The California Bungalow: Part 1, The History of the California Bungalow

Take a drive around Melbourne’s northern suburbs and you will notice the proliferation of a particular style of single-story house; it is clear that during the early part of the 20th Century, Melbourne builders went a little ga ga for the Californian Bungalow. From the kerb, this house is recognisable by its sloping roof, modest front porch, and balanced – as opposed to symmetrical – arrangement. Over our next four blogs, we will be shining a spotlight on this popular, globe-trotting family home, beginning this week with a brief history.

Origins in India and Los Angeles

As you might have guessed, the first true Californian Bungalows were built in the US state of California. But the origins of the style can in fact be traced back to the Indian subcontinent, specifically to the state of Bengal. The word ‘Bungalow’ comes from the Hindi Bangla, meaning a house in the Bengali style. English colonials living in India during the late 1800s substituted the traditional thatched roof with tiles, making spacious homes that stayed relatively cool in the sweltering tropical heat.

Through these expats, the style found its way to the United States and California, where mass suburbanisation was taking hold. The need for housing that was affordable, fared well in relatively high temperatures, and was quick and easy to build, made the Bungalow an ideal model for early 20th Century America. By around 1905, the Californian Bungalow was an entrenched and instantly recognisable fixture of the Los Angeles landscape.

Famous Examples

The area of Pasadena CA colloquially known as Bungalow Heaven became Pasadena’s first Historic Landmark District in 1989. This area features a style of Bungalow that is more ornate than the typical CA Bungalows seen throughout the US and Australia today. Many of these were designed and built by the Greene Brothers, and they feature a low-gabled roof with wide eaves, a light-weight timber structure, and shingled roof.

There are some particularly spectacular early examples of the Californian Bungalow still standing. Some feature expansive gardens and elaborate, two-or-three-story structures, these iconic homes are the apex of the American Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th Century. Among many notable design features, these houses used natural materials, fine detailing, and spacious, airy interior spaces.

The Typical Californian Bungalow

Californian Bungalows can still be seen in many American cities, usually a little way out of the urban centre in heritage suburbs. The typical Californian Bungalow features wood shingle, brick or stone chimney, and covered front porch. The “true” California is made of timber, not brick, although many variations throughout the US, Australia, and New Zealand use brick as the primary construction material.

Unlike many of the grander styles of home imported from England and Europe, the Californian Bungalow was designed and built to house working families. Rather than having the living areas cut off from the kitchen, Californian Bungalows feature simple but spacious common areas and a smaller kitchen.

Journey to Australia

From around 1913, the California Bungalow became a popular style of new home throughout Australia and New Zealand. This was partly due to similar social and environmental conditions – namely, rapid suburbanisation and warmer climates – but also due to the large-scale cultural export of all things American, notably the advent of the Hollywood film industry and the arrival of US architectural magazines and journals. Prior to this, Australian and New Zealand architecture had been primarily influenced by British and, to a lesser extent, mainland European styles.

Unlike the traditional Californian Bungalow, it was not uncommon for the California Bungalow Australia produced to be made of brick. In Melbourne, they were made using local redbrick, while Sydney builders used a liver-coloured brick and South Australians employed limestone. Queensland’s Californian Bungalows were built with timber and used sheet-metal roofing instead of tiles.

The Californian Bungalow Today

Although most of the existing Californian Bungalows today were built during the previous century, they remain hugely popular and are quickly snapped up when they come on the market. Extensive California Bungalow renovation has also become popular. Often, this involves building an extension to the back of the house, such as an additional common area that uses large windows or glass doors to make the most of natural lighting.

Californian Bungalows are still primarily found in the US, Australia, and New Zealand. The style was so popular during the 1920s that virtually no other kind of house was built on a large scale. Though overtaken by other styles, such as Georgian, Dutch Colonial, and Spanish Colonial revivals during the mid-20th Century, Californian Bungalows have themselves undergone something of a revival in recent years, and those still in good condition are highly sought after.

Still to Come

In our next blog, we’ll be taking a closer look at the Californian Bungalow in Australia. We will discuss in greater depth the conditions that made Australia the ideal landscape. We will cover the changes it underwent in transition and how the availability of different building materials, as well as the different landscape, resulted in a distinctly Australian breed of this American classic.

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