Blogging Bayport Alameda

October 1, 2015

I remember it well

Filed under: Alameda — Lauren Do @ 6:01 am

I often wondered as I read (and hear) folks maligning the aesthetics of new construction if there were ever similar statements made when some of the cherished old homes were first newly constructed.  Or, if new home aesthetics and building techniques simply just are worse in the modern age than they were when someone’s bungalow or Queen Anne was built.  While I was interested, I was not really that motivated to do any research on the topic.  But, hey look, the Atlantic did it for everyone who has ever wondered and anyone who had ever sneered while visiting a model home for new construction.   From the Atlantic:

This represents what one might call the “immaculate-conception theory” of development. It holds that unlike the homes constructed today, older housing was built the right way—modestly and without an eye for profit. These older values, in turn, imply the faults of modern buildings: gaudy and wasteful, disruptive to existing communities, and motivated only by money.

To begin with, many of the arbiters of taste of the bungalow era believed those new bungalow neighborhoods “ruined” the character of the places they were built, just as new apartment buildings are maligned today. They even had a snappy put-down for it: “bungalow disease.” “Tradition has broken down,” wrote the British planner Thomas Sharp, describing a proliferation of bungalows on both sides of the Atlantic, and “taste is utterly debased … The old trees and hedgerows … have given place to concrete posts and avenues of telegraph poles, to hoardings and enamel advertising signs.”


Critics accused the new bungalow neighborhoods not just of being ugly, but of ripping apart the social fabric of the city. One writer argued that in new neighborhoods full of many separate houses, “each building is treated in isolation, nothing binds it to the next one,” and as a result they lacked an “essential” “togetherness.”

And that’s just the aesthetic and “lack of fitting in” argument. But even worse is what the new bungalow boom came with:

[T]he bungalow era coincided with the development of zoning codes—codes that were essential, in fact, to preserving many bungalow neighborhoods’ all-single-family character. The people who advocated for these zoning codes did so by explicitly arguing that they were needed to protect the property values of homeowners and other landowners. In other words, the denizens of the early 20th century cared so much about their houses as a financial investments that they invented an entire new regulatory infrastructure to ensure that they wouldn’t lose their value.

And of course, “not losing their value” was very closely tied to excluding any kinds of people who might threaten the neighborhood’s desirability. It’s impossible to talk about the development of urban American neighborhoods in the early 20th century without acknowledging that this was the period in which modern residential racial segregation emerged—a system of exclusion enforced by covenants, zoning, and violence carried out by the residents of all kinds of neighborhoods. This isn’t some separate issue from how those who were excluding, rather than excluded, built their homes and communities: It’s an integral part of the story, without which those bungalow neighborhoods may have looked quite different.

Look before anyone gets their hackles up, what this writer is saying is not that you are a racist or complicit in everything bad in the world for living in a bungalow, but that understanding that history of how your beloved historic house came into being is important in context to what is happening today.

The wrap up:

Why have we forgotten all of this? Partly because all the people in these stories are gone. We can’t see the developers laying roads and streetcar tracks to open up huge new areas for subdivisions; we can’t see the disproportionately wealthy people who were able to buy homes when required down payments routinely hit 50 percent. We can’t talk to the people who remember, and miss, what existed in these places before bungalows. All that’s left are the buildings, which over the years have lost their sheen of newness, often becoming more affordable in the process, and allowing us to imagine our own stories about where they came from.

[E]verything old was once new, and new things often provoke a backlash. We ought to be humble in believing that our opinions represent some timeless, objective truth, looking backwards or forwards. The same bungalows that seem to us quaint and charming were tacky and soulless to many of the people watching them be built; it seems more than possible that the new apartment buildings we vilify today will be thought of sentimentally by future generations who know them only as an important part of their city since they were born.

A second lesson is that American cities have an impressive history of growing to accommodate new arrivals. What’s frequently left out of immaculate-conception stories is that the bungalow era was also the fastest period of urbanization in American history: Between 1900 and 1930, Seattle’s population grew more than fourfold, from 80,000 to over 360,000—a rate of growth approached or exceeded by many other American cities at the time. In the process, millions of rural Americans and immigrants were given the opportunity to live in newly industrializing cities where wages and quality of life were dramatically higher. Today, most of our cities have shut the door on that kind of growth.

