Bungling Across America: The Bungalow in Southern California and Beyond


[Editor’s note: This is part I of ToM’s two part series on pre and post WWII  vernacular architecture. For part II, the post WWII rise of the ranch house, see here.  This article originally ran on November 14, 2013 under the Intersections column for KCET Departures.]

“This is the thing that strikes the attention of the traveler; not the orchards and the gardens, which are not appreciably different in kind from those of the Riviera and some favored parts of Italy, but the homes, the number of them, their extraordinary adaptability to the purposes of gracious living,” gushed Mary Austin in her 1914 work “California: The Land of the Sun.” “The Angelenos call them bungalows, in respect to the type from which the latter form developed, but they deserve a name as distinctive as they have in character become.” Austin believed the California bungalow so natural to the setting that they were “as indigenous to the soil as if they had grown up out of it.” 1

Indeed, judging from enthusiastic appraisals from the likes of Austin and others, the bungalow appeared to be a uniquely Californian and American product. Yet the term “bungalow,” its origin, and the numerous variations and styles, can leave the most assured of housing experts dizzy. “All that bungles is not a bungalow,” concluded C.E. White, author of the creatively titled 1923 work “The Bungalow Book.” 2 Both a housing type and architectural style, the bungalow ranged from the simplest of dwellings to the “high art paradigm of the Arts and Crafts movement” of the Greene Brothers’ Gamble House.

White himself considered numerous styles to fit under the “bungalow” designation. This included the Prairie Style, produced by Frank Lloyd Wright and his followers between 1900 and 1930, and Spanish Colonial style, popularized by San Diego’s 1915 Panama California Exposition, that quickly took off in popularity by the 1920s in California. For White it was the interior floor plan, committed to efficiency and flow, that defined the bungalow, rather than its exterior ornamentation and organization.

In the early twentieth century, the bungalow dominated bourgeoisie and working class visions of the American dream. Southern California’s climate and landscape provided the perfect setting for the bungalow’s expansion, becoming, as Anthony King argued, “a suburb for the rest of the country, even indeed for migrants from the crowded cities of Europe.” 3

Although popularized in California, the bungalow first appeared in India, and was soon co-opted by British Imperialists. For some time it remained a primarily Indo-British product. In nineteenth century England, the bungalow, predominantly located in seaside locations, was imbued with health and sanitary ideals, stressing the value of nature, sea air, and open green space. The values of English wealth found expression in the housing form. “If the economic basis was supplied by London’s surplus capital,” King pointed out, “the site and design of the bungalows were determined by the beliefs and social behavior of its upper middle class.” 4

In America, the bungalow’s roots lay in turn of the century Southern California, from where it then spread to the Pacific Northwest and Canada by 1912, and, sometime between 1915-1920, became a national ideal. Yale’s John Mack Faragher labeled its popularity “the architectural backwash of California,” and argued that West Coast housing innovations, like the bungalow, and the ranch homes that succeeded it, crept eastward in a demonstration of larger cultural shifts favoring the west. By 1919, architect Charles V. Boyd announced the bungalow the “most truly nationalistic” of all American housing types. 5


Economic and demographic changes helped spur the famed California bungalow. By the late 1800s, the market revolution had resulted in many activities moving out of the home. The rise of department and grocery stores meant fewer duties or, at the very least, swapping household tasks for errands. Ready-made clothes and commercial laundry further reduced domestic toil. Greater employment opportunity in the labor market drew women from the home, and servants became scarcer. The development of nurseries, kindergartens, and compulsory public education meant children spent less time in the house. Fears over germ culture — large, sprawling homes could house illnesses, argued reformers — placed a new emphasis on simplicity and rationality of design. Such factors manifested themselves in smaller homes with fewer rooms — the bungalow fit neatly into this jigsaw of economic and social change. 6

Housing reformers warmed to the bungalow, since it appealed to ideas regarding domestic space, nature, and a gendered spatialization of the home’s interior. Progressive-era feminists appreciated the bungalow’s simplicity and efficiency, while capitalists could trumpet that the housing form emphasized rugged individualism over more communal or socialistic architecture that apartments offered. 7 The bungalow embodied respectability, privacy, and homeownership for a burgeoning middle class, and a financial foothold amid an expanding metropolis for more proletarian contemporaries.

