Home & Garden Columns

Just What Is a Bungalow?

By Jane Powell
Friday March 09, 2007

It really annoys me when I see a real estate listing with a picture of a bungalow which announces something like “fabulous Victorian”—you would think there are enough bungalows around here that agents would get a clue, but apparently not. So herewith I shall answer the question “What is a Bungalow?” 

The question is fundamentally rather complicated. Dictionaries provide these definitions: “A low house having only one story or, in some cases, upper rooms set in the roof, typically with dormer windows”; “a usually one storied house with a low pitched roof”; “a small house all on one level”; “a small house or cottage usually having a single story and sometimes an additional attic story”; “a thatched or tiled one story house in India surrounded by a wide verandah”; “a usually one storied house of a type first developed in India and characterized by low sweeping lines and a wide veranda.” 

Bungalows and other Arts and Crafts houses, and the design philosophy that shaped them began in 19th Century Britain. The Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction to the many changes in society brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Although advancements in technology were beneficial in many ways, producing the sewing machine, the cookstove, and indoor plumbing, there was a serious downside: pollution, sweatshops, and mass production of shoddy, badly designed goods. The Arts and Crafts reformers believed that a return to handcraft would restore the dignity of labor, that good design in homes and furnishings would result in an improved society. The most famous of them was William Morris, a gifted designer whose textile and wallpaper designs have been in continuous production since the 19th Century. 

The message of the Arts and Crafts Movement had spread all over the world by the turn of the 20th century. In the United States, it took on distinctive characteristics and was in many ways more successful here. When the ideas reached these shores around 1900, they were taken up by progressive idealists in many cities, and popularized by people like Gustav Stickley, through his magazine, The Craftsman, Elbert Hubbard at the Roycrofters, and Edward Bok at The Ladies Home Journal. There was just one problem with the movement as imported from Britain—Americans had no medieval tradition to look back to, being a young country. So we opted for incorporating various alternative ideas either involving traditional ways of building like log cabins, Spanish missions, and native American dwellings, or things considered exotic, such as architecture and decorative arts from Japan, which had only recently opened up to the outside world.  

It is generally agreed that bungalows descended from thatched Bengali peasant huts in India, called variously “banggolo,” “bangala,” or “bangla” (depending on who’s translating). The British altered the native dwelling into something that conformed better to their idea of what a house should be, and built these Anglo-Indian bungalows in compounds outside of the cities and towns, as well as in “hill stations” where the Europeans would go in the summer to get away from the heat. Eventually the bungalow was exported to all corners of the British Empire as being the proper sort of house for Europeans in the tropics.  

The bungalow’s initial use as vacation architecture meant that it came to be associated with leisure and informality, in a natural setting. This association continued even as bungalows began to be built in cities. Architectural styles used for resort houses in the nineteenth century, such as the Shingle Style on the East Coast (so called because of the shingle siding used), the rustic Adirondack style in the mountains (featuring rustic wood and log detailing), and even the Spanish haciendas of the West and Southwest had a lasting influence on bungalow architecture. 

The other thing that distinguished the American Arts and Crafts Movement was a more practical and democratic approach to the whole thing. Rather than throwing the machines out with the bathwater, so to speak, we viewed machines as useful tools that could be used to relieve drudgery, and do the tedious and repetitious parts of the work, freeing up time and thought for the artistic part, and allowing the hand labor to be devoted to artistry. Having no medieval tradition, we opted to celebrate simplicity, natural (especially local) materials, and honesty of structure. Of course much of this was lip service, because honesty of structure, especially on houses, was often a sham. This hypocritical aspect of the movement in no way diminishes the beauty of both the objects and the houses. In fact, it was probably what allowed the movement to succeed, and allowed the middle and working classes for the first time to own houses that were both economical (so they could afford them), artistic (they were beautiful), and practical (bungalows and other Arts and Crafts era houses were the first truly “modern” houses, with indoor plumbing, central heating, and electricity.  

The bungalow’s popularity spread from the West Coast to the East, contrary to the way that architectural styles had traveled across America in the past. In fact, the first bungalow-style house was built in Piedmont in 1876 by the Reverend Joseph Worcester, three years before the first house to be actually called a bungalow was built on Cape Cod. Certainly the West Coast, particularly California, embraced the ideal of the bungalow, and unquestionably ran with it. Hooray for us! Because of plan books and pre-cut houses, California-style bungalows were built across the U.S. sharing stylistic similarities even though there are regional differences in climate, locally obtainable building materials, the skills of available workmen, and the innate preferences of builders and owners.  

