Bungalows and the New American Dream

  The earthquake and fire that destroyed half of San Francisco in April 1906 had comparatively little impact on the sleepy college town of Berkeley; as historians have pointed out, there was not much there to destroy.[1]  There were, however, a great many attractively priced building lots, situated in a public transportation network that offered easy access to jobs in Oakland and San Francisco.  Nor were these the only attractions.  The combination of suburban living and urban employment, made possible by ferries and steam railroads since the 1850s, but long impractical for all but the affluent, had become a middle-class option through the streetcar.[2]  In the Bay Area, geography helped.  Southern Pacific and its electrified rival the Key System brought thousands across the bay as refugees, and thousands stayed to become homeowners.  Urged on by private developers, who had been wondering for years when Berkeley would shake off its bucolic past, any uprooted exurbanite who wanted to could indulge in nostalgia for rural living without moving further than the East Bay.  In less than a decade Berkeley’s population increased threefold.[3]


            Some of this growth showed up in the McGee-Spaulding District, which in 1906 was Berkeley’s untamed frontier.  The Spaulding Tract, though subdivided as early as 1876 in the failed hope that Berkeley, now served by the Southern Pacific, would merge with Oakland, had more commercial orchards and gardens than houses, while much of the McGee Tract was still planted with wheat and barley or grazed by cattle.  Strawberry Creek, not finally culverted until the 1930s, supplied water for the latter.  The District’s housing was a widely scattered mixture of gentlemen’s mansions, farm houses, and shacks.  Sewerage existed only along main thoroughfares, while most streets, lacking a permanent surface, were muddy in winter and dusty in summer.


            Conversion of land from rural to urban, by introducing a basic minimum of civic amenities, has always tended to narrow differences between social classes.  In the McGee-Spaulding District the process was at first a gradual one.  The earliest post-1906 homes, it appears, were neoclassic row houses but without tidy urban rows; 2424 California Street is a good example.  On a small scale, there were eastern-style cottages like the one built at 1815 Allston Way by the Berkeley architect-contractor M.A. Redding.  There is even a cottage, 2428 Jefferson Avenue, said to have been built round one of the “earthquake cottages” supplied to homeless San Franciscans as temporary shelter after the quake.  Neither type of structure, however, really suited the needs and aspirations of the displaced masses now pouring into the East Bay.  Within a decade, one type had emerged as dominant:  the bungalow.


            It is fascinating to trace the bungalow’s picturesque origins to colonial India and its later transformation, thanks first to the British, then to the American Arts and Crafts movement, into a small but sturdy vacation home for the rich and near-rich.[4]  For our purposes, however, the central fact is that, in 1906 California, the bungalow had just been reinvented for the benefit of the middle classes.  In the newly urbanizing McGee-Spaulding District, as we know from the City directories, this chiefly meant people who were struggling to attain and hold on to middle-class status -- numerous clerks, craftsmen, and teamsters, for example, with a sprinkling of teachers and shopkeepers.  For them the one- or one-and-a half storey bungalow, built of inexpensive redwood, with its compact three-to-six-room floor plan, became, when anchored to a tree-shaded slice of former orchard or wheatfield, the very embodiment of the American dream; be it ever so humble, it was home.  And it could be quite humble, as we see from examples in the 1600 block of Channing Way, built from about 1905 onward.


            Such popularization of the bungalow style, aggressively promoted in the early 1900s by house-plan books, mail-order houses, and magazines, has been criticized as a devaluation -- a betrayal, even -- of the Arts and Crafts ideal as originally formulated by John Ruskin, William Morris, and other medievalizing foes of modern industrialism.  But there is another way of looking at the bungalow craze.  The late James Marston Fitch (1909-2000), dean of American preservationists, was fond of referring to the need for a “democratic esthetic” in architecture.  By this he meant a way of building that, he agreed with Ruskin and Morris, had existed in earlier societies.  Because such societies depended solely on handicrafts, and everyone was a judge of what the craftsman produced, their houses were built to serve commonly recognized needs in a simple but efficient way; form, in other words, followed function, and the result was a popular style of architecture with superior esthetic values.  As civilization advanced, though, the popular or democratic style was increasingly subordinated to the “high style” of the dominant social classes, who naturally wanted architecture that reflected their status and resources.  With industrialization, the divorce between high and low styles became complete; machine-driven tools and mass production took design and quality control out of the practiced hands of the craftsman and into the abstract realm of the architect’s office.  Consumers, from now on, had to take whatever housing the architect was prepared to give them, which -- unless they belonged to the upper-middle classes or the elite -- was generally not much.[5]


