Bungalows and Craftsman Houses

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of posts about architecture in Montgomery. For earlier installments of the series by Elizabeth Ann Brown, click here.

Houses like these are the staple of neighborhoods which developed in the 1920’s. The wires are a testament to the need for underground service!

From the mansions of Perry Street to the cottages of Martha Street, people in Montgomery took advantage of the materials brought to them by the Industrial Revolution to make new and fancy architecture. Toward the end of the 19th and into the 20th centuries, the face of Montgomery would change dramatically thanks to a new movement urging architects to turn away from industrialization. The Craftsman movement praised the value of hand work, the strength of simple craftsmanship, and the honor of materials and structure.

Craftsman and bungalow architecture rejected the classical orders and “decoration-for-decoration’s-sake” to bring out the honesty of craftsmanship and the beauty of materials in their own right. The overall form of the Craftsman house is a fairly straightforward box with a low pitched gable or hip roof, although intersecting volumes are not uncommon. Craftsman’s characteristically horizontal proportions replaced Victorian architecture’s striking verticality. Square columns became more popular and were noticeably heavier at the bottom than the top, a style called “entasis” in Greek and Roman architecture but now more commonly called “battered.” Sometimes, even the door and window frames were battered to match. Gone were the carved and turned brackets and boxed eaves that had held forth for a couple of centuries, replaced by the tails of rafters coming right out of the attic to show themselves. Structure was expressed as part of the overall architecture (creating nightmares for generations of house painters).

Windows made significant changes, too. They sometimes featured multi-light sashes on the top for decoration (and to break up the scale), but usually had one large pane on the bottom for a clear view outside. One popular pattern not seen before included three or more vertical panes on the top sash and one large pane on the bottom. Leaded glass transoms and specialty windows continued to be popular, but designs were more rectilinear than the sinuous curves of the Victorians and Colonial Revival.

At some point, we painted everything white. Color seems to be making a comeback, and homeowners on Clanton Avenue have adopted earth-tones for a period appearance.

Earth-toned palettes characterized both exterior and interior colors. Popular combinations included house colors of dark brown or dark yellow-green (think US Army) with brown or dark red trim. Savvy preservationists in the block of Clanton Avenue between Decatur and Hull Street have painted their houses in these dark, muted natural palettes, restoring a more period look to their street. Dark mustard, bittersweet, green and dark red were also popular on the interior, blending softly with both dark and natural finishes on the oak woodwork, doors, mantles and beamed ceilings.

Heavy brick piers are a strong design feature, visually tying this bungalow to the ground. Note also the gable braces, and the brick and concrete front porch.

As my goal on this blog has been to provide information about the buildings we walk or drive by every day (what we can see from the public way) I haven’t talked much about interiors. I don’t want to leave the subject of bungalows, though, without saying something about their insides. They represent the first time that architectural design was considered from the point of view of the housewife rather than the servant. The result is a home in which the kitchen is constructed for functionality and ease of cleaning. The house was designed to be a place where a woman could make a home and build the strength of her family. This meant losing the sitting room as a formal place to receive guests. It became the living room, a place for family activity. Out was the beautiful, but stiff, formal woodwork based on historical precedent. In came simple forms and useful objects like built-in bookcases and china cabinets that showcased materials. All of these come together to make an interior that is still comfortable and useful today – probably more than any style up to that point.

My vote for the best front porch in Montgomery. Perhaps not a classic bungalow with these arcaded columns, this Capitol Heights example has brown stained shingles and white painted woodwork, a popular color scheme in Montgomery.

The porch, well-entrenched as a domestic space in the South, became even more important during the Craftsman boom. Those of us with air conditioning (I only know one holdout) have likely forgotten that the house was hottest in the early evening, after the attic (at that point in history, lacking insulation) radiated the full passion of a summer day into the interior of the house. People went outside, not only to spend time with their neighbors and watch the children, but to survive! Swings, gliders, and wicker furniture made for a summer living room that everyone enjoyed in the evening. It was popular to screen the porch, or a section of the porch, to provide at least some protection from insect annoyance. Ceiling fans were numerous, making a breeze even when nature didn’t provide one. Porch materials were still commonly wood, but advances in material production also meant that more durable and water resistant materials like concrete, brick, and tile found their way into the homes of the middle class.

A California “Bungalow Heaven,” everything about this Lakeview Street house makes it hug the earth. Look at the very low pitched roof, and the long banks of windows with horizontal transoms. Solid porch enclosure instead of railings are a design feature we don’t see much in the South.

Landscaping also made some big design changes with Craftsman and bungalow styles. For the first time in design history, bushes were planted next to the house. Our modern eye has a hard time understanding a building that meets the ground without benefit of bushes, unless that building is downtown. Once foundation planting came into style, everyone planted bushes around the foundation of every house, new or old, so that the picture of the Greek Revival mansion with huge “Pride of Mobile” azaleas all around just looks right to us, when the correct historical view, without bushes, looks like something is missing. In the 19th century, bushes next to the house were seen as a way for snakes, bugs and evil vapors from moisture to find their way into the home. The new designs promoted foundation planting  as a way to “soften” the transition between the house and the ground, a view which hasn’t really gone out of style since.

A hip roof rather than a gable, but exposed rafter tails, great windows, and heavy brick piers that must be a Capitol Parkway character-defining feature.

The timing was just right for Craftsman and bungalow houses to flourish in Montgomery, as our first two suburbs developed about this time. Capitol Heights and Cloverdale both provided a setting for these houses of great domestic charm. So, too, did the extensions of Decatur, Hull, McDonough, Lawrence, Perry and Court from downtown.