While we all want the jobs and the higher wages that come with located near an urban city, hardly anyone wants to deal with the sacrifices to their quality of life that would help other families and individuals increase their quality of life.   One last thing to point out, but honestly reading the whole thing, particular for residents of a city like Alameda which wears the mantle of a large historic housing stock proudly:

[T]he deeply affordable and decent homes of the bungalow era were largely in multifamily buildings. It’s curious that, though more than four in 10 of the homes built in the 1920s were in apartment buildings, that kind of construction—and those kinds of people—are entirely absent from romantic musings about the time. But they were a crucial source of urban accommodations for people of modest incomes.

But yet we still cling on to an 40 year old ban on multi-family housing as though that — in itself — will preserve the historic character of this city.

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16 Comments

  1. It is all a matter of choice. I grew up in an old “architectural gem” which my dad would say “they don’t build them like they use to”, with the cracked plaster, too small of bathrooms, hodge-podge kitchens, strange too small closets, iron pipes, strange electrical system, poor insulation, poor heating systems, inefficient windows and storm windows, and the list goes on.

    We chose new construction for a reason. My sister built a new house on some of my dad property before he died, and although he still lived in “the manor” with the historic character…he was amazed at how well my sisters house turned out and all the details he liked. The people who bought my dads old house are essentially gutting it and keeping some of the old “charm”, but by the time they finish it, it will cost them double of what a new house would and that is there choice. None of my dads 6 kids wanted the house, we all live in newer construction by choice.

    I know Denise is really into her little old house and too small of garage, but it isn’t for everyone. It is funny the apartment building from the 20’s are gems today…and they call the “Bachelor Quarters” on the base historic…it looks like a old dorm to me. Some people like antique’s but some like me see it as junk. I went to the antique faire once and thought wtf…

    I like driving by looking at them but don’t want an old charming house.

    Comment by joelsf — October 1, 2015 @ 7:57 am

  2. The gist of this article is undeniably true. I’ve posted these thoughts many time before but will repeat them. As we moved through the decades of the mid-twentieth century, there was a period where building methods evolved and some buildings in each era where built extremely cheaply. I’ve worked on a certain type of bungalow which is most often stucco and maybe split level from the twenties through forties which are aggravatingly cheap construction and others from the same era which are simply terribly designed. Many of the homes east of Versailles are highly valued and considered aesthetically desirable in this modern era, but the crawl spaces are beyond claustrophobic, they are prone to dry-rot and remediating failure of features like poorly designed leaded glass is extremely expensive to address. Many modern buildings which are very plain have high design aesthetics by a lot of people’s standards, but those are well constructed with careful eye to design, while.the cheap apartment buildings which hold a dozen or more people which decimated Alameda in the fifties and sixties are probably the height of for profit construction with zero regard at all for aesthetic. Only in the last ten years have we begun to see developers put a little spare change into what are structurally minor changes which make a huge difference. The refacing of South Shore mall was a step in the right direction, but the materials and design at Alameda Landing are a huge leap for strip mall construction compared to 15 years earlier. The homes by Warmington at Bayport are light years improved over Marina Cove by K&B and the tracts at Old Island Auto Movie site which preceded. Detached homes at Bayport have small lots because land is so expensive and the charter prohibited town houses, not because people didn’t want yards, but zoning is a separate from the aesthetics of quality and design. They really tried on the Phua building but just didn’t get it, while the brick Wallgreen’s building and one between it and the Marketplace have pretty high design standard but still using cheaper modern methods and materials. I’d rather see a modern building with some thoughtful detail than a cheap faux Victorian era any day. Finally some may pooh-pooh it, but the Golden Mean of proportion is ancient and has hung around for good reason..

    Comment by MI — October 1, 2015 @ 9:12 am

  3. More or less agree, Mark, and would add that one reason older architecture is valued is because the better looking examples of it are what survives. All eras have had cheap & ugly but a portion of these ugly cheapies are either leveled or remodeled.

