American Style: The California Bungalow
We’re on our continuing quest to define what “American Style” is in architecture and design. As the world’s melting pot, we’re filled with architectural influences from all around the world. Today we’re covering an American Style that isn’t just influenced by imported schools of thought, but has proven to be quite the world-traveler! We’re talking about the mighty Californian Bungalow.
What most Americans likely don’t realize is, shortly after it caught on at home, the California Bungalow was exported to that great land down under, Australia. In 1916, a Californian real estate agent moved to Sidney and built one there. It was the beginning of Oz’s Californian craze. By post-World War II years, the California Bungalow had become the most popular style of housing in all of Australia.
So what defines the “California Bungalow,” and why did it get so popular both at home and more than half-a-world away?
The birth of a star
The California Bungalow is just one of many styles of bungalow housing. We’ll take a look at what defines a bungalow overall, and then take a look at what makes it “Californian” in style.
Know how I told you these little homes became quite a globetrotter? Well, Australia is only a part of that story. It might surprise you that the lowly bungalow gets its roots from Bengal, in India, land of the tiger. The local population used them with thatched roofing, but when the British colonial forces moved in, they adapted the popular regional architecture for their use.
Today, the word “bungalow” is used in countries around the world, but its meaning varies. For our purposes, we’re talking low-rise, with a porch or veranda.
The first “Cali” Bungalow is thought to date back to 1877, and it caught on like a Santa Ana wildfire. Bungalows were the right style at the right time. They could be built for as little as $900 in its early years, and it became one of the early “kit” homes one could buy. Even the Sears Roebuck catalog had a bungalow for order.
Affordability was everything, because this was when non-rich folk first began buying detached homes. With the prices just right, city-dwellers wanted to ditch apartments for small, smart homes to live in.
A changing social era
This was something radically new happening in the home-owning world. Detached housing was becoming affordable for the middle-class and even lower-income blue-collar workers. These new “bungalows” detoured from previous housing trends. There were no servant’s quarters. There was no grand entrance.
The floor plan was simple, just a living room — no sitting room or parlor. The reduced size meant the cost to maintain them was lower, thus something the average person could realistically buy and keep.
There are a number of traits the average bungalow possesses:
- They are small by design. One to 1.5 stories is the norm.
- A low, exposed roof is expected, often with beams or rafters showing.
- A modest front porch or veranda sporting a stoop allows for community living and relaxation.
- An open, casual floorplan lacks a parlor or sitting room.
- Wooden accents are celebrated.
- From the front, the home should seem balanced and well-proportioned, but not symmetrical.
The Californian groove
In California, stucco, wood shingle, and horizontal siding were common for bungalow exteriors, but not brick. There was a focus on keeping materials local, and this was carried indoors as well. Redwood then was popular for exposed beams, and all kinds of wood was used extensively in the interior.
The small footprint of the home meant a focus on a livable yard too, and planters and plants often featured prominently in the bungalow owner’s lifestyle.
A somewhat casual floorplan, as well as ample windows, were well-suited to the Californian climate. An airy interior was ideal for those hot days. Smart built-in features, like bookshelves, and well-used nooks and crannies meant owners could forego some of the traditional furnishings, keeping true to the open-floor feel while also celebrating the details and craftsmanship.
Small package, big details
Sure, many bungalows were minimalist, what you could call “merely serviceable,” but many also featured elaborate odes to the Arts-and-Crafts and Craftsman feel. From beautiful woodworking to the built-in features mentioned above, there was a lot to love in these little homes.
Stained glass, beautiful light features, exposed beams, smart kitchens, period tilework, hardwood flooring — so many features, so little space.
Few homestyles speak to this writer as loudly as the classic Craftsman-inspired California Bungalow. If I have my way, it will be the style of home I grow old in.
From one social movement to another
The California Bungalow skyrocketed in popularity, being among the most popular home choices from 1910 to 1939. They stand aplenty today, all over California. The fervor for bungalows hit the whole nation, but its heyday was met by 1940.
Within a decade, residential homes would never be the same again. Soon would come the rise of the suburb and, with it, the ever-embiggening of American homes.
For a little while, the Little Home that Could, the lowly bungalow, marked the beginning of the American Dream: A place of one’s own. No landlord to fear, no neighbor on the other side of the wall, a little green yard between them and you. A piece of the world that’s yours and nobody else’s.
What’s more American Style than the birth of the American Dream? All across the country, bungalows of all kinds gave city-dwellers their first chance to really chase that unfolding dream. Soon, that dream would break free of city limits, as suburbs exploded and the modern subdivision was born. We’ll look at that trend some other time.
Meanwhile, thanks for the California dreaming, Cali bungalows. You remain an icon of the American Style.