Unmistakable in appearance, we all recognize this type of American home. Maybe what we fail to recognize is the historic relevance and societal impact of these simplistically elegant homes. What seems to most the artful combination of purpose, comfort and affordability, is truly a housing answer to changes in America at the turn of the 20th century.
The term “bungalow” has its ancestry in the British colonies of India. Bengal, or as the colonists called it, “bangla,” gave origin to a stylized hut that the British built to protect them from the afternoon heat of the Indian climate. These structures were originally a large, central “great room” surrounded by an airy covered veranda providing for a protected area to enjoy the outdoors. The design was adapted from the local huts that were single-family homes in Bengal. These colonial creations then traveled home to Britain where the anglicized name, “bungalow,” became defined as cozy cottages known for leisure and low cost, dotting the English seaside resort areas, providing refuge from everyday life in the city.
Originally created for escape and leisure, these structures soon became synonymous with the need for housing reform – a demand for simple, artistic, modern, homey and affordable dwellings. Their creation, and the desire of the British to move away from excess and purposeless parlors, sparked what is now known as the “Arts and Crafts Movement” in Britain. William Morris (1834-96), the acknowledged leader, admonished, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” These cries for reform took very little time to be shared in America. Embraced by various societal factions, these groups had a national voice in Gustav Stickley, a New York furniture maker, who called for an end to ostentatious Victorian-style homes in favor of a simpler, artistic version that would reflect the emerging middle-class values. “The Craftsman,” a publication dedicated to creating an ideal which would focus on the quality of materials, sturdiness of structure, adaptability to area, utility and artistic appeal, became the voice of the reformists. Within three years time, he offered house plans that suited their “Craftsman” principles. They set out to Americanize this imported style based upon agreed architectural criteria.
Between 1903 and 1905, the terms Craftsman bungalow and California bungalow entered into our American vocabularies. The style had grown from summer cottages to a housing type defined by specific features and attributes: one or one-and-a-half stories, a low and sloping roof, an open floor plan and a front porch, usually partially enclosed. More bungalow-style homes were built between the early 1900s and the 1930s than cottages had been built in the previous 125 years. It was widespread expansion, affording the middle class to move from overcrowded and congested cities into their own private retreat, the early roots of suburbia. This migration was the genesis of the “American Dream,” and to this day, the National Association of Realtors uses images of this home style in advertising that dream to own our own home. Truly powerful imagery.
The bungalow became America’s first national house type: affordable, simple to build, modern, aesthetic and private. They originally took root in California and then quickly spread into any area that was supported by streetcars, trains or trolleys. Word was spread by newsprint and magazines catering to homeownership, such as “Ladies Home Journal.” Builders periodicals, “The Craftsman” and the “Bungalow” magazine created widespread support of this new, affordable housing style. All across the country, mail-order companies offered house kits that were ready to assemble. Sears and Montgomery Ward were early pioneers of this type of building kit. The vast majority of these plans were created by anonymous architects. The average American could choose his or her own home design and the sheer numbers had a huge impact and influence in guiding the creation of pocket neighborhoods of Craftsman homes throughout our country. Imagine choosing a house plan, mail order, which includes all materials to build, and having it delivered, assembly required – an amazing way to purchase your home. These layouts were compact, but open, spatially flowing with organic energy and integrity and purposeful in nature. Complete with built-ins, labor saving devices, modern heating, electric and plumbing, all the creature comforts available at that time. Pleasing to the eye and the wallet.
Their allure ebbed by the late 1920s, but not without redefining the American ideal of home ownership. Thanks to preservationists, historians and admirers, there has been a resurrection of this home style. Whether a turn-of-the-century home needs to be restored to its original splendor or an architect is modernizing the Craftsman-style bungalow, there is once again a prevalence of these beautiful structures all around. They have a blend of easy comfort and unique style, the embodiment of home, characterized by historic charm and affordability. These modest landmarks remind us of the vital importance of creating harmony with nature and design to ensure the ideal of home ownership.