    Comment by dave — October 1, 2015 @ 9:18 am

  4. Thanks Lauren. You brought forth a relevant and important perspective to the highly emotional discussion that architecture always seems to engender in Alameda. It’s never really about aesthetics for the most part, mostly about exclusiveness, which is unfortunate because aesthetics and architecture offer us a means as a community to provide ourselves with a pleasing environment for life and work. I appreciate Mark’s elucidation of the subject as well.
    I find that once the public understands more about what architects are trying to achieve with their designs, they back off on their blatantly ignorant and critical comments. When a couple members of the council were too quick to denigrate the Del Monte affordable project design, its architect stood up and very politely explained the historical and aesthetic references he was trying to achieve and the council members in question, justifiable chagrined, took back their remarks. In the U.S. we don’t get a design education as part of our main schooling and we are somewhat puzzled by what the study and discipline of architecture is all about. I feel sorry for architects. They go to school, attempt to offer something thoughtful and innovative and get told its ugly and “looks like Soviet-style architecture,” one of my all time favorite lines. I hope that’s changing and I think some of the new construction we are seeing is a strong attempt at delivering what it actually should be: a functional and beautiful place to live.

    And I think no. 3 is also right. The fine Victorians we laud were the homes of the wealthy. Those of the lower classes were torn down a long time ago.

    Comment by Laura Thomas — October 1, 2015 @ 10:34 am

  5. In another city with vocal and highly opinionated residents – what’s now generally considered an iconic landmark was roundly criticized when it was first proposed and built.
    “The popular French writer Guy de Maupassant (1850 – 1893) reportedly ate lunch in the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant every day for years — not because he loved the great iron monument but because, so the story goes, it was the only place in Paris where he could sit and not see the tower itself. Maupassant, like countless French artists and aestheticians of the late 19th century, despised Gustave Eiffel‘s creation, seeing it as a vulgar eyesore and a blight on their beloved Parisian skyline.” http://time.com/3879761/the-eiffel-tower-at-125-a-paris-landmark-captured-in-a-classic-photo/

    Comment by Jordan — October 1, 2015 @ 11:06 am

  6. Mark is correct: *sometimes* we learn by experience and develop better designs, improve accessibility–even for crawl spaces–and
    make better use of stronger, more durable materials.

    Sometimes we take wrong turns, however, such as the use of asbestos, lead, and other toxic materials in “modern” homes during the 20th century.

    I cannot help but wonder how many of our modern physical ills might be reduced if we had not discovered the wonders of modern petrochemistry: we are now outgassed and otherwise assaulted by all manner of plastics, glues, formaldehydes, and other nasty %$#@! in more “modern” structures. Everything from vinyl furniture, synthetic carpets, coatings, and “wood-like products” used in construction to pressed-wood furniture is loaded with petrochemicals that rarely–if ever–are screened for their effects on human biology or our environment. Like DDT, we only discover the deleterious effects long after we have unleashed a “successful” chemical on our hapless planet–and ourselves.

    And we have even less of an inkling of the extent to which these newer toxins–most less than 75 years old–interact once they combine in our environment and in our bodies, affecting our breathing, our brains, and our genes. And the average North American person has about 500 known petrochemicals embedded in her/his body these days….

    Would we not be better off using real lumber and other more natural, sustainable materials in all of our more “modern” construction
    and home furnishings, along with universal design, better crawl spaces, bigger kitchens, and more useful closets?

    Comment by Jon Spangler — October 1, 2015 @ 11:39 am

  7. 5. is really a good one. Seattle Space Needle could be similar.

    I was watching documentary on post revolution Cuban architects involved in designing and building a government arts school, which was abandoned for lack of funding before completion. It looked very cool to me. The government adopted a new policy of strictly utilitarian construction in the name of the objective of the revolution. The product was literally really awful Soviet style buildings. Worse, the designers who didn’t immediately fall in line had to dig ditches on construction projects and were basically denied a career. A few managed to emigrate to places like Paris. Ironically there was a chief architect who enforced the redirection.

    Some architects deserve disdain. Historically in construction there has been an ongoing antagonism between builders who consider themselves pragmatic and architects who can be very theoretical or ignore pragmatic concerns, as well as just not understand basic construction if they didn’t swing a hammer during the summer between classes. . Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings are generally touted for integrating into the landscape, but many people find the interiors of the same houses to be oppressive, lacking light and closet space etc.. People love to disparage the design parameters for Sea Ranch in Sonoma which restrict any eaves or over hang. One can argue the aesthetics, but for ocean front with driving rains it seems pretty dumb. Frank Gehry is another controversial architect. I appreciate some of his designs but find him to be an arrogant putz ( the Emperor with no clothes). Then there is Le Corbusier who seemed to be well motivated but was disdained by Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. The former U.C. art museum was relatively new but has been condemned as seismically unsound. I don’t know who designed the new building on Oxford, but the exterior looks like a metal sculpture of a giant dog turd.

