Explore Buffalo’s public tours have returned! We are shifting gears from weekly building profiles to highlights from our tours that we are once again offering to the public. This week, Master Docent Denise Prince shares some history and highlights from our Buffalo’s Bungalows tour.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, the bungalow – characterized by a dominant roof line with wide eaves, sheltered porches, sturdy wood moldings and interiors centered around a cozy hearth – embodied the romanticized ideal of the American home. The bungalow craze first took hold out west when California was experiencing tremendous growth. In fact, the classic bungalow style that we are familiar with today is sometimes called a “California” or “Craftsman” bungalow. The Craftsman bungalow frequently has a low-pitched, gabled roof with wide eaves exposing roof rafters, beams or braces supporting the eaves, and a sheltered front porch with square columns that rise from the ground beyond the porch floor. These cozy homes tend to blend nicely with their environment and relate well to a setting of trees and landscaped earth.
Between the years 1900 and 1910, Buffalo experienced a precipitous increase in population adding 70,000 residents for a gain of twenty percent. When many Americans were moving from rentals to owning their own homes, bungalows fulfilled the needs of this burgeoning middle class: they were modestly sized, did not require domestic servants, and were affordable. Coming as they did on a plot of land, bungalows had the added benefit of garden space permitting families to grow a portion of their own food. It may come as a surprise to us today, but early twentieth century bungalows were also considered modern. They were built in largely new neighborhoods and boasted state-of-the-art services such as plumbing, sewer, gas lines, and eventually, electricity. Bungalows can be found throughout the City of Buffalo – anywhere neighborhoods arose in the first three decades of the twentieth century and generally found in proximity to another popular Buffalo homestead, the ubiquitous “double.”
East Side Bungalow (c.1920)
South Buffalo Bungalow (c.1927)
West Side Bungalows (c.1905)
The origin of the word “bungalow” can be traced to India and the Hindi word bangla, meaning a house in the Bengal style: a single story, thatched-roof house surrounded by a veranda. British colonists adopted this building type to use as resting stops along the road, and later as station houses for railways. The first known home to be called “bungalow” in the United States dates from 1879. Built at Monument Beach in Massachusetts, it was a large two and one-half stories tall vacation home, rectangular in plan, with a dominant, sheltering roof and a prominent wrap-around veranda. Aside from the sheltering roof line, the bungalow at Monument Beach would not be recognized as a bungalow today owing to its large size. The term “bungalow” can be loosely defined as a small home of no more than one and one-half stories tall (a half-story, such as found in many attics, occurs when a sloping roof line prevents walls from rising in a vertical line to meet the ceiling).
As befits this rather vague definition, bungalows can be seen in a variety of styles from Greek Revival – complete with a pediment surmounting Greek columns – to Spanish Mission style, or even a Victorian gingerbread design. Architectural plans for bungalows were sold in books, magazines, and catalogs, and came in a variety of designs for every architectural preference. For those with DIY goals, Sears Roebuck sold prefabricated bungalow “kits” that you could build yourself. These kits included all the lumber and hardware necessary to complete the home including even “fancy leaded art glass” windows in some cases. Materials such as bricks, cement, and plaster had to be supplied by the homeowner or builder. It has been estimated that between the years 1890-1950, ten percent of all single family homes were built from kits, fifty percent were influenced by books, magazines, or catalogs, and the remaining forty percent were completed in traditional or vernacular styles.
North Buffalo Bungalow (c.1920)
East Side Bungalow (c.1900)
Following the stock market crash of October 1929 and the subsequent decade plus of economic contraction, construction of bungalows – along with nearly everything else – came to a screeching halt. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill, helped many returning World War II veterans (with the unforgivable exception of veterans of color) obtain low cost mortgages in order to pursue the American dream of home ownership. By this time, what was once considered modern and new, had become hopelessly old-fashioned and out of date; bungalows lost their appeal at a time when the demand for new housing skyrocketed. Inexpensive tract houses in new automobile suburbs became highly desirable. People had come to expect plumbing and electrical services in their homes, but now a sleek aesthetic was also considered desirable – out with the old and in with the new!
The modern Ranch home answered the call. Streamlined trim and an open-concept floor plan became de rigueur. In recent years, however, there has been a renewed interest in the humble bungalow, with its emphasis on craftsmanship, environmental friendliness, and simple living. Indeed, the bungalow of yore that embodies the romanticized American idyll of a single-family home in a picturesque garden has earned a rightful place in our esteem once again.
Lead image: North Buffalo Bungalow (c.1911)
You can discover more local architecture and history by joining an Explore Buffalo tour (tickets can be purchased here), signing up for the weekly email newsletter, which is filled with local history content every Monday, and by following Explore Buffalo on Facebook. In a typical year, more than 80% of Explore Buffalo’s revenue comes from tours, events, and other public programs, all of which were suspended until July 2020. You can help Explore Buffalo to continue its mission of promoting Buffalo architecture and history during this time by:
- Donating online at explorebuffalo.org/donate
- Buying a gift certificate at explorebuffalo.org/gift-shop
- Purchasing an annual Explorer Pass at explorebuffalo.org/explorer-pass
Also see Explore Buffalo Building Profiles: