Historic Style Spotlight: The Craftsman Bungalow

Posted: January 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

When it comes to admiring old houses, I tend to favor rustic, 200-year old post & beam structures.  Yet some of my favorite historic houses are much more modern:  Craftsman-style bungalows.  This article will highlight the history & characteristics of this beautiful architectural style.

The Craftsman style was popular from about 1905 until the Great Depression (about 1930).  To narrow it down more, based on my own personal experience, I think it’s safe to say that if you spot a Craftsman bungalow there is very good chance it was built during the 12-year period between 1915 and 1927.  However, when guessing the age of a house, a lot depends on where you’re at — west coast or Midwest; city or country, and so on.  But age can be important.  Since Craftsman homes were built during the 20th century, some folks might not consider these houses as “historic” as other historic homes.  But consider that during the next decade, many of these Craftsman homes will hit their century-mark in age — and quite a few are already 100 years old.  So, comparatively, they are already what Civil War era houses were to people in the year 1972.

Craftsman bungalows are now very popular with preservationists and young homeowners wanting to restore a beautiful historic house back to its original splendor.  And there is additional fascination among many old house lovers because a fair amount of these bungalows are Sears houses (or other “mail-order”/”kit” homes like Aladdin and Bennett).  If you don’t know about Sears houses, it worked like this: you would pick out a house from a catalog, order it, and the parts to assemble it would arrive on train cars in your home town (or nearby).  Ready-to-assemble.  Consider below a 1923 advertisement for Sears’ “Avalon” kit house, a modern and stylish bungalow that would cost you over $2,500!

So what was the “Craftsman” style all about?

In part, Craftsman architecture was a reaction to the excessive, over-the-top ornamentation of the Victorian era (I mean, seriously….look at the picture on the right….can you imagine painting all the trim on that thing?).  The architectural pendulum was swinging back, so to speak, and the Craftsman style simplified house forms and ornamentation considerably.  A contemporary of the movement stressed a return to “soul satisfying craftsmanship, over [the] soul-less, machine made goods” of the Victorian era.  Gustave Stickley, perhaps the biggest promoter of the larger “Arts and Crafts” movement (especially through his magazine The Craftsman) once characterized a Craftsman-style home as “a house reduced to it’s simplest form… its low, broad proportions and absolute lack of ornamentation gives it a character so natural and unaffected that it seems to… blend with any landscape.”   Many also pointed out that the shift from Victorian to Craftsman could be interpreted as a shift from elaborate, delicate, “feminine” Victorian designs to more “masculine,” square, bold, & simple forms.  Indeed, the Craftsman bungalow was intended to appear solid, heavy, and sturdy in almost every way.  Compare this simple, bold Craftsman bungalow (below) to the “frilly” Victorian above.

The Arts and Crafts Movement (and the related Craftsman architecture) was also part of the “Progressive Movement” in America — which critiqued the abuses of big business and industrialization (including the abuse of workers), while at the same time promoting a “you-can-do-it-yourself” mentality (this probably helped fuel the demand for build-it-yourself “kit” houses from Sears).  Indeed, Gustave Stickley and many other proponents of the movement saw the Craftsman style not only as a new design trend, but rather part of a whole new ethic for how to live one’s life more simply, more purely.  This coincided with a movement to improve the “modernity” of houses.  Sears houses were marketed as Sears “Modern Homes,” and they helped spread modern conveniences such as electricity, central heating, and indoor plumbing to many Americans.  There was also an emphasis on improving the comfort, functionality, and flow of houses (for example, the “breakfast nook” in the kitchen first popped-up during this era).

So Who Invented & Designed Craftsman Houses?

As I mentioned above, Craftsman architecture was born out of the larger Arts & Crafts movement (with English roots), so pinpointing its origins is complex.  Yet, when talking specifically about the actual design of Craftsman-style houses in the United States, the most common architectural details were inspired primarily by the work of two California architects — brothers Charles and Henry Greene.  During the decade of 1900-1910, their architectural firm — creatively dubbed Greene and Greene — churned out dozens of (now) landmark Craftsman homes.

According to architectural style experts Virginia & Lee McAlester (their A Field Guide to American Houses is a must-own book, by the way), the Greenes were influenced by “the English Arts and Crafts movement, an interest in oriental wooden architecture, and their early training in the manual arts” — again, the idea of do-it-yourself, quality craftsmanship.  The Craftsman designs of the Greenes quickly spread all over the United States (and beyond) in magazines and plan books, and over the next 20 years, the Craftsman style exploded across the American landscape.  These new Craftsman houses were predominately middle-class homes, but they ranged from huge, high-style masterpieces down to small, simple bungalows for working class folks.   But the houses the Greenes designed were large-scale, upper-class examples Craftsman bungalows, a few of which are actually called the “ultimate bungalows” (I’m not making that up).  Pictured below is one of those “ultimate bungalows,” the Gamble House (1908) in Pasadena, California.