            The Arts and Crafts case against industrial civilization was not hard to prove -- one thinks of Jacob A. Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, or Gustave Dore’s hellish visions of Victorian London -- but it seemed to offer no way out.  To be sure, Morris and his followers offered superior design based on traditional crafts and materials.  Unfortunately, few people could afford either.  And yet, if Morris had lived to see the California bungalow revolution, he might have found room for hope.  Fitch’s ideal of a democratic esthetic is surely applicable here.  The plans so cheaply obtainable from book and magazine publishers were for the most part the work of anonymous draftsmen, not name architects; within a basic but flexible floor plan, they offered a wide variety of styles and were  carried out by local builder-designers who were receptive to individual customers’ requests.  These builders operated on a small scale --seldom did they construct more than three or four houses of the same design on the same block -- and they were amenable to letting customers do some of the finishing work themselves.  Once the great mail-order concerns -- notably Sears, Roebuck -- got into the act, the American genius for marketing found ways to multiply consumer choice with house kits of precut lumber.  Sears alone, beginning in 1908, offered about 400 models over the next three decades; by the mid-1930s, it had sold over 100,000 of them.[6]  Priced from under one thousand to a few thousand dollars, these houses were eminently affordable but also solid and well designed, as can be seen from the fine examples at numbers 2316 to 2330 Jefferson Avenue.


            Such freedom of choice, when combined over several generations with affordability, has endowed large areas of the McGee-Spaulding District with a charmingly diverse built environment.  The choice has been in large part that of the owners, both those who first saw in some catalog the house of their dreams and those who, usually with no less taste than practicality, have chosen to remodel.  True, there are individual bungalows that perfectly express the less-is-more ethic of tasteful bungalow living for the economically secure.  Number 2211 McKinley Avenue is one such; built in the 1930s, it holds its own very well on a block dignified by larger Italianate and other Victorians dating from 1900 or earlier.  But to get the real flavor of the District’s bungalow ethic in all its diversity, walk the 2300 and 2400 blocks of Spaulding Avenue, preferably in winter or early spring, and observe how the somewhat unruly individualism of these many small houses succeeds, without any conscious attempt or planning, in forming a harmonious and quietly captivating whole.  These modest homes are as rooted in their neighborhood as the trees.


            Small wood-frame houses do not last half a century or more unless they meet certain basic needs for their owners.  The Arts and Crafts bungalow, as popularized in California, exemplifies design principles that have proved their worth quite independently of the movement that created them.[7]    The front porch, by functioning as an entry hall, not only saves interior space but can be enlarged to become, for part of the year, a casual living area that connects with the natural world of the garden and the social world of the street.  Inside, the compact floor plan proceeds from living to dining room without break while allowing space for small walled-off dens and offices or open breakfast nooks.  Everything is designed to be practical without austerity and ornamental without clutter.  Kitchens, now bereft of servants, are no larger than they need be; bedrooms hold two beds and a closet ; bathrooms, though fitted with the latest conveniences, are even smaller than kitchens.  Convenience is served, wherever possible, with built-in cabinets and bookshelves; the rear attic space, in many bungalows, becomes an extra half-storey, with a staircase near the kitchen.  The emphasis throughout is on a close-knit but quiet family life:  central to each living room’s exterior wall is a cosy hearth, generally with bookshelves on either side. The contrast with the modern suburban home could scarcely be greater.  Among bungalows, even the deluxe models were no more than about 1,800 square feet in size.  By 2002, according to the U.S. Census, the average size of a newly built American home was well over 2,000 square feet.[8]


            Bungalow design did have some influence on post-World War II architecture, chiefly in the open-floor plan of the so-called ranch house.  There are some interesting prototypes of this style at 1601-1611 Bancroft Way.  Here, too, the aim was to save space.  But this too soon ceased to be a primary consideration, as cheap suburban land, now accessible thanks to freeways and the low gasoline prices, combined with easy credit to inspire a major population shift.  Pent-up demand from the depression and war years created rapid development on a very large scale -- development that, despite some builders’ good intentions, resulted in uniformity.  The rural nostalgia to which suburbs owed their origins had culminated in homes whose natural surroundings were regulated by homeowners’ associations.  With no shops or public institutions within walking distance, theses new suburbs scarcely deserved the name of communities.


