a-half-story dwelling. Good enough, except that since the period when most bungalows were produced — roughly 1880 to 1930 in the United States — literally every type of house has at one time or another been called a bungalow. Two-story houses built on the grounds of hotels are still called bungalows, for example. And to further muddy the matter, the great southern California architect Charles Sumner Greene went out of his way to call his Gamble house (1909) in Pasadena a bungalow (it is a spreading two-story residence with a third-floor pool room). Despite deviations in form, the dictionary definition of bungalows is the best point of departure. When bungalows were at their greatest popularity, most writers accepted this definition and usually apologized or tried to explain themselves when they departed from it.
A bungalow's chief distinction is its low profile. There are no vertical bungalows, even though in a few cities such as Sacramento, Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia, the basically horizontal house type is raised on high foundations. Promotional literature in the early twentieth century almost always noted that the chief purpose of the bungalow was to place most of the living spaces on one floor. The advantages are obvious: The absence of a second story simplifies the building process. Utilities can be installed more easily than in a two-story house. Safety is provided because, in case of fire, windows as well as doors provide easy escape. Best of all, the bungalow allows staircases to be eliminated, a boon for the elderly and also for the homemaker, who can carry out household tasks relieved of the stress created by stair climbing.
A common impression of the bungalow is that it must be small. To be sure, most bungalows are compact to save steps and filled with builtins to conserve space (an aim that sometimes leads to claustrophobia). Many bungalows, however, are large — even very large — houses that preserve a horizontal line. Such commodious dwellings usually depended on the availability of cheap land: if the typical city lot could be augmented by extra land, the house could spread its wings — thus the relatively large bungalows in southern California and the mainly small ones cramped on narrow lots in the Chicago area.
THE WINDS OF DEMOCRACY
The answer to the question of where the term bungalow came from is not at all complicated. Throughout the period in which bungalow building flourished, authors of books and magazine articles traced the source to the Indian province of Bengal. There, the common native dwelling and the geographic area both had the same root word, bangla or bangala. Eighteenth-century huts of one story with thatched roofs were adapted by the British, who used them as houses for colonial administrators in summer retreats in the Himalayas and in compounds outside Indian cities. Also taking inspiration from the army tent, the English cottage, and sources as exotic as the Persian verandah, early bungalow designers clustered dining rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, and bathrooms around central living rooms and thereby created the essential floor plan of the bungalow, leaving only a few refinements to be worked out by later designers.
This house type spread to other parts of the British Empire and was copied by other turn-of-the-century imperial powers for use in their domains. The bungalow actually became a symbol of imperialism. The British, French, Dutch, and finally the Germans and Russians also domesticated bungalows by building them at home in seaside resorts, on lakefronts, and at mountain retreats. Eventually they built bungalows as suburban housing units and in working-class areas such as Paisley near Glasgow, Scotland.
Almost inevitably, this economical, practical type of house invaded North America, where it was well suited to the conditions of late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century population growth. Bungalows provided respectability and even style for emigres to both country and city. The first American house actually referred to as a bungalow was designed in 1879 by William Gibbons Preston. Contrary to the usual definition, it was a two-story house built on Cape Cod at Monument Beach, Massachusetts, and was probably called a bungalow because it was in the tradition of resort architecture. A more orthodox bungalow was illustrated in 1884 in Arnold W. Brunner's Cottages or Hints on Economical Building as the frontispiece captioned "Bungalow (with attic)." This was a dormered Queen Anne-style cottage with an attic that was used for what Brunner called "dormitories." Otherwise the house generally conformed to the requirement that all main living quarters, including bedrooms, be located on the first floor.
From the East the idea moved westward. Naturally California — in everyone's mind the ultimate resort — was a promising locale for building bungalows. Land was relatively cheap, and the possibility of affordable and comfortable housing was attractive to the young on the make, the sick on the mend, and the old on modest pensions. The first California house designated as a bungalow was designed by the San Francisco architect A. Page Brown for J. D. Grant in the early 1890s. A true bungalow, this one-and-a-half-story residence was set on a high foundation and located on a hillside. It was a strange congeries of Bengalese, Queen Anne, and Swiss chalet architecture.
The bungalow craze actually took off after the turn of the century when Americans obsessed with the notion of health or simply attracted by the economic opportunity to be had in California began pouring into the state, a phenomenon that caused Charles Dudley Warner to speculate, "What sort of community will result from this union of the Invalid and the Speculator?" In the city of Los Angeles alone the population rose from 50,395 in 1890 to 1,238,048 in 1930. While other cities did not grow quite so fast, all but the northernmost part of the state participated in this phenomenal growth.
The demand for inexpensive but comfortable and even stylish housing advanced with the increase in population and, of course, contributed dramatically to the popularity of the bungalow. Its success in California was paralleled in the rest of the United States, where developers and construction companies often identified the house type with the Golden State, calling it "the California bungalow." Although the first bungalows were created in the East, the idea was exploited in the American West and then moved eastward again. As the historian Frederick Jackson
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