That looks like a pretty big house.  Are you sure that’s a bungalow?

As you can see in the above picture, bungalows were not necessarily small.  The word “bungalow” often has a connotation of being a very small house, like a cottage — perhaps like the house pictured at left.  But this is often not the case.  In fact, when I was selling real estate, the first bungalow I ever sold offered over 2,000 sqft of living space inside!  And a couple of years ago, when I lived in Stryker, Ohio, I lived around the corner from another very large bungalow that also demonstrates this point (pic below).  But, despite the broad range of sizes of Craftsman bungalows, I think it’s safe to say that most bungalows were average-sized homes by modern standards.  That said, they were generally much smaller than the huge Queen Anne Victorians that were falling out of style after the turn-of-the-century.  But most bungalows were also far more affordable than Queen Anne Victorians, and this shift marked a gradual transition from architects catering mostly to an upper class clientele to a new focus on the rapidly-growing (and spending) middle class.

Was the Craftsman Bungalow the only popular house style at this time?

Definitely not.  There were several related house styles during this time period that kind of “overlapped.”  For example, at about the same time, the Prairie style was made popular by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Chicago school of architects.  The Prairie style had many similarities with Craftsman-style bungalows — including a low, horizontal form and roof lines with wide, overhanging eaves.  For example, see the pic below of the Allen-Lambe House – designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1915.

Even though the Prairie style was mostly an upper-class (or upper-middle-class) movement, there was a middle- and working-class spin off — the American Foursquare style (which I highlighted in another article).  The American Foursquare was a boxy, two-story house style, but it still featured some decorative elements from the Prairie aesthetic.  And in my experience, Foursquares often feature some Craftsman elements, as well.  For example, see the American Foursquare below, which has a similar roof, overhanging eaves, and pillars as the Prairie house pictured above.  But it also resembles many of the Craftsman bungalows illustrating this article — look especially at the wide, deep porch and the exposed rafters sticking out from the eaves under the roof line.

What to look for when identifying a Craftsman bungalow:

* Exterior: a low, horizontal emphasis (rather than the tall vertical look of Queen Anne Victorians, etc.) including a very low-pitched roof.  You might say that Craftsman houses look like they are ‘squatting’ compared to other houses that are standing tall & upright.

* wide eaves overhanging the roof.  Under these eaves, there are usually exposed rafters peaking out from under the roof.  Also, it is common to see large, false “braces” under the roof line, and sometimes, stick work in the gables that is meant to look like additional bracing.

* wide (and often deep) front porches – usually with large square or tapering pillars, and a wide staircase leading up to the porch.

* Natural looking materials & earthy colors (though color obviously changes on painted portions).  It’s common to see a lot of stonework used in porches & columns (again, that “earthy” emphasis), as well as rough-hewn wood & stucco surfaces on the exterior.

* thin vertical lines and skinny rectangles on slatted woodwork in windows (often 2-over1, 4-over-1 or even 6-over-1), on front doors, on porch rails, and sometimes on exterior stickwork.  Even the furniture sometimes found in Craftsman homes often had this look, since Craftsman style is closely tied to the “Mission” style.

* Interior: I’ve been inside a lot of Craftsman homes (usually legally, while selling real estate — not by breaking & entering), and the interiors of Craftsman houses generally featured a lot of unpainted, varnished wood to emphasize & appreciate the natural grains.  Lots of nice woodwork, usually with darker finishes.  At the time they were built, these homes were also often decorated with hand-crafted items (Arts & Crafts Movement) if the owner could afford them.  Mission-style furniture was and is still a popular compliment to Craftsman architecture.  Compare the vertically slatted windows above to the vertical lines on the piano & center table in the Craftsman interior below:

* it is very common for there to be a low, pillared bookshelf that partially divides the living room from dining room in Craftsman homes.  I’ve also seen these in American Foursquares from the same era.  Here are a couple of picture of what I’m talking about:

Another wood divider (with ionic columns) between the living room and dining room.

20 Pictures of Craftsman-style Bungalows.

The best way to learn a style is to see it visually, so check out all the pictures below (some are my photos, others I borrowed from elsewhere_.  The first house is one of my favorite bungalows.  I photographed this house in Mansfield, CT, years ago because it was one of the coolest Craftsman houses I had ever seen (and it was just across the street from another Craftsman bungalow I had listed for sale).  I recently found out from another blog that this beauty was just offered for sale:


Here are many more examples of Craftsman-style Bungalows — including some old Sears ads for Craftsman houses:



















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