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.