24 January 2009

Californian Bungalow: Australia's Favourite Interwar Home

The first American house to be realistically called a bungalow was illustrated in 1884 in Arnold Brunner's Cottages or Hints on Economical Building; it was called Bung­alow With Attic. The attic was acceptable, since all main living quarters were indeed located on the ground floor.

To keep costs down, the parts of prefab­ric­ated bungalows were mass-produced in a factory, numbered, loaded onto a train. They could be sent to any part of the country where a skilled carpenter could put them together in a day by following the instruct­ions provided. The most famous of these mail-order firms was Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Within the Arts and Crafts Movement, the bungalow was a progressive architectural design that proliferated in the USA in the early part of the C20th. Cal­led Craftsmen bungalows, these bungalows were small cottages that had specific architectural features:
1. Low-pitched roof lines, gabled or hipped roof
2. Deeply overhanging eaves
3. Exposed rafters or decorative brackets under eaves
4. Large front porch beneath extension of main roof
5. Tapered, square columns supporting roof
6. Double-hung windows
7. no more than 1.5 stor­eys high
8. Frank Lloyd Wright design motifs
9. Hand-crafted stone or woodwork
10. Mixed materials, that suggest a cosy cottage.
11. stone chimneys, gabled dormers, sloping foundation
12. inside: built-in cabin­ets, shelves & seating.

You can see an entire Pasadena neighbourhood full of these lovely Craftsmen bungalows in L.A. Places

Craftsman bungalow, California, 1.5 storeys

In Erica Swanson's blog, we find that the bungalow was part of a movement that provided hous­ing that the working class could afford. Many people were choosing to make a move to the west for its warm, arid climate and it was because of this that the Craftsman Bungalow reached its full potential in California. The San Gabriel Valley lends well to Craftsman homes because of the broad front porches that is a common feature of the architectural style, which allows a homeowner to take full advantage of the year round sunny weather that is typical to the Pasadena area. Craftsman bungalows had to be affordable, but they were far from shoddy. Bungalows were built with old-growth timber, real plaster, wooden windows and doors, and the built-ins that are now mostly found in high-end homes. It is because these homes were built so well that many Craftsman Bungalows still stand today.

Imported originally from California in 1916 by a real estate agent, the first Australian Californian bungalow was erected in Sydney. The bungalow become the favourite house style in Australia immediately after WWI, when it quickly spread across all Australian towns and cities. It was a solid and respectable house, serving the two great needs that made it so popular in California: affordability and suitability for a dry, warm climate.

Timing was everything for the bungalow in Australia. Tim Durbridge at The Durb Net  showed the British idea of Garden Cities was taking firm hold of the minds of Australian town planners. Here was a means of fostering the egalitarian Australian ideology. It also ensured that new development improved land values since zoning disallowed cheap, owner-built haphazard housing. Blending with its natural surroundings in the sun splashed bush, great for the family to sleep out and gaze at the Southern Cross, the bungalow provided privacy, excellent plumbing and much respectability in Australia’s new Garden Suburbs.

Were our bungalows any different from those built in the USA? Single-storey homes in Australia were absolutely the norm, rather than 1.5 storeys. Utilities could be installed more easily than in a two-storey house and there were no staircases for the elderly and children to navigate. The Australian back yard had to be big enough for the entire family, for dogs, cubby houses, cricket games and a chicken shed. The front garden could be smaller, but it had to be surrounded by a decent fence. And the building materials were specifically Australian.

I suppose the earliest designs in Australia were based on craftsman design principles. Houses were built low, with shallow, low pitched roofs of terracotta shingles or roofing slates, exposed rafters and beams showing from under the roof. People loved materials with a rustic, natural look. Mixed materials were used, to add to the cot­t­agy look: stone, brick and timber, earthy materials were used in Australia [whereas in the USA they had used wood shake shingles, river rock and clinker brick]. A gable roof faced either the front or side always and although the building could be asymmetrical, masonry veranda piers were remained very popular. Windows had small panes and were arranged in casements. Front doors were typically high-waisted and decorated with leadlight.