The availability and practicality of using local materials also helped. A Pacific Northwest redwood and local river rock could be employed to construct a house for between $1,000 and $2,000. 8 When bungalow books and magazines exploded in the early 1900s, do-it-yourself models dropped prices, and advances in prefabrication methods diminished costs further. English architect Gustav Stickley and his magazine The Craftsman (established 1901) did much to spread the gospel of the bungalow, and transformed the home and its interior furnishing into an affordable “‘work of art.'”

Back-to-nature tropes also made the bungalow a popular housing innovation. Though hardly new, nature featured prominently in romanticism of the nineteenth century, but the “back-to-nature movement” no longer remained a reserve of the well off; instead, it became a middle class obsession. 9 “[T]he ideal home for the lover of the out of doors … and a house whose atmosphere is, as far as possible, that of the woods and fields,” appraised one writer. In this respect, Southern California’s climate and landscape provided the perfect backdrop. “As it flourishes in the balmy air of the Pacific Coast … [the bungalow] is just now our especial pride,” noted an editor of the California Architecture and Engineer. 10

While some builders acknowledged the bungalow’s transnational influence, with a few labeling its exposed timbers or upturned eaves “oriental” or “Japanesque,” the California variant added its own features and adaptations. 11 The famed bohemian “Arroyo Set,” a collection of artisans and artistic types living in the area between Pasadena and Los Angeles, helped to define the California bungalow with the “aesthetic of honest construction and simple ornamentation.” 12Charles Fletcher Lummis, the editor of the influential magazine Out West (aka Land of Sunshine), which proved a veritable “Who’s Who” of California intelligentsia, held regular salons at his El Alisal bungalow. As noted by Lawrence Culver, Lummis’ own intellectual, bohemian curiosity can be seen in the El Alsial example which combined aspects of the Arts and Crafts movement with mission revival architectural flourishes — a clear sign of the bungalow’s adaptability. 13


As early as 1910, Spanish and Mexican styles filtered into the bungalow archetype. Still, even with such influences, the bungalow for many remained the preserve of white, Protestant middle class California. “The bungalow with its connotations of leisure and openness to the outdoors,” Culver points out, “was the perfect residential architecture for this Anglo American imagined city.” 14 Even, the bungalow’s apparent bohemian origins worried some observers enough that writers like Charles F. Sanders, of the “thoroughly middlebrow and respectable” magazine Sunset, felt the need to assuage such fears. “Bungalow life is informal, but not necessarily bohemian, at its best is simple, without being sloppy,” he assured readers. 15

While the bungalow’s “economy and artistry,” notes John Mack Faragher, proved both affordable and attractive to working and middle class Californians, its “cultivated rusticity” and the studied efforts of noted SoCal architects/developers Greene & Greene made it popular with the newly-arriving wealthier set in Pasadena. The David Gamble House, built by Charles Summer Greene and his bother Henry Mather Greene in 1908, is seen by some as the housing form’s ultimate and most opulent expression. 16 Pasadena served as “ground zero” for the “bungalow boom,” as evidenced by its numerous “ultimate bungalows,” as well as more modest examples, such as those in the Bungalow Heaven Historic District. 17

Still, during roughly the same period, the bungalow also served the needs of the working and middle class arrivals. Carey McWilliams, who referred to the wealthy midwestern and eastern migrants as “tourists,” described this stratum of migrants as “homeseekers.” 18 Smaller and more austere than their Pasadena counterparts, these bungalows, many of them in L.A.’s eastside communities, provided simple attractive homes to working class residents.


The early twentieth century real estate boom differentiated itself from other booms because of the central role played by small developers and the affordable homes they ultimately constructed. Hybrid small-scale real estate and investment businesses, like the Los Angeles Investment Company (LAIC), built in mixed-use, industrial-residential areas. As demonstrated by historian Kim Hernandez, early LAIC efforts were located near the Los Angeles River, along Santa Fe Avenue, toward what is today the city of Vernon, and along West Temple Boulevard. 19 In 1906, of the 7,130 housing permits issued, nearly 3,000 were for “one frame story residences,” and most of these were for Sixth and Fifth Wards, which covered the areas of what is now parts of downtown and South Los Angeles. With the exception of the mansions located in West Adams, most of the homes in the two wards would house working class residents. 20