            Today the centrifugal population shift of the 1950s and 1960s is beginning to turn centripetal.  Studies of the Atlanta and Boston suburbs, for instance, have found that at least one-third of the residents would prefer to live in a walkable urban environment, if they could afford it.  Higher gas prices and smaller households seem likely to accentuate this trend.  The McMansion subdivisions, as property values fall, may well end up as slums.[9]  Where will the ex-exurbanites live?  There are no obvious answers, but one thing, at least, is clear enough:  the American dream of a detached house with yard has not changed.  Planners may talk as they wish of density and urban villages; it still seems to the last degree unlikely that they will ever succeed in herding the great American middle classes into Soviet-style apartment blocks.  So let us ignore the planners for a while and see if this dream can be updated.  Former street-car suburbs like the McGee-Spaulding District have many of the old features most worth preserving: informality, modest comfort, simple but solid construction, enough of a lot to give nature breathing space.  As for the new features, homeowners tired of their McMansions might want to list living on a smaller scale, with a smaller carbon footprint (solar power, recycling, plenty of trees and plants), fewer possessions, a preference for bicycles and mass transit -- but how strange!  This list is beginning to resemble the old one.


            Of course, there are no back-to-the-future solutions.  Much of the McGee-Spaulding District predates not the automobile, but the automobile age.  That particular genie will not return to the bottle.  Before the automobile took hold, the District had its own corner stores, including a bakery and a dairy.  They will not return, nor will the low-priced natural materials that have made our bungalows so livable.  It is worth considering, however, what form the small urban house of the future might take that would make it a viable successor to the California bungalow.  Architect James Gauer, in hisThe New American Dream:  Living Well in Small Houses, has focused on an architectural principle he calls modesty.  It “requires us to arrange our homes to suit the real needs of our private lives with no thought of public display”; rather, our homes should be “private refuges of relaxed suitability.”[10]  Unfortunately, the examples he gives, though small, are mostly very expensive.  But there are principles of design here, derived from the work of Mies van der Rohe and other modernists, that could be popularized for middle-class budgets in the same way as the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement.  For middle-class urbanites, a free-standing home with yard will become an unaffordable dream if it is not modest.  The bungalow of the future is still a dream, but it could become reality.


            Meanwhile, if the virtues of bungalow design are transferable to other forms, why try to preserve the originals?  This question was not even asked until the early 1970s, when it was answered by a prestigious traveling exhibition, “The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1876-1916,” that included bungalow architecture.  The purely historical point, however, can be made by preservation of a few choice specimens.  More importantly, bungalows have been preserved because people still want to live in them.  Such was the case with Pasadena’s Bungalow Heaven Landmark District, established in 1989.  Other cities across the nation have followed Pasadena’s example in various ways.[11]  In the McGee-Spaulding District, even a short walk discloses evidence of loving restoration and remodeling of structures build 70 or more years ago.  This is preservation in the most literal sense:  the energy embodied in a bungalow’s wood framing exceeds 90,000 British thermal units per cubic foot.[12]  It is also a tribute to the flexibility of bungalow design, which can express its owner’s character through raising and remodeling without losing its own basic merits.  It is often fascinating to observe how, in a row of three or four originally identical bungalows, each has taken on the stamp of personal ownership over the years. We see change of this kind, not as the enemy of preservation, but as evidence that our District is a living, breathing community.  Let the architects and planners of the future take note!



                                                                                    J. Michael Edwards

[1] Charles Wollenberg, Berkeley: a city in history  (Berkeley, Calif., 2008: University of California Press),  p. 48.

[2] Thomas J. Schlereth, Victorian America: transformations  in everyday life,  1876-1915  (New York, 1992: HarperCollins), pp. 94-96.

[3] Wollenberg, p. 47.

[4] See, for instance, Jane Powell, “Just What Is a Bungalow?”, Berkeley Daily Planet, March 9-12, 2007, p. 25.

[5] James Marston Fitch with William Bobenhausen, American building: the environmental forces that shape it, 2nd edition (New York and Oxford, 1999: Oxford University Press), pp. 350-56.

[6] G. Paul Duchscherer and Douglas Keister, The bungalow: America’s Arts & Crafts home (New York; 1995: Penguin Books USA), p, 15.

[7] See Duchscherer and Keister, pp. 19 ff., from which this summary was made.

[8] James Gauer, The new American dream: living well in small homes (New York, 2004: Monacelli Press), p. 12.

[9] Christopher B. Leinberger, “The Next Slum?”  The Atlantic, March 2008, pp. 70-75.

[10] Gauer, p. 205.

[11] Duchscherer & Keister, pp. 35-37.

[12] Fitch, Table 11-1, p. 333

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