California Bungalow

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The California Bungalow shares small size and low-pitched roof with the Craftsman Bungalow, stucco and horizontality with the Prairie School house, and front porch and exposed rafters with the Brown Shingle. The California Bungalow is the builders’ distillation of the more sophisticated features of its architect-designed predecessors. Although extremely plain, especially compared to the bungalows designed by Greene and Greene in Pasadena, the California Bungalow offered comfortable living at popular prices.

In 1920, Oakland’s population was 216,261 — more than three times the number residing here in 1900. Obviously, there was a need for a house style that could be quickly constructed at reasonable cost and yet perpetuate the California image that had enticed the newcomers in the first place. The California Bungalow filled the bill.

Almost fifty years had passed since the introduction of straightforward wood-frame construction in Victorian times. Time and experience perfected the stud-and-joist technique, and simplified it even further. The studs, for example, were placed in a standard 16-inch pattern, in contrast to the Victorian merchant builders who placed studs more arbitrarily and at wider intervals. In wood frame construction the stud extends from foundation sill to roof. The shorter distance from floor to ceiling in the bungalow, combined with the reduced spacing between the studs, resulted in shorter, lighter lumber that was easier to handle. Next, diagonal sheathing was abandoned as the means of cross-bracing. Instead, rigidity was achieved by placing 16-inch long 2 x 4′s horizontally between the studs.

Concrete greatly simplified the foundation. Although Portland Cement had been discovered in 1824, its versatility was not fully realized until the twentieth century. It took experimentation with the new product by Wright and other respected architects to bring concrete into the builder’s arsenal. Formerly, the foundation consisted of bricks or stones, placed and mortared individually. With concrete, a trench is dug to define the building’s perimeter, board forms lined up, reinforcing bars inserted, and the concrete poured in one fell swoop.

Similarly, the siding operation was greatly simplified by the introduction of stucco. Made of Portland Cement, sand, and a small percentage of lime, stucco is applied in a plastic state (hence the word “plaster”) over a wire mesh curtain that is wrapped around the building. How much easier this was than using a level to keep each strip of clapboard horizontal, or nailing several thousand shingles on, one at a time.

If anything persisted from the Victorian Era it was the availability of plan books. Printed first in Southern California and later in Seattle, Chicago, and Minneapolis, these publications offered the prospective homebuilder an incredible assortment of bungalow designs. Working blueprints could be ordered for $5 to $25, usually less than one percent of the estimated construction cost, which started at under a thousand dollars for a four-room bungalow, and ranged upwards to $7000 for larger, very elaborate models.

The plan books provided more than design details, however; they also influenced taste and values. The introduction to the promotional brochure “Little Bungalows,” distributed by the Los Angeles firm E.W. Stillwell and Company, presents a convincing argument in favor of the “genuine California Bungalow” whose plans they had for sale. “It is better to build a small house than to overburden the budget with debt for a larger one. A beautiful small house is just as expressive of character, aims, and aspirations as the large house. Mere size is a waste of money and human endeavor.”

As new materials, construction techniques and mass-produced blueprints simplified house building, so the floor plan of the California Bungalow simplified housekeeping. One room merged with the next, and this meant fewer steps for the foot-worn homemaker. There were no hallways to collect household tumbleweed, no formal parlors to keep “company-clean,” no knick-knacks to accumulate dust. The plan books boasted the efficiency their drawings offered. “The economic use of space” was a positive way to say “small,” and “cozy” an optimistic word for “crowded” Besides, built-in conveniences more than made up for the lack of room because “movable furnishings,” the brochure argued, “so complicate the labor of the cleaning day.”

The feature unique to the California Bungalow is the pair of elephantine columns that support the small gable over the front porch. On their own, these heavy-looking posts with broad base and tapered top seem too short and awkward, but in place they are clearly in proportion to the overall bungalow design. Covered in stucco, the columns have a wood framework underneath which is subject to termite damage and dryrot both. Replacing the columns with anything less substantial in appearance than the elephantine originals–like wrought iron posts, or 4 x 4′s–looks skimpy and regretfully out of place.

The origin of the bizarre bungalow columns is a matter of speculation. They were obviously influenced by the hefty piers on the Prairie School house, a style sometimes considered the California Bungalow’s larger counterpart, and by the arroyo stone columns on the Greene and Greene bungalows in Southern California. Or, they may be descended from an ingenious Craftsman detail used by architect A.C. Schweinfurt. In 1897, he designed the First Unitarian Church in Berkeley for a congregation whose membership included Bernard Maybeck, Charles Keeler (author of The Simple Home, a Craftsman manifesto) and representatives of the sylvan Hillside Club. Schweinfurt used massive redwood tree trunks, peeling bark and all, for the front porch columns on the church. Short, slightly tapered, and mammoth in dimension, the tree trunks may well have been the unwitting precedent for the oversized porch columns that became the bungalow trademark.

The interior of the California Bungalow resembles that of the Craftsman Bungalow, but it is generally plainer. The ornamental use of wood is limited to the moldings, baseboards, and hardwood floors. Sliding or French doors between living room and dining area may persist, but the leaded glass has been eliminated.

The California Bungalow stands on a small lot (typically 40′ x 100′) with an abbreviated front yard and narrow side yard. This lack of land may frustrate the enthusiastic gardener, but the unified appearance is terrific. Look down a block of closely spaced bungalows and you will appreciate the up-and-down rhythm of the roofline, the in-and-out rhythm of the projecting porch. There is an order to the parade of pastel bungalows that critics call monotonous, but in fact a closer look reveals interesting variations within each house. There is enough repetition to establish a unified framework, yet enough variety for individual identification. This is the essence of good neighborhood design.

Unlike many Victorian neighborhoods whose visual unity has been destroyed by ad hoc demolition or thoughtless remodeling, Oakland’s bungalow blocks are still intact. The pleasant, human scale of these neighborhoods, combined with the convenient size and reasonable price of the bungalows, attracts young couples and single people in the market for their first home.

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