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He Dwells on Beauty of California Bungalows

March 07, 1992|PATRICK MOTT

You could knock the guy's voice--it sounded like the bleating of elephant seals--but oh, did he love his subject. You had to admire a man who could earn a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins and still get a huge boot from bellowing out "In the Land of the Bungalow" (ukulele arrangement), a kind of sappy, low-wattage "California Here I Come." Plot summary: The hero gives up his East Coast sweetie for a shot at the So Cal good life in the kind of cozy little house Laurel and Hardy used to destroy.

Robert Winter loves bungalows. Give him an inch and he'll tell you the facade of Hearst Castle was partially inspired by classic bungalow design. And he'll have you believing it.

He was at it again at the Bowers Museum Education Center in Santa Ana last Wednesday night as the featured speaker (and, ultimately, singer) in the first of a four-part lecture series on California bungalows sponsored by the Orange County Historical Society Conservancy.

And if Winter can't persuade you that our particular style of bungalow is the finest middle-class dwelling on earth, your imagination needs an overhaul. After an hour with Winter, who's a professor of the History of Ideas at Occidental College and an author of architectural books, including "The California Bungalow," you'll sell your nouveau condo at half-price and won't settle for anything that was built after 1929.

To come to this epiphany, you need to know that the bungalow isn't just a cute little house, but a symbol of a significant social and cultural movement.

The word derives from the name of the typical native hut in the Bengal region of India in which the main living area was central and the more functional areas for cooking and sleeping placed around it. When the British administrators arrived during the time of the Raj, they thought the structure admirable and adapted it to their own uses, adding a few Western architectural touches.

It wasn't until late in the last century, however, that the bungalow began to represent a kind of rebellion. The enemy was the impersonal mechanization and urbanization of the Industrial Revolution. The good guys appeared as advocates of what came to be known as the arts and crafts movement, dedicated to tempering the technological steamroller with an emphasis on personal craftsmanship, beauty and a return to more tranquil surroundings.

The bungalow became an architectural symbol of the movement. It was compact and inexpensive and designed for country living, a rural retreat away from the madding crowd. And you could knock it together just about any way you wanted--a cut-rate vehicle for free expression. The idea, said Winter, was to build it free-standing, with only one story, and design it for a single family. If those three elements are present, said Winter, you've got yourself a bungalow.

"It was the sort of thing that was built for people of moderate means," he said. "It was designed for the common person, but with style. It was respectable. It had some of the style of the more lavish buildings."

The bungalow arrived in the Golden State around 1900 and quickly hit the big time as a kind of cultural hybrid. Winter apologized in advance if anyone in the lecture audience thought the common description of one of the most prevalent California bungalow styles sounded racist, but there was no escaping the fact that the Southern California landscape is awash in the Japo-Suisso style.

Go to Santa Ana or Orange or Fullerton and take a look at a few. That long, low roof pitch--it looks Japanese, doesn't it? But look again. The total effect also sort of resembles a Swiss chalet, right? You're looking at a trademark California bungalow of the Japo-Suisso style.

"They have that horizontality," said Winter. "The house is hugging the earth."

Not that it was the only style around here. Japo-Suisso, said Winter, enjoyed its heyday in the '20s. In subsequent decades, bungalows appeared in almost every style conceivable: Spanish, Moorish, Art Deco, ranch. Winter even had a slide of one with a pillared porch that looked a lot like the Parthenon.

Inside, however, the design elements tend to be fairly similar: living area in the front, kitchen and bedrooms in the back. Built-in bookcases, small tile fireplaces and window seats are common.

Also common is darkness. Bungalows were apparently not built with the thought of letting in much of the Southern California sun. This, said Winter, is one of the reasons the kitchens and the bathrooms were almost invariably painted a bright white.

Still, he said, they remain adaptable to the tastes of owners, even modern owners. The bungalows will accept almost any kind of furniture and still remain cozy. But, he said, it's not a good idea to deviate far from the bungalow's original purpose: to provide a restful retreat, a kind of simulation of rural tranquillity in the city. Large-scale interior renovation or turning the house into a Twilight Zone of stark modernity tends to wipe out cozy with a stroke.

Perhaps the acid test of any interior treatment of your bungalow might be this: If you can stand in the middle of the living room and sing "In the Land of the Bungalow" (ukulele arrangement) without bursting into helpless laughter, you've got a winner.

But it ain't easy. Trust me.

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