Friday, October 31, 2008

More Totally OT -- Stickley, Craftsman, Greene and Greene

Those who have followed this blog any length of time know that I have an interest -- shall we say -- in houses and domestic issues, particularly as they relate to the period from about 1900-1960.

The illustration above is interior from Gustav Stickley's "Craftsman Houses" c. 1905 . There are a lot of Craftsman style bungalows in my neighborhood in California, and our place in New Mexico was started right around 1900 and has some Craftsman touches in woodwork and style, although it is not really a "bungalow" at all.

So I enjoy Stickley's magazine ("The Craftsman") and his books of houses that are available online through Google Books. As I page through them, and as I recollect my visits to all sorts of Craftsman bungalows here and elsewhere, I get very strong images of what life must have been like for up to date households at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century.

Something tells me it wasn't necessarily very nice all in all.

The Stickley houses are type models of what was Modern then. Their clean lines, built in furnishings, rational floor plans, and adapable spaces were all the height of progress at the time, and these houses were considered to be very easy to live in compared to the overly fussy and badly planned houses of the High Victorian era. Because the Craftsman bungalows were considered so advanced -- and became so popular -- Stickley houses seem relatively "modern" even today, though modern households have to undergo considerable adaptation to live in them. In my California neighborhood, the Craftsman bungalows are treasured, preserved, maintained in pristine condition, or if they have been mucked up over the years, they are restored to pristine condition, and then shown off with enormous pride by their owners.

Their owners scour the shops and online for genuine Stickley Mission Oak furniture, and they pay handsomely for the real thing. Authentic light fixtures, rugs, draperies, plein air paintings in rough oaken frames, family photographs and prints from the first decades of the 20th century (even if they aren't your family), colorfully bound books to fill the glass enclosed bookcases on either side of the copper hooded fireplace, a tall upright piano, all are eagerly sought. Brass or painted iron beds are placed in the bedrooms, bathroom fixtures are original or authentic reproductions.

The only place in these houses where significant changes are made is in the kitchens, which are often in the original houses, very small and dark and dreary. Sometimes the whole back end of the house will be rebuilt to make room for a decent sized and well-windowed modern kitchen. If I can find it, I will post a picture of a bungalow kitchen from about 1915, and it is a horror. It's poorly laid out, it's dark, and it's perhaps the dreariest room you can imagine a person working in, and working as hard as housewives had to work in those days, lighting a fire in the wood stove -- if she didn't have a gas stove yet -- dealing with the ice box out on the back porch, doing the laundry by hand or in a hand-cranked machine using tanks of boiling water, tanks she had to fill and heat on the stove, cooking each meal for hours and hours, and cleaning up in a dark and mildewed corner of the kitchen where all the pipes were exposed and nothing was ever really clean. There was never enough space for all the things she had to do, never enough time, never enough equipment. Just washing the dishes was a major undertaking.

While some of these houses had four or five or sometimes even six bedrooms, there was usually only one bathroom or at most a bath and a half. I've found only one plan with three bathrooms, and one of those was for the servant(s). Some house plans had no bathroom at all.

Bedrooms could be very large or very small, some of them no more than six by seven feet, barely enough room to get a bed into it and turn around.

Rooms were often dark, partly due to the dark oak or other species of woodwork, but also due to the deep porches which shaded the sometimes very large windows of the principal rooms. On the other hand, they were probably not as dark as some of the High Victorian middle class houses they came to replace. Those Victorian houses hid their rooms behind heavy velvet draperies, sometimes layers and layers of them, whereas the Craftsman ideal was for a most a double layer of window draping, and often we see no more than sheer glass curtains at the windows.

There was electricity, and most Craftsman houses were lit by electricity from the outset. But it was usually very dim electric light, maybe the equivalent of 40 watts tops in any one fixture, and often the Craftsman shades for these lights were of heavy colored glass or semi-translucent mica. Thus we see a plethora of fixtures, often four or six wall sconces, and a multi-bulbed center light in each room. Still, the night experience could be quite dim. There were very few electrical outlets in the rooms, and in early Craftsman-type bungalows, the one or two outlets in each room were the screw in kind which were certainly inconvenient to use.

Stickley himself tried heroically to encourage Craftsman afficionadoes to pare their household furnishings to only what was necessary and beautiful. Plain but beautifully made quarter-sawn oak furniture became the standard for bungalows -- as uncomfortable and inconvenient as much of it was. The discomfort of some of these pieces (particularly settles) cannot be overemphasized.

We own some oak pieces from the era, but we have avoided the settles and lounge chairs and such, because they are almost cripplingly uncomfortable (ymmv) -- not to mention cripplingly expensive if they are authentic.

But most of the rooms Stickley showed were sparsely furnished with a single center table, round or oblong, the top often covered with leather, an arm chair or two, a low stool, a drop front desk and chair, one or two lamps, perhaps a Craftsman piano, some pottery, metal ware, and sometimes small landscapes on the walls, and that's it. Everything else was built in or eliminated.

Most people really couldn't live comfortably in this sort of environment so they tended to fill up Craftsman empty spaces with cushioned furniture, bric a brac, odd items, and accessories.

