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California Bungalow: A Barn Made Grand

<i> Whiteson is a Los Angeles free-lancer who writes on architectural topics. </i>

“In the beginning was the barn. Persons of small means when they first came to California decided to live in a small structure which should be the barn of the future house. . . .

“Later, travelers from distant lands noticed the resemblance between these wide-spread, one-story houses and the East Indian ‘bungalow,’ and thenceforward these dwellings ceased to be temporary; but putting on wide verandas and a dignified name, sprang up in every direction. . . .”

This quote from The House Beautiful in 1914 describes the rising popularity of the California Bungalow--a basically simple single-story board-and-batten box clad in vertical or horizontal boards painted white or with stained natural wood, fronted by porches and verandas.

Through the first three decades of the 20th Century the California Bungalow spread throughout the Southland and the state, and was copied across the nation.

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“California produced the widest range of bungalows of any state in America,” said architectural historian Clay Lancaster, “from the simplest rudimentary shelter--the barn--up to the most sophisticated manifestation. The nation looked to California for guidance.”

The origins might have been the humble barn but in the hands of skilled architects, the bungalow became grand.

The Arroyo Seco Craftsman bungalows of the Greene brothers in Pasadena are masterpieces of the mode, but the common bungalow was far more numerous, rivaling the Spanish Colonial Revival fashion in popularity in Southern California up to the late 1930s.

The bungalow differed from the more elaborate Craftsman house, from which it was derived, in the simplicity of its details and finishes, and the adaptability of its basic box-like shape to a host of variations.

The bungalow was the mass-market variety of the Craftsman house, a cheaper and less pretentious version of a popular residential architecture.

Greene & Greene more or less invented the California Bungalow as a distinctive style. The gifted brothers appreciated the geniality of the Los Angeles climate, which allowed very simple structures.

Redwood from Oregon, protected from weathering and termites by asphalt and turpentine stain, provided a cheap construction material.

The Greenes’ 1903 Bandini house in Pasadena was the first true California Bungalow. In this modest house for Arturo Bandini, the Greenes experimented with the bungalow’s basic formula.

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The Bandini bungalow, later demolished, was a string of rooms arranged around three sides of a central patio. An open-air gallery or veranda ran the length of the patio and served as the passageway connecting all the rooms.

Low, shingled roofs with deep eaves created a sense of shelter from the sun and wind. Evening breezes cooled the patio for outdoor living. Vertical redwood planks, exposed rafters and latticed pergolas gave a feeling of rustic ease and informality that echoed the barn origins of the California Bungalow.

“The interiors had an intimate, sheltered and darkened atmosphere, cool and comfortable as a cave,” historian Esther McCoy wrote of the Bandini bungalow in “Five California Architects.” “During the afternoon or evening the doors and windows--set in horizontal bands--were swung open to take full advantage of the cool breezes.”

An interflow of house and garden was a vital element in bungalow design.

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“One may enter almost anywhere, for doors and windows are nearly alike,” Charles Greene wrote in 1905. “The bungalow is a dwelling or shelter planned primarily to bring under one roof the greatest number of charms of the outdoor life. . . .”

The bungalow drew its inspiration from a variety of sources, both humble and grand. Apart from the prosaic example of the barn and the basic American log cabin, the cultural borrowings were wide.

Thatched Roof

They included the Indian bungalow or “bangla"--a style of thatched-roof summer cottage imported from Bengal by the British in the late 19th Century--and the California rancho, dating from the time when first Spain, then Mexico ruled the state.

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Added to the mix were elements of Japanese domestic design, particularly the way wood was detailed and the intimate relationship between the house and its garden.

The cultural borrowings were usually secondhand, derived from book and magazine illustrations, or from visits to the world fairs and expositions that were popular attractions in late Victorian and early-20th Century times.

The Greenes never visited Japan. They derived their passion for Oriental architecture from a visit to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco and the Oriental exhibit in the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.

Democratic Society

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“Charles Sumner Greene still had stacks of mounted photographs of Oriental architecture in his Carmel studios during his late years,” Lancaster said. “He felt that the Japanese house had been for a long time a highly developed popular art, and so provided an apt model for a democratic society’s housing needs.”

