Bungalow People

The low-slung houses that never went away have a new generation of enthusiasts

They live among us. They might be your friends, co-workers, relatives—they might even be you. They appear normal at first glance. But get to know them, and you'll quickly learn they're driven by a compulsion difficult for the uninitiated to understand. They'll spend hours online or browsing bookstores, compulsively feeding their obsession. Their homes are stocked with pricey, handcrafted totem objects—each piece laden with meaning and significance. And their vacations center around congregations of the faithful or the sacred shrines of their holy figures. They're not members of a cult though, nor a commune. They're Bungalow People—devotees of a style of architecture that, to some, borders on the spiritual, if not the downright transcendent.

A HOUSE IS MORE THAN A HOME

"I find myself walking around this house about once a week thinking how much I like it," says Rachel Craig. "These houses were designed for people." And that is why she and her husband Jim Hagerman bought their bungalow, built in the 1920s in the Island Home neighborhood. She recalls how, when they first saw the house, "We came into the living room and the dining room and I said to Jim, 'I have to have this house.'" A one-and-a-half-story wood frame, with wide overhanging eaves and a deep front porch, Craig's house, no matter how special it is to her, is one of hundreds if not several thousand like it scattered all across Knoxville.

For something so common though, the bungalow has rather complicated origins. Its inspiration originated in India—the southern province of Bengal, to be exact—where pasty-faced English bureaucrats administering the jewel of Britain's colonial empire built low, shady houses based on native designs to shelter from the tropical sun. By the Victorian era, the style had migrated back to the mother-country—a move that happened to coincide with William Morris and friends launching a full fledged assault on industrial design and mass-production that became known as the Arts and Crafts movement. By the turn of the century, Arts and Crafts and the bungalow had swept into America, promoted by such prominent designers as Gustav Stickley, who even published a magazine—The Craftsman—devoted to the movement, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright, with characteristically pompous flair, called it the Prairie style and swore he'd made it all up himself. By 1920, bungalows were everywhere, even being sold in mass-produced kit form by Sears and Roebuck. William Morris would have no doubt been appalled.

But it is easy to see why the houses were popular. "I was sort of intuitively drawn to these kinds of houses," says Kim Davis who, along with husband Fred Sahms, lives in a 1915 bungalow in Old North Knoxville. "They're less ostentatious, with more free-flowing plans." A lack of fussy ornament doesn't mean they're plain, though. Just ask Ann Bennett, staff member for Knoxville's Historic Zoning Commission. "There's lots of wonderful, clean-lined design details," says Bennett, "wonderful woods. Lots of quarter-sawn oak." And bungalows had a good design that was readily adaptable to all parts of town, blue collar and white collar alike. According to Bennett, "They vary in size a lot and that style really lent itself to that. You could come up with the same house in very different price points—as they call it now."

And value is one reason bungalows are enjoying renewed popularity. "Where," asks Doug McDaniel, glancing around the 15-by-33-foot living room of his 1938 Tudor bungalow in South Knoxville's Lindbergh Forest, "are you going to find a living room this big without spending a gazillion dollars?" Those big, airy rooms are another big reason why bungalows are in demand. They're well suited to modern living. "They didn't call them great rooms," says Bennett, "but that's what they were—big family living areas, combined living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens."

But there's far more to bungalows than big rooms and clean design. "I look at new neighborhoods and you're just a cog in a machine," McDaniel says, hinting at why the bungalow's resurgence has been dubbed a movement. "Here you've got the chance for some self-expression."

HOUSE STYLE OR LIFE STYLE?

"Before we moved into this house," says Davis, "we wouldn't have dreamed of visiting historic districts in other cities. Now we do, and we've started touring Frank Lloyd Wright houses all around the country." Buying a bungalow is only the first step in what can become, in some cases, an all-consuming passion. From history to hardware, design to décor, there's a tremendous amount of homework that comes with buying one of these homes. Yet it's not something bungalow owners shy away from. In fact, for many, it's a big part of the attraction. Rachel Craig, along with husband Jim, has dived into the world of bungalows with "all the zeal of the newly converted....We've come to know quite a bit since we've bought the house," says Craig. "We have books and magazines and reproduction hardware catalogs."