    Comment by MI — October 1, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

  8. #6 The toxicity of the modern US environment seems to be exaggerated, if not completely non-existent.

    According to this data, life-expectancy (at birth) for Americans has monotonically increased from 59.7 years in 1930, to 78.7 years in 2010.

    Almost 20 extra years!! In less than a currently expected lifetime (70 < 78.7)!!

    http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0005148.html

    Comment by Brock — October 1, 2015 @ 2:27 pm

  9. Our old house. http://aiaeb.org/documents/ArchNews/ArchNewsMay2015.pdf

    Comment by Gerard L. — October 1, 2015 @ 2:56 pm

  10. #8 Life span alone does not mean people are healthy.

    How many long term, chronic illnesses and diseases do people have today? They may be alive, but not healthy.

    Comment by A Neighbor — October 1, 2015 @ 4:24 pm

  11. so Brock, you see living longer as a good thing, A Neighbor see’s it as a bad thing, go figure.

    Comment by John P. — October 1, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

  12. #10, My mom lived in her own large home with a big yard until she died, three weeks short of her 99th birthday. The day before she died she went with me to COSTCO, the bank, the grocery, and to a hardware store to look at fixtures to remodel one of her bathroom showers. Typical day out for her. No walker, no cane. She planted a good sized vegetable garden each summer and tended to her own watering. Other than a yard man and a cleaning person once every other week, she took care of herself and was writing her third book on the computer at the time of her death. All of us over 70 people are not decrepit, helpless, and drooling. People are living longer and many are living enjoyable lives, active and happy. Yes, some people are dying from diseases more prevalent in old age than before, but many are healthy and mentally acute in their eighties and nineties.

    Comment by Kate Quick — October 1, 2015 @ 6:14 pm

  13. Kate, I’m 72, my mom passed away last year at 97, living by herself at home. I’m shoot-in for 101. I’ll go In my tomatoes just like the Godfather. With a glass of wine.

    Comment by John P. — October 1, 2015 @ 6:45 pm

  14. #4. Laura Thomas, I agree with you except for your last sentence. The streets on the tracks, Lincoln and to a lesser degree, Encinal, are lined with many Victorian cottages that were built for ordinary working people. They weren’t all torn down. Also, because quality materials such as old growth redwood and fir were relatively cheap from close by sources, they were built with some materials that are not affordable today.

    But in general, I agree that buildings of any era can be built with quality or cheaply. And people have a funny kind of nostalgia about houses– right now we are going through the mid-Century Modern nostalgia era in furnishings, but haven’t really made it there in the house building itself, maybe because Alameda has few if any examples of good architecture from that era.

    Comment by Kevis Brownson — October 1, 2015 @ 8:05 pm

  15. 10. I would argue that broadly gathered statistical increases in lifespan, extending almost two decades, do indicate that people are healthier. We aren’t talking about diseased people languishing in the hospital hooked up to tubes here.

    I’ll add to Kate and John P’s evidence. My dad is who is nearing 70 is planning a ~14 mile hike through the Utah wilderness (had to postpone due to the recent flooding there) with one of his neighbors. He had both of his knees replaced two years ago.

    Am I nervous that this young neighbor is pushing my dad too far? Maybe a little bit. The neighbor is in his mid 80s though.

    Comment by Brock — October 2, 2015 @ 9:56 am

  16. 9. that’s a nice looking kitchen. I have run across a half dozen great women residential architects in Alameda and worked with a couple. Thinking about it, I’m not sure any of them swung a hammer is the summer. That may be true for the couple male architects I know in town. Most architects ( male) I’ve run across who have done construction are quick to point it out. I very recently was at the memorial for a woman friend who studied architecture at Cal in the early nineties. She was older than a lot of grad students ( must have been in her fifties). Many testimonials given about her rallying the other women who must have been less than a dozen in a large class of over 30. In fact it was the theme. She had told me it was a bit of a boys club, but a professor who spoke at her memorial was a woman.

    Comment by MI — October 2, 2015 @ 6:04 pm


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