In a bungalow home the front door often opens directly into the living room, or to a small entry off the living room, because these houses were informal. No fancy parlors here. Often you can see into the dining room as well, which may be separated only by bookcases or columns. The main feature of the living room is the fireplace, which was the center of family life. In the evening, the family gathered around the hearth to read, play music or games, embroider, or just talk.  

Natural wood and colors from nature were the order of the day. Textiles helped to soften the room (as well as the furniture). The embroidery could also be purchased as a kit, and both women and men were encouraged to do some sort of handcraft to personalize their home, and to decorate with materials from nature. 

Homes were built with an eye to bringing the outdoors in- French doors opened from the formal rooms onto porches, which often were covered with vines or wisteria. 

Unlike today, meals were eaten in the dining room, which usually had a built-in china cabinet, as well as paneling and a plate rail for displaying plates and other artful objects.  

The food came from the first truly modern kitchens. Indoor plumbing, electric lighting, gas stoves, and refrigeration, some of the better products of the Industrial Revolution, first came together in the kitchens of the Arts and Crafts era. Homemakers were demanding more labor saving devices and convenience, now that they no longer had servants to do the housework.  

The bedrooms in a bungalow tended to be much simpler and lighter than the formal rooms, and often had painted woodwork. Children’s rooms often had special wallpaper or borders illustrating nursery rhymes or other themes. Stenciled or embroidered bed linens were fashionable. Closets were small because people had fewer clothes. 

In between the bedrooms was the bath, in a small house usually only one. A wall-hung or pedestal sink was the norm, and a clawfoot or built-in tub. 1” white hexagonal tiles were a common flooring material. These bathrooms were distinguished by their whiteness, coming during a time of obsession with sanitation and cleanliness. Later on in the 1920s and ‘30s there was an explosion of color in bathrooms, so houses from that time are more likely to have wildly colored bathrooms. 

Many bungalows had sleeping porches off the bedrooms, as it was believed that sleeping in the fresh air year-round was good for you, and in warm climates, that was probably true. 

Okay, that’s all well and good but it still doesn’t tell you what a bungalow is. At least part of the problem is that it’s a “know one when you see one” kind of thing. Of course, the good thing about being an author is that you get to make up your own definition. So here’s mine: A bungalow is a one or one-and-a-half story house of simple design, expressed structure, built from natural or local materials, with a low-slope roof, overhanging eaves, and a prominent porch, built during the Arts and Crafts period in America (approximately 1900-1930). If it’s two stories it’s no longer a bungalow, though it can still be Arts and Crafts or craftsman (often known in Berkeley as a “brownshingle”). 

Although there are many people who allow for Spanish, Tudor, Colonial, Cape Cod, and even ranch houses as bungalows if they are one or one and half stories, I’m drawing the line there. Well, sort of. Because everything in the above definition has an exception- for instance, the dates. There were bungalows built after 1930, and in fact the National Park Service maintained the style for park buildings long after the bungalow era was technically over. And here’s another thing- there’s no such thing as architectural purity. So a bungalow may have some classical detailing normally found on a Colonial Revival house- things like neoclassical columns or dentil molding. Or a bungalow may have arched windows or a Mission-style gable that would normally be found on a Spanish Revival house. Many bungalows have a medieval English influence as reflected in half-timbering or diamond-pane windows. And don’t even get me started about the cognitive dissonance between the outside architecture of a house and the interior style.  

Bungalows and Arts and Crafts houses were, and still remain, one of the most pleasant, livable styles of houses built in the 20th century. There’s been much talk lately about “the New Urbanism”- new towns being built that are walkable, houses with front porches and architectural details from the past. But in bungalows we already have the “Old Urbanism,” and it still works. Life is far more complex these days than it was back then, and these houses still serve as a haven from the demands of the world outside, they still nurture us and our families, and will continue to do so. This saying appeared in a magazine of the time: “A small house, a large garden, a few good friends, and many good books.” That’s my definition of a good life.  



Photograph by Jane Powell. 

A bungalow in Oakland’s Laurel District.