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We put together a little overview of some common regional varieties of the bungalow. It's available as an 11 x 14" print in our shop.
Generally, what makes a bungalow a "bungalow" is that it's a one- or one-and-a-half story home with a low-sloping roof and generally some kind of front-entry-shading veranda or dormer that distinguishes the face of it. They often have a fairly strong horizontal symmetry. There are many instances of the term being used liberally to describe much more elaborate homes--sometimes bungalow is used in connection with a home that might be considered a getaway home, or one that shares some of the looks of the traditional bungalow, multiplied by ten.
But these depicted below represent many forms that, at least, mark the American bungalow. They share a lineage with the traditional homes of the region of Bengal in South Asia (a region that includes India, as well as Bangladesh. In India, the state is West Bengal). British colonials lived in homes built by locals according to local designs and adaptation, and brought the home style back to Great Britain in the late 1800s. The Gujarati word for "from Bengal" was "bangalo."
By the early 1900s the style had caught on not only in Britain but also in America and major building booms and the availability of mass manufactured home kits for the middle class ensured that the bungalow found a ready audience. The bungalow style caught on widely in California and spread to other parts of the country between 1910 and the Great Depression, when for obvious reasons demand for new housing slowed.
Below I will go through the distinguishing features of each variety. These descriptions do not, by any means, mean that you can't find "The California " in the South or a "Southern" in the Midwest--these are just names for the varieties that are frequently seen in these places. You'll see TONS of "The Chicago" in Chicago, for one example.
This variety is notable by its roofline. See those really nice, wide, upside-down "V" shapes (the gables). Those gables are the stars of the California bungalow. They are often accentuated in a few ways: With prominent brackets, distinctive shingles, sometimes with different colors. They are usually prominent from the street view and have these nice, low angles. Sometimes there are two gables, as below, but often it's just one big gable.
These reflect the Craftsman style that was popular in the day. Lots of use of natural elements, wood in particular, and an emphasis on a handmade look. So you'll often see roughly hewn shingles, prominent wood trim, or impressive stonework in these.
Chicago saw a TON of home building in the time period that bungalows were popular--so much so that, according to the Chicago Bungalow Association, bungalows comprise nearly a third (!) of Chicago's existing single-family home stock. Because the city grew outward from the confluence of the Chicago river and Lake Michigan, bungalows' popularity for a certain few decades of building meant that it formed a "belt" around the city that exists today from North to South.
The Chicago bungalow is distinctive for being decidedly brick (the Chicago fire of 1871 and the Iroquis Fire of 1903 made the city very strict about preferring brick to wood). It also is generally long and narrow, built for the 25' x 125' standard Chicago lots. So unlike the broad-faced California bungalows, Chicago bungalows have a compact front from the streetview. They are also notable for their symmetry, central dormer, and prominent set of front windows--these are often a showcase for leaded glass designs.
In Chicago you'll find many in the standard brick color, as below, but also quite a few in yellow brick. I am in love with yellow brick bungalows with green trim on the windows, green Spanish tile roof. Throw some great terra cotta on there and that's heaven.
One of the defining characteristics of the Milwaukee bungalow is the protruding sun room that also serves as a little tucked-away front entryway. As you see in the other bungalows, this bungalow variety has a couple gables--like a mother and child gable. The Milwaukee bungalows are also known for having a light-colored stucco on the tops and bottoms.
They are also commonly seen with this kind of Darth Vader-head roof, called a "jerkinhead" roof. The term has some fuzzy origins, but the best that I've read has traced "jerkin" to "kirken" which was some Northern European language's word for church. The supposition was that the jerkinhead roof resembled that of the top of a church. The word "jerkin" also refers to a close-fitting leather jacket without sleeves. (The kind you might see worn by men in a movie about Shakespeare).
From what I've seen, the Milwaukee bungalow seems to be closer in dimensions to the Chicago, with a narrow face and a long, shotgun like arrangement, than the broad California, though they do seem a bit wider than Chicago.
I looked at a variety of historical photos and illustrations of homes from the Bengal region and many of them have that wide, front shaded veranda, a horizontal symmetry, a low-angled gable, and a dormer-like notch right at the top.
They traditionally had been constructed with wood, bamboo and a straw material called "khar," though homes are often constructed with red clay tiles. Terra cotta is incorporated in architecture through the region generally.
It's important to note that "Bengal" is a region that straddles India (the state of "West Bengal") and modern-day Bangladesh. At the time that home was introduced to the British, it was all considered part of India, pre-partition.
The Detroit bungalow is distinct for the big, central dormer and the sloping roofline. Generally they have a symmetry like the Chicago bungalow, and are often but not necessarily made of brick. Here's a selection from "A Detroit Architect's Journal:"
"Detroit Bungalows were typically built in the Craftsman architectural style. They are typically 1-1/2 stories, with sweeping low pitched gabled or hipped roofs that extend over a front porch that matches the width of the home. The first floor is typically raised a half story to allow for perimeter windows to bring light into a full basement. Dormers bring added living space and light into the attic story and provide an opportunity for the architect to design distinctive front elevations. The chimney also rises along a side elevation, and again provides an opportunity for creative designs frequently done in brick or stone."
The bungalow in the South is marked by two distinguishing features: a huge, wide veranda and touches of Greek Revival style, like stately columns, a liberal use of white, a grand entrance.
Essentially you just take the bungalow and add splashes of what's already going on in Southern residential architecture. Make your front entrance impressive, make sure it's shaded, and make sure you've got some great places to sit on it. You'll see these wide bungalows in places like Alabama in particular.
One thing you might see in hot climates, too, is the "airplane" bungalow--which have a dormer that sits at the peak of the roof and has windows in all directions, like a cockpit. Airplane bungalows would have a bedroom there and be set up to catch breezes from all sides.
Mediterranean Revival Bungalow
This a style of bungalow that came somewhat later in the bungalow craze, 1920s, and is a larger umbrella category for a number of Revival styles from the Mediterranean. Spanish Revival, Spanish Baroque, Venetian Gothic, Italian Renaissance all found fans in homeowners and architects in that period. It's reflected in the commercial buildings of the day but also the humble homes like the bungalow.
This variety is marked, essentially, by traditional features that you'd find in the Mediterranean countries: stucco, clay rile roofs, arched windows and doors. If we trace the lineage even further: consider that the Roman empire completely dominated the Mediterranean for hundreds of years and that many of the styles you see from Spain to Italy reflect some of the same aesthetic choices, great for the climate.
You'll see this variety all over but of course most often in places whose climate is suited for it. In Chicago you might see this style but done up with Chicago brick instead of stucco.
Basically if you see a bungalow and say, wow that looks like it belongs in Spain, then you're looking at a Mediterranean Revival.
The "Borscht Belt" was a term for a handful of summer resorts in the Catskills, in upstate New York. It sprang up at a time when bungalows were popular nationwide, in the 1920s, and many of the resorts were archipelagos of small bungalow cottages, little getaways. They would be summer homes for many Central and Eastern European Jewish families looking to escape New York City for a spell.
From what I could find, many such bungalows had a fairly modest wood-frame build, they would have siding and colored trim. They were built, really, to serve their purpose, which was as a little summer cabin getaway. They have more in common, perhaps, with the classic cabin rentals that you see around the country, but some of them certainly had the marks of the classic bungalow design.
The Borscht Belt, BTW, was also a major hub for comedy and the place where a huge number of comedians, Jewish comedians in particular, performed. Some of them were hugely successful. Rodney Dangerfield, George Burns, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks.