Travel Scholarship: The Bungalow Courts of Pasadena
The towns of the San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley, and the Los Angeles basin started to grow rapidly during the latter part of the 19th century and on into the 20th century. Property speculators and homesteaders alike began to build homes to fit the various lifestyles and income levels of the people moving to the region. Unique styles of both attached multi-family homes and detached dwellings were popular at the time. This post describes my documentation of the historic housing still preserved in Pasadena as part of the Caron Travel Scholarship. I will be showing famous examples of houses and some utilitarian houses and how they contrast with how we approach low-rise density today.
As with many stories of the West, this one also begins with the railroad. Pasadena became a stop on the Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1887, following its popularity as a sanitarium for asthmatics and a resort for other wealthy mid-westerners. Soon, citrus orchards were being parceled out and sold to developers to build housing for the city’s burgeoning population.
The city’s agricultural past is evident in its street grid, east-west streets are erratic, while north-south streets all align to create very long, but wide blocks of approximately 10 acres each, or approximately 360 feet by 1500 feet each in the historic core area of the town. The resulting residential parcels are 180-200 feet deep in most instances with alleys at the rear. For comparison, the average platted lots in Seattle are 50-60 wide by 100-120 feet deep. The large platted lots resulted in the ability for developers to put multiple dwellings on one lot; the smaller the dwelling, the more could be placed on each lot. This development pattern gave rise to the bungalow court: multiple small dwellings sharing a common space on one lot. In some cases the dwellings were attached, in others each dwelling was a stand-alone structure.
Considered quaint today, these structures were considered quite utilitarian for the time. The units could be rented, or sold as rent-to-own like a proto-condominium. Although small and very stripped down ornamentally, the units in the bungalow courts were built in the prevailing style of the time: the craftsman, and featured much of the same detailing, especially on the interior. Built-in cabinetry was featured in every room and every unit had a covered porch, no matter how small, that opened onto a common courtyard.
While the courtyard functionally kept the notoriously thin-walled units cool in the summer, the philosophy behind it was that every unit had access to the “healing” power of the California air. Recall, many people moved out west to escape the cold, soot-filled air of many eastern and mid-western cities, which they believed (largely anecdotally) caused not only asthma, but many other diseases.
Not coincidentally many bungalow courts followed in the style of the craftsman movement, as the style was largely developed in Pasadena. The most notable example being the Gamble House designed by the architectural firm Greene & Greene. The commission for the Gamble House was followed by several other houses in the same neighborhood along Orange Grove Boulevard overlooking the valley west towards Glendale. The style developed by Greene & Greene was distinctly American, but followed lockstep with the larger Arts and Crafts movement coming out of Britain at the time.
The philosophy of the style is rooted in promoting and celebrating the handiwork of the craftsperson: the carpenter, cabinet-maker, seamstress, and metalworker over factory-made, mass-manufactured items. Developers were eager to promote this new style and its egalitarian underpinnings by filling their bungalows with redwood cabinetry, adobe hearths and views of nature out of windows set under sweeping deep roof eaves.
Contemporary low-rise multifamily development in Seattle shows evidence of many of the details of the bungalow court. Common courtyards are promoted to build a community within the development and to also provide a space filled with plants and trees. Density is achieved by putting as many units on a parcel as potential buyers will accept, with small units often being placed in the densest configurations. For a number of years Seattle’s land use code actually enforced a craftsman-inspired style for all low-rise multifamily buildings, through requirements for roof pitch, trim size, and either lap or shingle siding.
The popularity and success of the bungalow court as a multifamily development really caused the style to spread and to be imprinted onto the minds of those who live in the West as the quintessential style of our region. The sense of place evoked by the style can certainly be tied directly to its use in zoning regulations throughout many western cities and towns. Understanding the positive aspects of the bungalow court and its origins can help us as designers conceptualize new developments and to integrate our designs into the urban landscape.