Streetcar suburbs, bungalows, and the American craftsman movement: a brief history

In spite of all the HGTV I watch, to be honest, I didn’t know much about what a bungalow is until I decided to buy one. And of course, once I did learn about them it just gives me another reason to feel smug about my decision to live in a uh, “up and coming” neighborhood instead of the cushy 1990s-era suburbs where I grew up ;).

Bungalows perhaps exemplify the Arts and Crafts movement, which began in Britain as a rejection of both over-wrought, ornate Victorian styles, as well as, according to Wikipedia, “the Industrial Revolution, with its disregard for the individual worker and degradation of the dignity of human labor.”  Craftsman design seeks to emphasize clean, simple lines and handmade craftsmanship over the mass-produced.

William Morris, Artist, Utopian Socialist, and Father of the Arts and Crafts Movement (photo from Wikimedia commons)

Throughout the United States, the original suburbs began to pop up on the outskirts of major cities as streetcar lines were built — Mount Rainier is one such “streetcar suburb.”  In the early 20th century, you could purchase a little plot of land in these early developments, select and build your own home from the Sears catalogue, and live out the American dream.

Bungalows were designed to be accessible to your average American worker.  They are small but efficient — definitely no “bonus rooms” or wasted space here.  Designed “for the people,” bungalows introduced certain design elements that would never have been found in Victorian-era homes — for example, the eat-in kitchen, for families to gather while meals were prepared, since servants were not doing the work.

A typical craftsman bungalow in Seattle (Photo from wikimedia commons)

Once the automobile achieved its prominent spot in society and streetcars were dismantled, these close-in communities began to decline alongside their urban counterparts in the shadow of the more distant suburbs and exurbs we know and love (or love to hate) today.  As developers, rather than homeowners, began designing people’s homes for them, neo-eclectic homes, with little creativity but lots of square footage and prominent garages, of course, began to dominate architectural styles.  But these days, with McMansions falling out of favor and ever longer commutes, the historic streetcar suburbs may make a resurgence.

Yeah, what the heck is this? (photo from wikimedia commons)

Old homes may be a hassle, but in the long run, it has been found that restoring the existing housing stock is greener and more efficient than continual expansion of new construction.  I take comfort in the fact that while my house may need some modernization and cosmetic updates, it has been standing for 90 years, and was built with the loving hands of its owners rather than some developer who is solely concerned with the bottom line.  In other words, it’s got good bones.

It’s not something I ever knew about before, but these days I cannot drive through a city or neighborhood without trying to figure out what architectural style the homes are.  Funny how homeownership will do that to you!




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