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In my 20-odd years of studying and writing about bungalows, there are a few questions that have not been answered to my satisfaction. One of those questions is “What’s up with the big honkin’ pillars?” When the bungalow was exported from Britain to America to become an architectural symbol of the American Arts and Crafts Movement (and how that came to be is another question, which will not be answered here), gigantic pillars didn’t seem to be part of the deal.
And yet enormously oversize columns or pillars (henceforth to be known as BHP’s) are a prominent feature on many bungalows. They’re so big, one would think they originated in Texas. What’s up with that? Well, I have a theory. Not a well-researched theory, but a theory nonetheless.
The pillar or column has been holding things up since antiquity, and the archetype for every type of column is the tree trunk. Even the most decorative, fluted, carved, painted, gilded and generally tarted-up column is still based on the size and proportion of a tree trunk. This is right in line with the Arts and Crafts Movement belief that design inspiration should come from Nature.
The bungalow, of course, originated in India. The original bangala, altered by the British for their needs, was built all over India and eventually the rest of the British Empire. These Anglo-Indian bungalows generally were built on a raised platform, with a hipped pyramidal roof, and a deep veranda on three or four sides. Obviously the outer edge of the veranda roof was held up by columns or supports of some sort, but a quick perusal of various reference material, as well as the internet, shows only a few with supports as large as the elephantine columns found on many bungalows.
As bungalows started to be built in Britain in the 19th century, most lost their verandahs, probably due to the British climate. In any case, bungalows were not really a part of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, which looked to medieval prototypes. But bungalows were adopted as the major architectural expression of the American Arts and Crafts Movement.
Bungalows in America, of course, have many influences besides the Anglo-Indian house upon which they are based, and their early use as informal vacation homes often gave rise to detailing which was either rustic, exotic, or both. Lacking medieval tradition, we turned to the use of natural and local materials as a major part of the architectural philosophy associated with the bungalow.
Unlike all previous architectural periods in the United States, where architectural styles began on the East Coast and worked their way west, bungalows as we know them first appeared in California and were then exported to the rest of the country.
So if one was to build a bungalow in California using natural and/or local materials, what would those be? Well, first of all, wood. But not just any wood—California (and the rest of the Pacific coast) had vast forests of ancient old growth timber—redwoods, sequoias, firs, and pines. The first giant sequoia to be discovered by white men in 1852 was, unsurprisingly, cut down almost immediately and its 25 foot diameter stump leveled for use as a dance floor.
All over California and the Pacific Northwest there are still tourist attractions featuring trees or stumps that have been hollowed out so you can drive your car through them. It was common practice to use actual tree trunks with the bark still attached as porch columns on bungalows, and some pretty large tree trunks were obviously available. The influence of log building, as well as the vernacular architecture from countries with wood building traditions, including Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, and Japan, also played a part in bungalow design.
The large beams, purlins, and other structural members and joinery of timber-framed buildings worked its way into bungalows as part of the “expressed structure,” even though most bungalows were framed with two-by-fours and much of the expressed structure was actually fake.
Another locally available material was rock—known as arroyo stone in southern California, river rock elsewhere, though there’s not much difference, since arroyos are riverbeds, merely ones that are dry for much of the year. If one is going to pile up rocks as a pillar, the laws of physics pretty much dictate big rocks at the bottom, smaller rocks as you move up. It’s also easier if the whole thing is wider at the bottom and tapers towards the top—keeps the smaller rocks from rolling off the edges. It’s hard to make a delicate, slender column out of rocks.
Then there were clinker bricks, the bricks that got too close to the fire, becoming burnt and misshapen. Typical of Californians, we not only accepted these misfits, we embraced them. Sometimes we combined them with rocks, inventing the masonry style now known as “peanut brittle.” The fact that clinker bricks were cheap had nothing to do with it, I’m sure.
But what of the parts of the building these large pillars were supporting? Surely they needed to be large because they were carrying a lot of weight? Well, not really. A column two or three feet in diameter is not necessary to hold up a porch roof, which is what most large pillars were employed to do. Even a second floor doesn’t weigh that much, and of course, if it had a second floor, it wouldn’t be a bungalow, would it?
Structurally, a couple of four-by-fours are adequate to support a porch roof. Which leads to one of the weirder aspects of bungalow architecture: the BHP which stops short of the beam or roof it is supporting, the remaining space occupied by a small piece of wood which appears by contrast to be totally insufficient to the task.
Architects often succumb to novelty, but if enough buildings start being built using a particular feature, pretty soon everyone is copying it, riffing on it, and coming up with a better version of it. It becomes part of the zeitgeist. Just look around at the current crop of contemporary buildings sporting upside-down wedges, which I suspect will be one of the defining architectural characteristics for turn-of-the-21st-century buildings, should any of them last long enough to be historic. In the same way, a few BHP’s led to more of the same, eventually rendered in other materials like stucco, brick, or cast concrete. As bungalows spread to other parts of the country, giant pillars went with them as part of the design.
Surprisingly, given how out of scale these huge columns were compared to the generally small size of a bungalow, they nonetheless look just right. The proof of that is how very wrong a bungalow looks when its elephantine columns have been removed and replaced with skinny four-by-fours, steel posts, or uprights of lacy wrought iron. (One wonders if that many people are homesick for New Orleans…)
So there you have it: big trees+big rocks+zeitgeist=big pillars. I’m sure an architectural historian could poke a million holes in this theory, but no one can deny the incredible amusement value of the big honkin’ pillar.
Jane Powell is the author of several bungalow books and is available for consulting on historic homes, whether or not they have big honkin’ pillars. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.