The Seattle Bungalow: People and Houses, 1900-1940
November 4, 2013
Review By Sherry McKay
As Janet Ore says in the preface to this book, she seeks to overturn many assumptions associated with the bungalow. First, she wishes to reexamine the universality of its Arts and Crafts credentials and assumed ideology. Second, she aims to demonstrate that, contrary to its purported meaning as a retreat from the modern industrial world, it facilitated a transition to modern consumer society. Finally, she counters the bungalow’s elite architectural pedigree with a building genealogy that highlights the role of class and gender in determining values and consumer choice as these related to houses and their locations.
Ore uses a methodology that is attentive to material practices, economic structure, and personal experience. The cross-disciplinary scope of this research is evidenced in the impressive sixteen-page bibliography and an appendix of graphs and tables that provide data on house form, mechanical systems, stylistic categories, construction dates, and the origin and occupation of occupants. Although not copiously illustrated, every map, plan, diagram, and photograph is judiciously chosen. The research is framed by contemporary debates on consumerism, vernacular architectural history, heritage conservation, and gender studies. It combines archival material with oral history, information from the popular and professional presses, on-site investigation, and secondary sources to plot the spatial and temporal aspects of the builder’s modest bungalow and its appearance in a specific locale – four north end suburbs of Seattle in the opening decades of the twentieth century. By stitching together her variously themed chapters with constant reference to one house and one family, she brings an ethnographic approach to the study of the modern built environment. Coinciding with consumer demand, sanitation legislation, and developments in domestic technology and industrial production, the bungalow was, Ore argues, an instrument that allowed those of modest incomes to enter the new consumer economy and to adapt to a modern world that was being shaped by mortgages and debt, proximity to streetcar lines, and economies in construction eveloped to offset the added costs of new domestic technology like bathroom fi xtures, numerous electrical outlets, and central heating. Sellers and buyers of ordinary bungalows, she asserts, “created something new, a landscape of consumerism” (95).
The value of The Seattle Bungalow resides in its refocusing attention away from the bungalow’s assumed aesthetic and ideological value to elite culture and, instead, towards the values of people of modest means and modern economic structures. She also makes the pertinent observation that the Arts and Crafts bungalow in Seattle was concerned with self-development, not with criticism of industrial capitalism, marking a profound difference between the United States and the England of William Morris. Arts and Crafts for the middle class in Seattle was “a phase, a therapeutic rather than a challenge to capitalism” (46). Consequently, the relations between aesthetics and class, value and economy, clearly come into view, and they compel a reassessment of what is modern in modern architecture. In this way, Ore’s work amplifies on regionally based studies of the bungalow, as exemplified by Robert Winter’s The California Bungalow (1980), with an approach more informed by ethnography and vernacular architecture studies. It is also an approach that refuses to equate vernacular with conservative thinking or nostalgia for the past; Ore’s distinction is that she understands “vernacular” as modern. Where she is less convincing is where she strays from her subject as neatly circumscribed by case studies and physical evidence into a more speculative realm: the concluding chapter on the legacy of the bungalow draws rather large conclusions from meagre data. Whether the result of methodology or vernacular focus, The Seattle Bungalow cannot capture the larger spatial, temporal, and economic context of the subject. For this context one might consult Anthony King’s path-breaking The Bungalow: The Production of a Global Culture (1984). Likewise, stretching the definition of the bungalow to include Colonial Rival, Tudor Revival, and four-square houses needed greater justification and was perhaps a missed opportunity for a more nuanced understanding of consumer choices. But Ore does offer the understanding that the bungalow must be read in multiple contexts and that attention must given to changes in its use and purpose according to space and time, and this insight could be profitably followed in researching the rich bungalow landscape of Vancouver and other cities in British Columbia. In addition, Ore provides a glimpse into a way in which suburbia, especially the inner city streetcar suburbs that constitute her modern landscape, might be understood.