Seattle, the 21st-century bungalow city

Seattle's love affair with the modest, architectural backbone of neighborhood housing continues, with an important landmark designation and new design guidelines for the next generation of urban cottages.
Crosscut archive image.

The newly landmarked Bloss House in West Seattle

Seattle's love affair with the modest, architectural backbone of neighborhood housing continues, with an important landmark designation and new design guidelines for the next generation of urban cottages.

One of the things that sets Seattle apart is its sprawling single-family neighborhoods, the backbone of which are acres of cozy, one-story bungalows. We're not the only bungalow city, but like Portland and Spokane, we came of age during the early 20th-century bungalow boomlet. Bungalows were the high-density, low-cost housing of that era, and shaped much of what we now mean when we talk about Seattle's character. Bungalows were an affordable, do-it-yourself (you could order them from Sears) solution to urban housing.

The status of the bungalow took an important step earlier this year when Seattle's Landmarks Board nominated and then designated in June as a city landmark a charming little house in West Seattle, for no other reason that the fact that it was an exemplar of the species and in prime original condition (not that common, as many old bungalows have been tinkered with over the years by home-improvers). Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle championed the nomination.

Called The Bloss House, even those who supported its designation admit that it doesn't leap out at you, and that's typical of bungalows: They don't make grand, architectural statements like fancy Victorians or modern edifices. They are bread-and-butter shelters, often with wonderful-but-quiet character, reserved mostly for their inhabitants.

According to the minutes of the Landmarks nomination meeting last spring, Andrea Mercado, director of the Log House Museum, said The Bloss House "has survived trends of avocado, orange shag carpet, gray and mauve of the 1980s and granite." She went on to argue for recognition of these humble abodes: "[W]hen you walk in, you stop and note 'this is what it was like in 1915' and . . . this is something to recognize in the history of Seattle because we're changing a lot, we are losing what we were. She said this is a working class house and we talk a lot about the people with the money and who changed and built Seattle as we know it. She said that these are the people who worked for those people — they may not have been visible and unheard of but vital to the history of Seattle."

Seattle has designated bungalows as landmarks before, but for special reasons. James W. Washington, Jr.'s Central Area bungalow was designated because of its association with him. Washington was an important Seattle African-American artist. The unique Ellsworth Storey Cottages at Coleman Park near Lake Washington Boulevard, a cluster of 11 bungalows, also were landmarked; they are on the National Register of Historic Places. Storey was (forgive the pun) a storied Seattle architect and one of the first to integrate native materials into his designs. The cottages are both wonderful in themselves and important because of their influence on local design. But The Bloss House is remarkable simply as a survivor, a time machine, an important example of what makes Seattle Seattle.

Will that open the floodgates for further bungalow nominations? Undoubtedly there are others out there deserving of a look: It is doubtful that The Bloss House will be the last word in bungalow appreciation, but it could be the start of giving heritage recognition to the urbanization trend that made Seattle what it is — and to the way a different century responded to the challenges of affordable density.

Lest you think the bungalow boom is over, it is not. In fact, the city is encouraging the next generation of bungalows, better known now as backyard cottages. Last year, Seattle decided to expand the permitting of these cottages throughout the city after a successful experiment with them (a move that attracted national publicity including this feature in USA Today). According to a press release from the Seattle Planning Commission and the Department of Planning and Development, 32 permits have been issued for new cottages since Dec. 2009, which will nearly double (to 60) the number of cottages in the city.

The city is pushing designs that help integrate backyard cottages into single family neighborhoods. One of the positive results from the initial test of them in South Seattle was that neighbors often didn't know they were there. If it works correctly, this is a quiet, backyard evolution in which the DIY impulse wins out over Big Development.

Invisible housing is the opposite of being a "landmark," until your city matures to the point where not being a landmark constitutes a qualification for being a landmark, as with The Bloss House. But look at the design guidelines (pdf) from June 2010 on the city's website and you might be struck, as I was, with how much it is official city policy to make these cottages as much like mini-bungalows as possible.

You might call them bungaloids. Indeed, the first image you encounter is a drawing of "Prototype A," a classic Craftsman-style cottage of studio-apartment size. But the similarities are in more than appearance. First, bungaloids are small and detached. Second, they are intended to increase the stock of affordable housing in single-family neighborhoods. Third, their selling point is that they aren't excessive but provide simple, efficient, and sustainable housing. Fourth, they fight sprawl one backyard at a time. Fifth, they are best if they preserve everyone's privacy (landlord, tenant, neighbors). Sixth, the guidelines encourage "timeless" design, especially design in keeping with the original architecture of your home which, in many cases, is probably a Seattle bungalow or classic Seattle box.

True, the guidelines provide examples of many architectural styles, but they keep coming back to Craftsman-influenced designs. Prototype F puts an Arts & Crafts-type, chalet-style cottage atop a garage, for example. The guidelines are quite interesting and lay out many best practices and examples to help educate the cottage builder. In some sense, they remind me of the catalogs and pattern books of the early 20th-century bungalow era, when you could pick a home kit or pattern from a catalog.

The city is helping Seattle cottage builders to think in a "Seattle way," encouraging design that works here rather than design that challenges the senses and sensibilities of your neighbors. No giving the folks next door the architectural finger. That's a smart move for many reasons, especially because they don't want to create backyard backlash and cause the city council to rethink cottages. When the council approved them, some council members stipulated that if they became too intrusive, they'd review the policy and perhaps limit their number.

The good news is, there's an active sensitivity to Seattle's architectural fabric, adapting examples of innovative turn-of-the-20th-century ideas to the turn-of-the-21st. This is a wonderful departure from the wrecking-ball mentality of the real-estate-bubbled '00s.

Note: For those eager to learn more about bungalows, Historic Seattle is putting on the 13th Annual Bungalow Fair, Sept. 25-26.)


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.