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ARCHITECT'S VIEWPOINT

Over 30 years, dramatic shifts in style and materials

Second in a series

March 30, 2003|Arrol Gellner | Special to The Times

The Craftsman bungalow had reached its typical form by 1920 -- an exterior clad in shingle or rustic siding, a chimney of river rock or clinker brick and a wealth of spiky wooden detailing on the boards concealing the roof timbers and on rafter tails.

The style's hallmark was its front porch, which almost invariably sported a pair of tapered columns supporting a small gable roof echoing the main one.

The floor plan was a simple rectangle containing six rooms, often with no interior hall. Built-in furniture such as sideboards and bookcases were meant to help clear out the Victorian clutter of furniture in favor of pristine, sun-filled spaces.

Builders turned out Craftsman bungalows by the tens of thousands. But the mid-1920s saw the Craftsman exterior finish gradually phased out in favor of stucco, a cheaper material that gave these insubstantial, small houses a massive appearance that their Craftsman predecessors lacked. The stucco finish also earned these houses a new name: California bungalow.

The decade of the '20s also saw the beginning of a dramatic change in architectural tastes. Tiring of the increasingly predictable bungalow, Americans began to pine for the sort of escapist architecture they were seeing in escapist films of the era, such as romantic Spanish haciendas, half-timbered manor houses and turreted French farmhouses.

These exotic styles were reproduced on a diminutive scale by the obliging builders of the time and, collectively known as the Romance Revival, they remain among the most charming and colorful homes America has produced.

Then, in the early 1930s, change arrived from the other end of the architectural spectrum. The divergent brands of Modernism espoused by Frank Lloyd Wright's domestic work and Europe's Bauhaus school of design finally made some inroads into residential architecture.

Known today by names such as Prairie School, Art Deco and Streamline Moderne, nontraditional designs using smooth surfaces, sleek curves and flat roofs made a small but important showing in American architecture through the eve of World War II.

For the most part, Modernism was limited to custom homes and commercial work, such as stores and theaters. Modernist architects did little to further the efficient production of housing, despite their love of machines and technology. In fact, they did just the opposite. Through their preoccupation with flawless finishes, they frequently made their designs more costly and difficult to build than traditional ones.

Ironically, it was developers at the other end of the price spectrum who made technical progress in postwar home designs. World War II had ended the Depression, but it also interrupted housing construction, creating a huge demand for homes by war's end. Economy and efficiency became the twin objectives of postwar builders, who introduced such cost- and labor-saving measures as slab floors, drywall and hollow-core doors.

Although these materials are sometimes equated with slapdash construction, they represent one of the few instances of real progress in building methods during this century.

In the process of addressing the housing shortage, developers also learned how to mass produce houses and market them. By asking as little as $100 down at tracts such as Long Island's Levittown, developers made it easy for American families to achieve the dream of homeownership -- never mind that the houses all looked remarkably alike.

Next: The rancher rides in.

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Arrol Gellner is an architect with 24 years' experience in residential and commercial architecture. Distributed by Inman News Features.

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