Wednesday, May 15, 2013

OT: The Frontier Progressive Bungalow

Albuquerque Bungalow, Needs Work...

Not long ago, Cocktailhag (one of the best writers on the internet bar none) posted about his recent renovation project, a huge old Portland (OR) bungalow that he rightly compared to a "beige four-door" -- referring to the stripped down car models that are plain as can be, like Jerry Brown's 1974 Plymouth, and were once intended to make a statement: "I (myself) lack the gene for ostentation... you see."

It was a huge house, enormous by every measure (at more than 7,000 square feet), but plain as an Amish elder -- at least compared to the typical bungalow style house of the era -- and lacks many of the features that bungalow fanatics treasure.

I got to thinking about that house, and thinking about it in the context of the Reform Progressive Era. Initially, I thought that the house was as stripped down (and basically unfinished) as a "beige four-door" because the cheapskate who had it built didn't want to pay the Lower Orders to do a proper job, but in talking about it with an architect friend, I learned that no, it probably wasn't like that at all. The house was probably built the way it was and was "finished" as plainly as it was because the (likely) cheapskate owner wanted to make a statement: "I (myself) am not an ostentatious SOB like most of the 'businessmen' and would-be aristocrats around here."

Part of the ethic of the Reform Progressive Era was a lifestyle change, a change to a far simpler, cleaner, purer, and obviously Better way of living that included living in the plainest possible house with the fewest possible furnishings (preferably Mission oak, -- as back-breakingly uncomfortable as possible) and the elimination of everything superfluous and ostentatious.

The American Bungalow itself was intended as such a statement, though some of the bungalows that were put up in the early part of the 20th Century were quite lavish by any standard, cf: Green and Green's Gamble House in Pasadena as archetype of the Lavish Bungalow Style. But there were many thousands of other bungalows that were very modest by any standard. My mother (who was born in 1911) lived in a number of them in California.

I have a certain fondness for the style, but I'm not altogether sure I'd want to live in one.

Bungalows are fairly rare here on the New Mexico frontier. Oh, there are some, especially in the little settlements along the railroad routes, but many of them have been skimmed with stucco, painted brown or beige with white trim,  and made to look vaguely "territorial" so as to fit the local vernacular -- even though they were built to resemble whatever the Bungalow Style Book said, or in some cases were shipped in a rail car in pieces to be erected on site, complete with doors, windows, shingles, bathtub and sink.

The New Mexico vernacular is the cubical neo-Pueblo style in much of the state (like this:)

Neo-Pueblo Bungalow
or in fancier guise like this:

Fancy Territorial, Santa Fe

whereas the peak-roofed Northern New Mexico style (which more strongly resembles the Bungalow) predominates in the snowy-cold mountainous areas, something like this:

Northern New Mexico Style

But back in the day, way back, when New Mexico was being first overrun by its Norte Americano conquerors, a kind of early style, pre-Bungalow you might call it, was built for officers at the various forts around the state, distinctively at Fort Marcy in Santa Fe, where the New Style contrasted sharply with its mud brick surroundings.

Fort Marcy Officers Quarters, Santa Fe, c. 1873
These houses were actually built of adobe, but they surprisingly resemble Cape Cod cottages. Out in the middle of the desert. (Santa Fe is more foresty than desert, but that's another issue for another day...)

Compared to the typical Santa Fe streetscape at the time, they were striking indeed:

Looking toward Fort Marcy, Santa Fe, c. 1873

The neo-Pueblo style was being adapted and adopted in New Mexico at about the same time as the Bungalow craze was sweeping the rest of America, and so the Bungalow never really took hold here -- at least not like elsewhere -- and I think there were a number of reasons for it.

Despite the fact that the Bungalow was intended to be a modest contrast to the ostentation of the High Victorian era, it was actually quite a fancy style compared to the spare simplicity of the Frontier Adobe house that was the norm in New Mexico and elsewhere in the Southwest at the time. (At the time of the photo above, for example, Los Angeles didn't look much different.) The Frontier Bungalow seemed almost palatial compared to what the locals were used to. It had all sorts of fancy woodwork, big and fancy glass windows that went up and down (instead of opening out the way the tiny windows in New Mexico had always done), porches instead of portals, steam heat, indoor plumbing, hardwood floors, and even linoleum in the kitchens. Fireplaces were made of burned bricks instead of adobe.

All this was akin to ostentation on the Frontier. For one thing, it could be very difficult to get all the necessary lumber to build a proper bungalow in the wilds of New Mexico, even long after the railroads came. And if you tried to build one of adobe, the typical local material, you would be bound to ask, "What's the point of this exercise again?" If you're going to build of adobe anyway, why not build the way the locals have been building for hundreds of years?

If you could get all the lumber you needed for a proper bungalow, then you'd have to get all the gas and plumbing and electrical piping and wiring and gizmos and accessories that were part of an up-to-date bungalow, and then you'd have to figure out how to hook it all up, since there weren't any proper gas or electric or public water services, at least not like you'd find Back East.

So why bother?

Stick with the tried and true.

Our house is something of a hybrid. It's was built (mostly) of adobe, starting with two dirt-floored rooms around 1900, then adding two more in the 1920's or early '30's, then two more again in the 1950's, while subdividing some of the original rooms and adding luxuries like an indoor bathroom and such, rather like a traditional New Mexico ranch house would expand over time. Stylistically, though, it rather resembles the Cape Cod officer housing at Fort Marcy pictured above, even more strongly since being clad with aluminum siding and shutters in the '50's -- which we haven't had taken off yet.