The efforts of LAIC, and other smaller builders in various eastside locals like Boyle Heights, meant working class whites and non-whites alike could enjoy quality, affordable housing. National leaders like W.E.B. Dubois took notice. “Los Angeles is wonderful,” gushed Dubois. “Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed … Out here in this matchless Southern California there would seem to be no limit to your opportunities or your possibilities.” 21

By 1910, 36% of black Los Angeles owned their homes, compared to only 2.4% in NYC, 29.5% in Oakland, 11% in New Orleans, and 16.5% percent in Birmingham, AL. 22 Though LAIC and other contributed to this growth, they also represented a broader trend among urban housing developers: begin one’s business in racially mixed downtown communities, then later expand into the racially restricted suburbs of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.

Working class suburbs, in part because of the bungalow, also blossomed. In the 1920s, migrants from the Midwest and the South came for work in the expanding industrial sector of interwar Los Angeles. Many settled in developing suburbs near growing industries. As demonstrated by Becky Nicolaides in “My Blue Heaven,” South Gate represented one such suburb. By the late 1920s, 15 major industries were located either in or adjacent to South Gate. 23 Families bought land, pitched tents, and built homes. Predictably, modest bungalows, consisting typically of one bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom, dominated the local landscape. 24 As Nicolaides points out, many working class suburbs placed value in the land use or productivity of their home, rather than its worth as a commodity in speculative real estate markets. Predominantly wage earning, much of South Gate’s early citizenry constructed their own homesteads, utilizing backyard gardens or domestic industries to make ends meet. 25 The bungalow made these activities possible, while delivering the independent ideal of homeownership for working class laborers.

The bungalow’s importance spread beyond homeowners. “Landscaped outdoor space, the popular Craftsman style of architecture, and the ideal of privacy afforded by a bungalow surrounded by lawns and gardens — luxuries formerly exclusive to the middle and upper classes,” points out Todd Gish, “all were made available to working class and transient renters in a growing metropolis via this form of shelter.” 26


Then again, for all the early inclusiveness demonstrated by such developments, segregation soon followed. In many places, restrictive covenants and deeds made sure to keep blacks and other minorities out. Even in South Gate, where boosters hailed the suburb as “of, by, and for working men,” and openly welcomed the arrival of “hundreds more,” they also cautioned that only whites were eligible to buy property in town. 27 Some historians have wondered if the bungalow’s affordability didn’t enable a greater proportion of Anglo Los Angeles to enjoy “the ‘privilege’ of segregation” than elsewhere.28

Class, too, impacted views of the bungalow. Charles Greene accepted the idea of the housing form, but questioned its execution: “Building bungalows is not a crime itself … it is the quality of the product that may justify or condemn it.” 29 One wonders what the Greene brothers might think of South Gate families building their own modest bungalows, let alone their views regarding courts, which made a level of middle class living possible for many working class Angelenos. Indeed, bungalow courts, which gained popularity soon after the completion of Sylvanus Marston’s St. Francis Court in Pasadena, appalled Charles, and he recommended their wholesale rejection. 30

Of course, from the outset, and through its peak level of popularity, the proliferation of bungalows was viewed by some experts skeptically. Amid their rise, Robert C. Spencer, writing in the Architectural Record, described them as variations of the “universal type of story and a half workingman’s cottage,” now labeled “bungalow” as a means for developers to build subpar homes in “good middle class suburban neighborhoods.” Historian Robert Winter pronounced it the death of the Arts and Craft ideal of “the single family home in the garden.” 31

For some observers, more than a little “East Coast bias” accounted for this resistance. “Probably the fact that the bungalow was first produced in the West, and in Southern California …” noted one editor, “have led Eastern architects to be a little snobbish about it.” Although, to be fair, some from the East celebrated the bungalow, such as editor of the Chicago based American Builder, Frederick T. Hodgson: “It is not too much to say … that these bungalows are on the whole the best type of cheap house that has been erected in large numbers in this country since the new England farmhouse went out of fashion,” he reflected.


