A century ago, visitors found respite in El Reposo Ranch in the foothills… (Sierra Madre Archives )
Living small is the new virtue. We have less clean air, water and land. Most of us have a lot less money. Fortunately, out here where the dream used to include a house of your own, we pioneered how to do simple very well. We built the box bungalow.
The last time the U.S. had a small-house surge was around 1900. Post-Civil War greed unleashed a progressive cry. Reformers announced that all citizens — new immigrants, working men and women, people on farms and in crumbling tenements — were entitled to a place to live. This call for a nation of houses was not a socialist screed but an attempt to fulfill an ideal: that the family, safe at home and healthy, was the heart of a democracy seeking progress for all, not for a ruling class of fat-cat bankers.
Domestic engineers stressed efficiency over size and ornament. Out went the cluttered Victorian, and in came the modern bungalow, with open floor plans and a broad, pitched roof that kept out sun, rain and snow. The new efficient house came in many forms and sizes, depending on budget and climate. Here, warm Southern California had Greene & Greene's elaborate, handcrafted masterworks; miles of mass-produced, suburban homes; and the very modest, one-room house with a shaded porch, ready-made or built to order at $75. It was dropped on a leased lot that was piped for water and wired for electricity.
A remarkable alternative, no less simple and no less livable, was the box bungalow and its variants.
In her new history of Sierra Madre, Michele Zack tells the story of the San Gabriel Valley community selling its cool, dry climate and natural beauty to tourists and to city dwellers suffering from the era's respiratory ills. At 1,500 feet above the sea, above the fog, El Reposo Ranch rented modest bungalows perched at the foothills' base. For $10 a day, with monthly rates available, the ranch promised "all the comforts of home": good food, shelter and health.
Homes-away-from-home like those at the ranch were found along the Pacific coast. They provided affordable alternatives to local development houses and luxury suites at ritzy San Diego and Redondo Beach hotels. Their low cost made them ideal for newlyweds, and their airy spaces healed legions of visitors.
Measuring from 9 by 12 feet to 20 by 32, the box bungalow had wood floors, frames and doors. Canvas panels formed walls that tilted open for air. A shower bath served two rooms furnished with bentwood chairs, a chest of drawers and metal beds. Luxury models had a fireplace, wood walls and glass windows. All had the good-living essential: the shaded porch. In hot or rainy weather, it was the ultimate indoor-outdoor room that preceded by decades the Spanish Revival patio and '50s lanai.
The idea of the bungalow was democratic, but local politics were not. Continuing a widespread tradition of stigmatizing the sick while gladly accepting their money, Sierra Madre in 1907 created a sanitaria-free zone to keep the ailing poor and tubercular out of a city center promoted as a destination for healthy tourists and recreational campers. At the north end of what today is Michillinda Avenue, El Reposo Ranch was in this zone but strategically promoted itself as a health refuge open to all except those believed to have infectious pulmonary disease. It was the last sanitarium permitted by the town, and the land has since been subdivided.
In form and function, the low-profile, 600-square-foot box bungalow was simple and direct. In the morals it embodied, however, the bungalow was complex. The house was affordable; it stood light on the land and asked little of its owners, its neighbors and the natural world. It shunned a generation of unrepentant profiteers by holding out a better life to many, not just a few.
The small house: It's an idea that's too big to fail.
Watters' past columns are archived at latimes.com/lostla. Comments: email@example.com