When it comes to admiring old houses, I tend to favor rustic, 200-year old post & beam structures. Yet some of my favorite historic houses are much more modern: Craftsman-style bungalows. This article will highlight the history & characteristics of this beautiful architectural style.
The Craftsman style was popular from about 1905 until the Great Depression (about 1930). To narrow it down more, based on my own personal experience, I think it’s safe to say that if you spot a Craftsman bungalow there is very good chance it was built during the 12-year period between 1915 and 1927. However, when guessing the age of a house, a lot depends on where you’re at — west coast or Midwest; city or country, and so on. But age can be important. Since Craftsman homes were built during the 20th century, some folks might not consider these houses as “historic” as other historic homes. But consider that during the next decade, many of these Craftsman homes will hit their century-mark in age — and quite a few are already 100 years old. So, comparatively, they are already what Civil War era houses were to people in the year 1972.
Craftsman bungalows are now very popular with preservationists and young homeowners wanting to restore a beautiful historic house back to its original splendor. And there is additional fascination among many old house lovers because a fair amount of these bungalows are Sears houses (or other “mail-order”/”kit” homes like Aladdin and Bennett). If you don’t know about Sears houses, it worked like this: you would pick out a house from a catalog, order it, and the parts to assemble it would arrive on train cars in your home town (or nearby). Ready-to-assemble. Consider below a 1923 advertisement for Sears’ “Avalon” kit house, a modern and stylish bungalow that would cost you over , 500!
So what was the “Craftsman” style all about?
In part, Craftsman architecture was a reaction to the excessive, over-the-top ornamentation of the Victorian era (I mean, seriously….look at the picture on the right….can you imagine painting all the trim on that thing?). The architectural pendulum was swinging back, so to speak, and the Craftsman style simplified house forms and ornamentation considerably. A contemporary of the movement stressed a return to “soul satisfying craftsmanship, over [the] soul-less, machine made goods” of the Victorian era. Gustave Stickley, perhaps the biggest promoter of the larger “Arts and Crafts” movement (especially through his magazine The Craftsman) once characterized a Craftsman-style home as “a house reduced to it’s simplest form… its low, broad proportions and absolute lack of ornamentation gives it a character so natural and unaffected that it seems to… blend with any landscape.” Many also pointed out that the shift from Victorian to Craftsman could be interpreted as a shift from elaborate, delicate, “feminine” Victorian designs to more “masculine, ” square, bold, & simple forms. Indeed, the Craftsman bungalow was intended to appear solid, heavy, and sturdy in almost every way. Compare this simple, bold Craftsman bungalow (below) to the “frilly” Victorian above.
The Arts and Crafts Movement (and the related Craftsman architecture) was also part of the “Progressive Movement” in America — which critiqued the abuses of big business and industrialization (including the abuse of workers), while at the same time promoting a “you-can-do-it-yourself” mentality (this probably helped fuel the demand for build-it-yourself “kit” houses from Sears). Indeed, Gustave Stickley and many other proponents of the movement saw the Craftsman style not only as a new design trend, but rather part of a whole new ethic for how to live one’s life more simply, more purely. This coincided with a movement to improve the “modernity” of houses. Sears houses were marketed as Sears “Modern Homes, ” and they helped spread modern conveniences such as electricity, central heating, and indoor plumbing to many Americans. There was also an emphasis on improving the comfort, functionality, and flow of houses (for example, the “breakfast nook” in the kitchen first popped-up during this era).