Our Place in Snow
I'd call it Late Victorian more than anything else, and the exterior is the fanciest thing about it. The interior is very plain, and in some ways, it seems strangely unfinished (though not necessarily unfinished in the context of New Mexico.) I was working in one of the bedroom closets yesterday. The room that is now the North Bedroom was clearly at one time the "parlor," and closet was improvised along one wall -- where the room's only electrical outlets had been put when that modern feature was installed (looks to have been in the 1930's based on the outlet style.) The closet was a somewhat haphazard installation, probably done with scraps from other remodeling done in the 1950's. It's functional, I'll say that for it, but it was never really finished, and when we had the place renovated, the contractors didn't do anything to it but paint the back wall and scrape the floors, probably cursing every time they hit their heads on the hanger pole (as I did many times yesterday.)

I had filled the closet with random stuff we didn't have any other place for and left it like that until yesterday, when I took out the objects stored there and started to get it ready receive clothing (what a concept). We've been keeping our clothes in dressers and out on various improvised racks until the closets were available.

Well, there I was fussing with this and that unfinished aspect of the North Bedroom closet (once I got all the stuff out), and I made several discoveries. First, the wood floor is nicely scraped and sanded, but the sawdust was never vacuumed up, and the floor in the closet was never sealed or finished. I didn't realize that, partly because there is no light in the closet, and so its unfinished state isn't that noticeable.

I put down a hall rug that had been rolled up in the other bedroom as a temporary expedient, but I'm thinking of doing some fairly extensive renovation, and not just in that closet...

Meanwhile in a corner of the closet, I noticed that though there were wide baseboards, the wood flooring did not actually reach it. The gap was close to half an inch, and there was another vertical gap where the baseboard of one wall met the baseboard of the other wall. This was in the darkest corner of the closet, and so I had never noticed it before. It was part of the original construction of this wing, which I think was added in the 1920's or 30's, for the specific purpose of being fancy and up-to-date, with electricity and all that, and here is a corner of what had been the fanciest room where nothing actually meets at any angle, let alone a right angle.

It's very New Mexico, and it made me laugh. I stuffed the gaps with cardboard and piled up some bags of spare table cloths and curtains to seal out any likely drafts for the time being and was done it for now. No sense getting all worked up about it. Then I installed an air conditioner in the bedroom window. What with climate change and all, last year -- for the first time -- the summer heat started getting to me, and fans weren't enough to cool things down. Signs are that this summer will be even hotter.

(Aside: I'm still puzzling when electricity was first installed in this house. I've read a report prepared in 1937 when there still was no electric utility in these parts, but the report recommended that the rural electric co-op be extended this far. There are signs, however, that this place had electricity well before then. Some of the wiring appears to be very early. Much earlier than the late 1930's. So this place may have had its own generator at one time...)

When I lived in Sacramento, I knew some of the old-line Progressives, a couple of whom lived in vast old bungalows, not unlike the one Cocktailhag was renovating up at the top of this post. The size of their houses knocked me out -- they seemed to go on forever, with dozens of rooms, crooked hallways that led who knew where and flights and flights of stairs. They were dark as caves, despite all the windows. The huge rooms echoed, in part because they had so little furniture, and what they had was very uncomfortable. There were no rugs, no drapes. Instead, if a room needed something on the floor (such as in the dining room or the kitchen) it was likely to be oil cloth or linoleum; if there was anything at the windows, it was plain muslin, possibly with a stenciled border. The finish was typically worn off the oak floors, and the floors themselves creaked and squeaked wherever you walked. These people were for the most part very well off, and they could easily have afforded to live in luxury. Instead, they chose to live in Spartan, almost monastic conditions, as a very conscious lifestyle choice.

Today's Bungalow aficionados may or may not understand the consciousness that informed the early Reform Progressives who lived this Spartan lifestyle in their own (sometimes enormous) bungalows back in the day. I know some who do understand it and try to emulate it, but some of the more recent efforts at recreating the bungalow style and lifestyle as it was in the Progressive Era seem to me to be far too luxurious. The rugs are too thick and too expensive. Not that many bungalows were furnished by Stickley or Roycroft back in the day. There's too much furniture in the rooms, and often too much light. (These houses were dark, dark, dark.) The floors are too shiny, the brass too polished, the bathrooms and kitchens too deluxe. And it seems to me there's too much effort put into living the style too well, when those who actually lived it at the time didn't look at it as a style so much as they saw their way of life as a mission. I won't get into the details now, but there was nothing casual about the early Progressive Era. It was launched and practiced as a mission -- a mission to move past the tired opulence of the immediately past era and enter onto a path of righteousness and progress and equality.

New Mexico became a state in 1912, at the height of the Reform Progressive Era, and there are plenty of aspects of Reform Progressivism in its ways and means to this day, perhaps the most apparent part of it is the widespread sense of civic duty and participation. Much of it grows less out of the style of the era as it is part of the fabric of the place and its people. It's simpler, more direct, and I'd like to think it is kinder, but I'm not sure I can go that far yet. This is a harsh land for the most part; it's not that the people are harsh, by any means, but many live a hard life, and that hardness can overwhelm natural kindness. Something like the Cowboy Code.

At any rate, I often get (delightfully) distracted by houses and their origins and styles -- as well as by notions of Progressivism and the Progressive Era. The Bungalow was part of the Progressive Movement in the early part of the 20th Century, and its image will stay with Americans for a long time to come.

What seems to be missing today, however, is an appropriate ideal of Reform.

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