The bungalow style was so democratic it was easy to copy, and architects were seldom employed for mass-market houses. Standard bungalow plans could be bought for as little as $1. The result is that variations of the basic style proliferated all over the Southland.

There were ranch bungalows that followed the Bandini plan of rooms opening onto a gallery around a patio and frame bungalows with walls covered in wooden shakes. Cobblestones and half-burnt clinker brickwork often spiced up the basic timber box.

Some districts developed a hybrid style that incorporated Greek pediments and entry porches supported by classical columns. Bits of Queen Anne fretwork and curlicued brick chimneys are to be found on the frontages of many Angeleno bungalows. There were even two-story bungalows with steep roofs pierced by dormer windows.

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Responsive to Variation

“La Chiquita,” a ranch bungalow begun by its owner, landscapist Francis T. Underhill, in 1904, in Santa Barbara, demonstrates how responsive the style was to any variation its occupant might desire.

Starting with a simple rectangle covered by a low-pitched roof, Underhill opened up wide windows in the dining room, added beamed ceilings and an L-shaped addition. Underhill’s bungalow, formerly situated on what is now the grounds of the Biltmore Hotel, was moved to a new site and remodeled in the early 1980s.

In Claremont the idiosyncratic 1910 Pitzer House added a “Russian Village” variation to the style with walls constructed of the big round rustic rocks, known locally as “Claremont potatoes.” Deep-red tiled roofs shelter wide verandas, and the living room has stained-glass windows, lively with gamboling Dutch children that frame a huge bouldered fireplace.

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The modest 1930 bungalow owned by Dresden Graham on Sierra Bonita Avenue in Hollywood is typical of the thousands that were built in Southern California up to the outbreak of World War II.

Sense of Shade

A deep front porch, raised several steps above the entry path, creates a sense of shade and shelter, an archetypal image of “home.” The bougainvillea on the pergola ties the house to its landscape.

Inside, the simple basic box shape is relieved by generous windows opening up a long garden view. The smallness of the main rooms is modified by a semi-open plan. The bedrooms are also small by today’s standards, and the bathrooms are tiny.

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“I’m crazy about this bungalow,” Graham said. “It’s so cozy! And it’s so perfectly right we haven’t wanted to change anything since we bought the place three years ago. I think this kind of house creates a wonderful sense of home in a small space that doesn’t make you feel cramped.”

A further development of the versatile bungalow style was the bungalow court--a collection of small free-standing houses arranged around a common central garden.

Linked by Planting

Pasadena architect Sylvanus Marston designed the St. Francis Court in 1910, on the site of the present Robinson’s department store in Pasadena. In 1911, Arthur Heineman laid out Pasadena’s Bowen Court on East Villa Street, in which 23 little residences are linked by lush planting that creates a sense of separateness from the busy city beyond the charming oasis.

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Bungalow courts “combined a certain amount of panache with a great deal of utility,” one architectural guide book declares. “The living and dining rooms were comfortably rustic, with wood paneling and cozy inglenooks, while the bedrooms, kitchen and bath gleamed in modern white plaster.”

Bowen Court served as the model for another major American architectural innovation, the motel. Its layout inspired architect Heineman to create the Milestone Mo-tel, the world’s first, near U.S. 101 in San Luis Obispo, in 1925. In the motel, the car invaded the bungalow court plan and opened its communal courtyard to the neighboring roadway.

After World War II, the California Bungalow’s popularity was superseded by that of the California ranch house, a more ample and purely suburban style that featured the family car and the back yard barbecue.

But the ranch house inherited the bungalow’s basic concepts of single-story shelter with an intimate relationship between indoors and outdoors that made the style so essentially Southern Californian.

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HOW TO RECOGNIZE A CALIFORNIA BUNGALOW

Single story with deep front porch raised up several steps.

Sloping roof with overhanging eaves over vertical or horizontal clapboard siding, or sometimes wooden shingles, painted white or stained.

Simple box-like plan with modest semi-open plan rooms opened to the garden with big windows.

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Variations of the basic box with classical front porches or ranch-style layout around a central patio.


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