By the 1930s, the bungalow had fallen out of favor, and the Depression sharply undercut suburban development. The suburbanization that followed WWII occurred in a much more affluent society, with government and private institutions dedicated to homeownership, longer amoritization periods, and improved financing mechanisms for mortgages. Within this dynamic, the bungalow’s simplicity felt too modest and at odds with the explosion of mid-century consumerism. Shopping centers, malls, highways, and other “wholesale development” exacted a toll, as many bungalows were swept away. Increasing land values justified razing bungalows to the ground, often replacing them with condos, apartments, and split level ranch homes. 32

The LAIC had declined much earlier than these developments. Ultimately the victim of overspeculation, undercaptilization, and mismanagement, eerily reminiscent of the nation’s most recent housing crash in 2008, its founders proved unprepared to run a business of its size and breadth. Though its stock values skyrocketed between 1908 and 1913, a sharp downturn in real estate values set off a series of defaults that dissolved LAIC’s liquid assets. Stock plummeted, and the company had to be bailed out by the city’s civic leaders. Though indicted, fined, and jailed, public opinion sided with the LAIC’s founders, musicians Charles Elder, W.D. Deeble, and George M. Derby. The many spectators who attended the trial largely believed that the company’s efforts in making homeownership possible for the city’s workers outweighed its disastrous end. Even the Los Angeles Times looked back two years later favorably. In the end, the LAIC should be remembered as “a monument to the remarkable growth and prosperity of Los Angeles.” 33

In South Gate, bungalows remained a staple of its built environment. However, much like Los Angeles since WWII, its demographics changed, and a community that once denied non-whites access to its homes has become defined by them. Today, middle and working class Mexican and Mexican Americans reside in the many bungalows, built by the suburb’s working class arrivals of the 1920s. Nor is this unique to Southern California. The bungalows of Chicago’s Clybourne Park over time came to symbolize not their original white inhabitants, but the stalwart character of the city’s black working and middle classes. Nearly 100 years after the bungalow first left California for parts unknown, it continues to occupy a central place in American lives — white, black, Asian, Latino, Midwestern, Eastern, rich, poor, and everything in between. Considering its origins in India and the face of multicultural Southern California today that seems about right.

1 Mary Austin in Anthony King, The Bungalow: The Production of Global Culture, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984) pg. 145.
2 Anthony King, The Bungalow, The Production of Global Culture, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984) pg. 148
3 Ibid, pg. 151.
4 Ibid., pg. 74.
5 John Mack Faragher, “Bungalow and Ranch House: The Architectural Backwash of California” Western Historical Quarterly 32.2 (Summer 2001), pg 161.
6 Anthony King, The Bungalow, pg 150.
7 Ibid, pg. 151.
8 John Mack Faragher, “Bungalow and Ranch House: The Architectural Backwash of California” pg. 153
9 Lawrence Culver, The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) pg. 56.
10 Ibid., pg. 150.
11 John Mack Faragher, “Bungalow and Ranch House: The Architectural Backwash of California” pgs 151 – 152
12 Ibid.
13 Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, (New York: Verso, 1990) pg. 27; Lawrence Culver, The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) pg. 57.
14 Lawrence Culver, The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) , pg. 57.
15 John Mack Faragher, “Bungalow and Ranch House: The Architectural Backwash of California” , pg. 153.
16 Ibid., pg 161.
17 Ibid., pg 151 – 152
18 Kim Hernandez, “‘The Bungalow Boom’: The Working Class Housing Industry and the Development and Promotion of Early Twentieth Century Los Angeles”, Southern California Quarterly 92.4 (Winter 2010-2011), pg. 352.
19 Ibid. pgs. 357 – 359.
20 Ibid., pgs 364-365.
21 Ibid., pg. 359.
22 Ibid.
23 Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in Working Class Los Angeles, 1920-1965, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) pgs. 24 – 26.
24 Ibid., pg 55.
25 Ibid., pgs. 29-30.
26 Todd Gish, “Bungalow Court Housing in Los Angeles, 1900 – 1930: Top Down Innovation? Or Bottom-up Reform?” Southern California Quarterly 91.4 (Winter 2009 – 2010), pg 265.
27 Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven, pg. 26.
28 Anthony King, The Bungalow, pg 153.
29 John Mack Faragher, “Bungalow and Ranch House: The Architectural Backwash of California”, pg. 161.
30 Todd Gish, “Bungalow Court Housing in Los Angeles, 1900 – 1930”, pg 369.
31 John Mack Faragher, “Bungalow and Ranch House: The Architectural Backwash of California”, pg. 160.
32 Anthony King, The Bungalow, pgs. 149, 155.
33 Kim Hernandez, “The Bungalow Boom”, pg. 387.