In Capital Heights, Capitol Parkway has bungalows and Craftsman houses of all scales and sizes, in addition to a handsome and broad median. One sees the very common gable-end-to-the-street style, but with some interesting twists in detail and material to provide interest and variety. There are also a couple of pergolas, like an arbor but attached to the house. They are a better idea in Southern California, where it never seldom rains, than in Alabama, a climate which could grow rot as a cash crop. A pergola is designed to provide a place to train a vine to provide a green and leafy place to sit. It’s great to see many of the pergolas on Capitol Parkway restored, if vine-less. I’ve gone to many houses over the years and heard the homeowner say, “I don’t know why that side of the porch doesn’t have a roof,” with no idea it was once covered by a pergola.

A secret Montgomery treasure is a tiny area of high-style, early, “California” bungalows at the end of Highland Avenue. Next time you go to Walmart (and if you won’t admit to shopping Walmart, then Chick-Fil-A), go toward Lee High School on Ann Street and take a left on Highland and then right on Longview, and drive around Plum, Grace, Thrasher and Panama to look at these Pasadena-cum-Montgomery houses. All have low, low pitched roofs with lattice attic ventilation, heavy open porch framing, casement windows, and interesting shingle and siding variations. All are very different from other Montgomery bungalows. What a treat to find these houses in Montgomery! Were these ordered up from one of the mail-order house places like Sears or Aladdin? Or did some developer buy a book of plans and decide to get his money’s worth?

An exercise in texture and scale, the recent restoration of this house shows it to be one of the finest houses on Felder Avenue.

Cloverdale also shows us some well-developed examples, including the recently restored example on the corner of Felder and Galena. This is a great house! The beauty and simplicity of the materials and design make the stonework of the porch stand out as a design element. Further down, the house we all know as the Fitzgerald House is more subtle, but the dark brown color, the exposed rafter tails, the very broad overhanging eaves all mark it as Craftsman. Next door, the Fuller house completes Felder’s Craftsman charm. Oddly, neither of these houses has any front porch to speak of, although both have commodious sun porches for evening relaxation.

Although the Garden District has its share of high-style examples, the one-story examples on McDonough, Lawrence, and Court really catch my eye. Mostly modest, they derive their design strength from their numbers. Almost invariably with the gable end to the street, they all have wonderful porches, knee-bracing in the eaves, and that “drop” wood siding we all recognize, with the little scoop to make a good shadow line where the boards fit together. Have you every noticed how often streets of houses like this are featured in advertisements? I think it must be because these neighborhoods convey the idea of “home” like no other.

From the bungalow design guide: Low pitched roof? Check. Front porch? Check. Battered columns? Check. Windows with multi-paned top sash? Check. Carved brackets in the eave and dentil molding? No, holdovers from Victorian cottages!

And no trip though the Craftsman trend in Montgomery is complete without a drive or stroll down Winthrop Court and Rose Lane to see excellent, early examples of the bungalow style. This would include your author’s own home, which although definitely bungalow in style, has hold-over eave brackets from the Victorian design book.

From the Department of Further Reading: One of the foremost proponents of Craftsman and bungalow styles was Gustav Stickley. Probably better known now for the astronomical prices for the furniture he and his brothers manufactured, his full interest was in the Craftsman movement as a domestic lifestyle. He published a magazine called “The Craftsman,” for a decade or so, a selection of which is available in paperback as, Craftsman Bungalows: 59 Homes from “The Craftsman,” available new for less than $20.00, and used on Amazon, Alibris, and Abe websites for less than $5.00. Also interesting is, Craftsman Houses: The 1913 Catalog, by Gustav Stickley, (about $15.00). Get Cheryl at Capitol Book and News to order it. Finally, a little volume, West Coast Bungalows of the 1920’s by E. W. Stillwell is a bargain at $6.95.

Elizabeth Ann Brown has lived in and loved Montgomery’s Garden District for more than twenty years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a masters degree in Community Planning from Auburn University. Her hobbies include pursuit of the ultimate chicken salad sandwich, bicycling, and working on her old house, a 1913 bungalow.

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There Are 3 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Carole king says:

    Great bungalow information and you didn’t bypass my favorite “Frank Lloyd Wright wanna-be” on Lakeview. That four block area was developed just prior to World War I by Fred Cramton and called Bungalow City. These houses are almost doll-like by comparison, built on small lots, and often stained a dark green, brown or red. They were billed by the developer as “ultra modern, compact and functional, and easy to heat and maintain.” (Remember When by Tom Conner). Thanks for giving them the attention they deserve!

    • Elizabeth Ann Brown says:

      I should have known you would know where these came from! Fred Cramton is also responsible for the Lawrence and McDonough bungalows, wonderful but not so stylish. I can’t believe people aren’t knocking each other over the head to buy and restore Bunglaow City! There are obviously some folks who really love their houses over there, but also a rash of vinyl siding and replacement windows.

  2. Jeff Sisneros says:

    My wife and I are learning more and more about “Bungalow City”. We have owned our home on Longview for almost 7 years now and wouldn’t take anything for it. We bought it from someone who apparently took very good care of their home. We take pride in doing the same, a work in progress. We hopefully will own a few neighboring houses to”bring up” this neighborhood. Too much has been neglected and abused around here. Ours was built in 1930 and hopefully last us our time here. I’ll do some research to see whether or not Mr. Cramton had a had in building our home.

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