I remember visiting an old friend of the family when I was very young in the early 1950's; she had a large-ish Southern California Craftsman bungalow built I would guess in the early 1920's or perhaps during the late teens. She had painted all that dark oaken woodwork an ivory color. The box beams were also painted ivory. If I remember correctly, she even painted her brick fireplace. She had lots of furniture, none of it Mission Style fumed oak except for her dining set which she and her husband bought when they were first married. Most of the rest was mahogany dating from the Thirties and Forties. She'd painted the dining room built ins, and they were FULL of china. It was spilling out all over the room. There were plants and flowers everywhere. Knicknacks, doilies, fragile ceramic lamps with silk shades, fussy lace curtains, all kinds of 'feminine' appurtenances were applied over the basic Craftsman lines of her house. She was a widow, her husband having died just after the War, and she had lived alone for several years. While she had no intention of leaving her home, she was constantly busy changing it, making it more "modern," and making it more comfortable.

Around here, most of the Craftsman houses have either been preserved as if in aspic or are being re-built as if they had been preserved. "Updating" them is considered little short of a crime. I was visiting neighbors not long ago. They've been working on restoring their bungalow for perhaps ten years, and to my eye it's pretty much done, but they aren't satisfied. Still have to restore the kitchen (modernized sometime in the Fifties). And one of the bedrooms still has paint on the woodwork. But the rest of the house reflects the Craftsman ideals in nearly every respect, even to the point of sparse, uncomfortable furnishings and dim lighting.

Pictured above is one of my favorite neighborhood bungalows. Obviously there's something a bit odd about it. It was built in 1915 as a firehouse, but it was decommissioned years ago and turned into a dwelling. Recently, it was bought by an architect who decided to restore and expand it (it's now actually two units). The results are quite striking. Down the street is a bungalow that's being rebuilt from the ground up:

The epitome of the Craftsman style of domestic architecture are the Greene and Greene houses concentrated in Pasadena but scattered all over California. They are amazing accomplishments of the carpenters', architects', and furniture-makers' arts, exquisite examples of the Craftsman style, and the surviving examples are treated more like temples than homes.

They are dark as caves.

These are some interior and exterior pictures of the Gamble house in Pasadena, taken soon after completion in 1908, just to give you an idea:

One of the houses in my neighborhood that I tried to photograph, not very successfully, is/was like a miniature Greene and Greene house, really very small, but with many of the strong design features that make Greene and Greene houses so unique. The exterior was shingled in weathered redwood (it weathers to a rich black color), with deep overhangs, exposed rafters, "artistic brick" porch columns, deep front porch, big windows, a redwood (rather than oak) interior with heavy box beams, high wainscot, plate rails, brackets, and so on, characteristic brass and copper light fixtures. Stone foundation, artistic brick fireplace chimney. The works.

There were some problems with rot and termites (odd for redwood which has been celebrated for its resistance to such destruction) and so the owners began a renovation project a few years ago, starting with the foundations and moving upwards. In the process, they essentially destroyed the charm of the house. They replaced the redwood shingle siding with what looks like Hardi-cement shingling, in a pedestrian gray color. It's not as bad as the asphalt or asbestos shingling that was put on many houses in the '30's, '40's and '50's, but it's bad. It looks just... wrong. They replaced the windows. This can often be a tragic mistake in and of itself. There is a tendency to put in dual or triple paned windows for energy savings purposes, but often the openings have to be reduced in size, or changed in some other way, and the window style rarely matches the original -- except at very great expense. So too many times, replacement windows in Craftsman houses look completely out of place. In this case the windows are fair reproductions of the orignals, but some of them have that sucked in look that characterizes some dual pane brands.

They painted some of the interior woodwork. The reasons were simple enough. Despite the big windows, the house is heavily shaded by ancient trees, and the interior was dark and gloomy, moreso than your average Craftsman bungalow, and the owners wanted some cheer inside.

Unfortunately, these changes have transformed the house from one that was very unique and delightful (at least if you didn't have to live in it) into something very ordinary -- if you can call any Craftsman house ordinary.

And that's the thing. As much as I admire Craftsman houses, I criticize them for being so dark and sometimes inconvenient. But almost never have I found a Craftsman house that was "ordinary." They may have many similarities, and some are duplicates of one another, but each one has a timeless feel and a unique presence. People who own them love them.

Of course there are lots of online resources availble.

The Gamble House, for example, has a beautiful site online:

Greene and Green Archives:


The Craftsman:


The Daily Bungalow on Flickr:

And of course there are many, many more.


  1. A very nice expansion of what you had earlier. I have wondered what the term "Craftsman" house meant, not having the gumption to actually search out the information. Why, heck, you just did it for me! Thanks for that, Ché.

  2. lea-p,

    Not a problem. Just takes me a long time to complete a post!

    As you can tell, it's kind of a love-hate relationship with me. (I seem to have a lot of those... hmmm...) I love the sturdiness, honesty and cleverness of the Craftsman style houses, but they are often so dark as to be oppressive, they can be very uncomfortable, and their sparse (uncomfortable) furnishings can leave residents feeling bereft.

    Yet boy are their owners obsessive about them. Take a look at any house blog that deals with Bungalows. Stripping the paint off the woodwork is a major undertaking, but it must be done! And there's a lot of woodwork! I wonder, though, how many of them understand why the woodwork was painted in the first place.

    But I ramble. Thanks for taking a look!