In praise of the humble bungalow

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Earlier this year, Seattle’s single-family zoning suffered a near-death experience when Mayor Ed Murray’s affordable housing panel endorsed what would be an effective citywide up-zoning of the neighborhoods. It sparked an instant uproar, and the mayor quickly backed off. And for the moment, the dream of owning your own house in Seattle—if you can pull together the scratch—dodged a bullet.

The mainstay of that dream in the last century was the humble bungalow. In early-20th-century Seattle, the city was booming. Newcomers were pouring in. These were people drawn by urban lifestyle and jobs—not farmers or loggers, like the old pioneers. The new urban working class needed shelter, and it could get it, cheap. The bungalow was an ultramodern response to meet that need—the affordable housing initiative of its day. You could buy a 50-by-100-foot lot for a few hundred dollars and build a small house with all the modern conveniences, such as built-in bookshelves, a breakfast nook and an open floor plan. If you wanted, you could order a plan or a kit from the Amazon of that time, Sears, for $1,500.

The bungalow was modest, a one- or one-and-a-half-story home with a porch and generous eaves, set in a small yard, sometimes with million-dollar views of the Cascades and the Olympics. The city then had plenty of view property for sale. You didn’t have to be rich to own a home, or enjoy the scenery.

One of the great advantages of bungalows was their do-it-yourself nature. They were a popular component of the Craftsman movement that flourished from the 1890s to the late 1930s. It emphasized people learning to make or utilize handmade furniture, dishware, fixtures and the like. Seattle schools taught such craft skills. If you didn’t want to assemble your own bungalow, you hired a local architect and local craftsmen to put it together with native wood and stone.

The result was often a cottage that felt organic, a part of the landscape. These houses embodied a kind of self-sufficiency ethic long before community P-patches, rain barrels and recycling, all of which are an extension of the “think small” bungalow ethic.

Writing about bungalows in Pacific Northwest magazine in 1986, Rob Carson explained what they meant to the city. “The bungalow mirrored Northwest values….They were simple, well-made houses; they were honest and they were democratic…they represented social equality.” Even prosperous people built bungalows. In a 1910 issue of Pacific Builder and Engineer, a new bungalow on Mount Baker Ridge had a fabulous view, an upstairs maid’s room and a main floor plan that gave “the impression of generous reception rooms in a mansion of larger proportions.” No need for an actual mansion. The main living space was only about 1,600 square feet.

The onetime workhorse of affordability is now endangered, however. Seattle bungalows aren’t cheap, and haven’t been for a while, relatively speaking. I bought my first one in the late 1970s for $55,000, and my parents almost had a stroke over the price tag. Now, you see bungalows on the market commonly for $500,000 or more, up to $1 million in popular neighborhoods. Some affluent homebuyers are tearing them down for taller single-family homes—what I call “bungvillas”—a common sight in Madison Park.

Many worry that zoning and code changes could encourage the destruction of single-family homes, especially the remaining modest and most affordable bungalows—which will be replaced by more expensive town houses or triplexes. Danny Westneat, writing a “Save the bungalows” column in the Seattle Times a few months back, worried that proposed zoning rules would see the destruction of an existing $400,000 bungalow to be replaced with three $600,000 condos. Not exactly a help to affordability, though it would create more density. Would we be better off? There are those who think so.

Yet when we think of Seattle’s defining neighborhood characteristics, the surviving bungalows are a large piece of that. Bungalow neighborhoods offer a sense of variety and individuality. One poorly designed bungalow doesn’t hurt the character of a whole neighborhood, being one of many, unlike today’s big-box apartments that can impact, even ruin, the character of an entire block.

Many of Seattle's have been lovingly updated and maintained, their trees and yards are often a profusion of a century of growth. Others, ramshackle, still provide efficient and comparatively low-cost single-family housing.

We have yet to create the bungalow equivalent of 21st-century affordable housing, though we’ve experimented with micro housing and backyard cottages. This is a challenge for all of us. Can we design and integrate a new generation of housing into our neighborhoods without relying on ripping up the existing fabric? We’ll have to find a way, and I think it’s possible with good planning.

In a rapidly growing city where the haves have more and the have-nots are being squeezed out, the bungalows offer a lesson we ought to relearn. They recall a city figuring out a way to house its people affordably, without excess. To me, they reflect a lack of materialism, housing built not for profit, but for living in. They reflect a modest approach to life, one steeped in a conservation ethic: Don’t use more than you need. Seattle culture needs to find a way to get back to those values, and create a built environment that reflects it.

A version of this column first appeared in Seattle magazine.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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