Doug McDaniel is himself an encyclopedia of bungalow knowledge. During our interview, he darts around the house, showing me maker's marks on his modest but growing collection of Arts and Craft pottery. Next it's his autographed picture of the cast of This Old House. Or the 1890s Morris Chair in the living room—"a 19th century Laz-E-Boy" McDaniel calls it, contemplating the chair's deep, plush seat and sturdy oak construction.

Despite the enthusiasm though, McDaniel and his wife, Faith, aren't purists. The house is an eclectic assortment of 1890s and early 20th century antiques that mix effortlessly with pieces from IKEA and Pottery Barn. According to McDaniel, there's a simple reason why bungalow houses and Arts and Crafts furniture blend so easily with modern pieces. "Some of these styles are pure. They're distilled down to the basic form—things that never go out of style."

Sticklers for the real thing, however, need look no farther than The Stickley Furniture Company. Founded in 1900 by Craftsman publisher Gustav Stickley's brothers, the New York state-based company is still in business building carefully crafted furniture based on century-old Arts and Crafts designs. But such simple, unostentatious design doesn't come cheap. At Braden's Furniture, which carries the Stickley line, a Morris chair in oak and leather will set you back $1,300 and a buffet or hutch can run over two grand. That doesn't stop people from buying original Stickley though. In fact, according to Braden's Regina Clay, it's a big seller, one people seek out specifically. "They come in and ask for Stickley," Clay says. "They're very familiar with it—well versed in it. Maybe they already have a few pieces in the family."

ESSENTIAL HARDWARE

Furniture is only the beginning of bungalow home décor. From wrought-iron light fixtures to hand-hammered copper lock-plates, there's an astounding array of Arts and Crafts fixtures, fittings and hardware on the market today. But there's one piece of hardware that no 21st century bungalow can do without—a home computer. For the bungalow enthusiast, much as any other collector or hobbyist, the Internet is a powerful tool. "I've looked on the web a lot to see what kind of furniture and fixtures are out there," says Old North Knoxville's Kim Davis. And the number of manufacturers, distributors and online retailers is enormous. For Rachel Craig, the 'Net has been an indispensable source of ideas and inspiration. "We've found a lot of things on the Internet. We found a lot of companies whose catalogs we've ordered." Doug McDaniel, who owns a software company based in downtown's Digital Crossing, has gone one step farther and recently launched RestoreKnoxville.com—a commercial website devoted to old house obsessions (see sidebar).

The 'Net is also a good way to discover just how large and widespread the bungalow craze has become. "Jim found American Bungalow magazine," says Craig, "which we now subscribe to." Devoted to all things bungalow and published quarterly since 1990, American Bungalow is the bible of the "bungalow movement." Its glossy pages are crammed full of bungalow history, news, and restoration and decorating tips. "We've learned not to loan it to neighbors," says Faith McDaniel, "because it never comes back."

THE BUNGALOW MOVEMENT?

So why, in this age of over-the-top golf course McMansions, are bungalows enjoying such a resurgence? The reason goes back to why bungalows first caught on 100 years ago. At the end of the 19th century various Victorian styles had dominated the homebuilders trade for nearly a half-century. And thanks to the nation's new-found industrial wealth and the ability of that industry to crank out masses of machine-made moldings and ornamentation, late Victorian middle and upper-middle class houses were larger than ever before and covered in dizzying assortments of decorative clutter. Bungalows, with their clean, low-slung lines were a revolt against all that. Or, as Doug McDaniel puts it: "Arts and Crafts was the romantic transformation from everything built by a machine to something more organic." They were also a reflection of changing times. The stuffy formality of the Victorian era was slipping away, replaced by the looser, faster-paced modern world. Which leaves one wondering, does the bungalow's new popularity mean that the three-car garage, bonus-room monstrosities of modern suburbia are headed the way of the dinosaur?

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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