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Our long national love affair with the American bungalow
Marc Maron isn't the only one who fancies this throwback style of architecture
 
In the 1900s, bungalow housing developments like this one became as American as apple pie.
In the 1900s, bungalow housing developments like this one became as American as apple pie. (GraphicaArtis/Corbis)

What do Back to the Future (1985), Old School (2003), and IFC's Maron (2013–present) have in common? Their characters live in American bungalows, also known as Craftsman and/or Arts and Crafts homes — typically one story, rectangular shaped, mostly brick with low-pitched roofs, generous windows, and thick porches.

Bungalows are also the homes of characters in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), L.A. Confidential (1997), Training Day (2001), Monster-in-Law (2005), Must Love Dogs (2005), Beverly Hills 90210 (1990-2000), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), and Grimm (2011–present).

Even in Hollywood's early years, Culver Studios built bungalows for its offices and residential spaces for actors. Apparently, Alfred Hitchcock worked out of one, and Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh inhabited two while filming Gone With the Wind (1939).

So why is Hollywood so taken with American bungalows?

For one thing, although it descends from India, the bungalow took hold in Southern California in the late 1800s. This geographic proximity is arguably a key reason that Hollywood gravitates toward bungalows. Because so many bungalows exist in and around Los Angeles, renting one (as opposed to constructing the façade of a house) makes for much cheaper shooting.

From a cinematographer's perspective, bungalows are ideal since they are usually wide and flat with open floor plans. This makes it easier for casts and crews to move about.

Bungalows' yards are also usually full of foliage, since the architecture is supposed to function as an extension of nature — sprouting from the earth, as it were. Such thick greenery also helps block out other houses and cars that the cinematographer may not want in the background of the camera's frame.

But it's not merely convenience. The bungalow's style is simple, casual, and unfussy. It was an undeniable reaction to the ornate characteristics of the previous era's Victorian homes, and thus uniquely American. Bungalows — through their sturdy look, earthy colors, and homey feel — exude the sense of stability, old-fashioned values, and the American Dream.

What's funny, though, is that bungalows are hardly an American creation. Originally called a banggolo or bangala and shaped like an overturned ship (curved roof that extended nearly all the way to the ground), the bungalow derives from Bengali, India. As the British colonized India, they adopted the banggolo, changing the name to bungalow and making some modifications. They added a veranda (from the Hindi word varanda) or a wrap-around porch along with hipped roofs, wooden doors, and glass-paned windows.

In the early 1900s, the bungalow exploded in America, becoming a national phenomenon in every part of the country that encountered population growth in the 1910s and 1920s. American bungalows could be built for as little as $900 before World War I; as a result, they helped many Americans fulfill their wish of owning a home.

The American bungalow's simple lines allowed for easy and fast construction, which led to precut "kit homes" that could be shipped anywhere near a railway. And again, since these Craftsman homes were supposed to appear to be growing out of the earth, many even came with fruit trees and a vegetable garden to supply food for the family table. American bungalows also introduced "the breakfast nook," slide-out cutting boards, deep bin drawers, telephone niches, and foldout ironing boards.

Bungalows are still a draw for American families. Seattle, Detroit, Milwaukee, and New York's Catskills feature large swaths of bungalows.

Perhaps even more impressive, bungalows represent nearly one third of Chicago's single-family housing stock. Because of the sheer number of houses here, one can take bungalow tours and participate in bungalow preservation initiatives. HGTV's House Hunters recently featured a young couple who would consider only Chicago's historical bungalows for their first home. More personally, my spouse and I are restoring a 1924 bungalow in the suburbs of Chicago (for the curious, we're sharing our trials and triumphs at Bungalow Reboot).

With 24-hour news networks, 500 TV channels, unceasing social media feeds, and 50-hour workweeks, Americans' lives are filled with enough clutter. Why infuse our homes with the same? Maybe that's another reason so many American still gravitate toward the comfortable, earthy, and inviting bungalow. It provides a simplicity we so dearly miss.

 
Kelli Marshall teaches courses on Seinfeld, stand-up comedy, film musicals, Spike Lee, and other fun stuff at DePaul University. Read more about her take on the media and her experiences in higher ed at kellimarshall.net.

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