Californian bungalow, Melbourne, asymmetrical

The interior plan was left to the family’s preference, but typically featured a central hallway, the good rooms at the front of the house and the kitchen and laundry at the back. Two bedrooms were initially built – if families needed a third, it would have to be added under the roofline or tacked onto the back at a later date. Panelled walls had a plate shelf, and built in furniture, such as window seats, bookshelves and fireplace nooks.

Knight and Harwood floorplan, Melbourne

In the Australian bungalow, simplicity and craftsmanship could harm­onise in a truly aff­ordable house. So although Australians didn’t build bungalows until 25 years after the Americans started, they quickly became Australia’s most popular home. And remained so until WW2.

Good reading:
Butler, G The Californian Bungalow in Australia. Origins, revival, Source Ideas for Restoration, Lothian, Port Melbourne, 1992
Winter, Robert American Bungalow Style, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
The blog Melbourne Our Home has internal and external photos of a renovated Melbourne bungalow, retaining as many original features as possible.


larkspur said...

I love your posts. I am a grad student in Land Architecture and there is a lot of crossover. Bungalows give me butterflies. Thx.

Hels said...

From: Tim Durbridge
Sent: Monday, January 26, 2009
Subject: bungalows

Thank you very much for citing my essay on my Californian bungalow. I'm delighted you were interested.
I have added a link to your blog on the Bungalow page of durb.net

I enjoyed reading your blog on the bungalow and on Bauhaus. What an extraordinary thing the web is.

Hels said...

From Katy:

Hi Helen
My name is Katy and I am the recent purchaser of a gorgeous 1920s Melbourne bungalow!

I came across your excellent web site on bungalows and I was wondering if I could please have permission to link this in my new blog (http://bungalowdreaming.blogspot.com)?

Many thanks,

Hels said...

Marilena said...

Dear Helen,
I was just reading your information on the Californian Bungalow and it was very interesting…thank you.

I am a little confused though! I have a Californian Bungalow which I will be renovating in the next six months. It is quite unusual and I have been on various websites, especially in Pasedena to see if I can see the same type of Bungalow that I have….and cannot find anything like it.

Maybe you can help with the style as it is not typically structured as what a normal Bungalow would be.

Yes…it has all the thing that you have written, eg ( Low-pitched roof lines, gabled or hipped roof, Deeply overhanging eaves, Exposed rafters or decorative brackets under eaves, Large front porch beneath extension of main roof, Tapered, square columns supporting roof, Double-hung windows, Hand-crafted stone or woodwork,. Mixed materials, that suggest a cosy cottage, stone chimneys, gabled dormers, sloping foundation,. inside: built-in cabin­ets, shelves & seating.).

But it also has a sitting room situated off the lounge room, a vestibule instead of a corridor and it is a three-fronted Califor-nian house with two front entranc-es. One of the rooms is also six-sided instead of four-sided, that is why I am a little confused. Could it be possible that this is NOT a Californian Bungalow. It was built in the 1920’s so the era is the same.

I just wanted to know if you have ever come across a style like this and that you can shed some “light” on this type of house. Any information would be a great help.

Many thanks.

Helen answered....

Yours sounds as if it absolutely IS a Californian bungalow, from which you will derive enormous pleasure. But the original design was suited largely for 2 adults, 2 children, no extended family and no staff. People soon found that if they wanted to expand at all, they had to be resourceful.

The most common strategies were to add a room on at the back of the house (Australia), to go up into the attic space (USA) or to close in the porch (Britain).

With your house, it sounds as though granny came to live with the family so they gave her one room of her own and her own front entrance.

Have a super time, renovating the bungalow back to its original loveliness,

Hels said...

Sharon and Thomas said.....

Hi Helen,
We have visited your site and find it so interesting. We currently own an un-renovated workers cottage style Californian Bungalow in East Brunswick that we are now ready to do some major works on. We are actually even considering demolishing and rebuilding in the classic C.B style. We were just thinking that perhaps you had some great contacts for appropriate architects that are passionate about this style home, and passionate about this part of Melbourne and the beautiful style of homes here. Any information would be greatly appreciated,

Hels said....

I don't know any architects who specialise in this type of housing, but I do have a useful book that will help you: The Californian Bungalow in Australia
by conservation architect Graeme Butler. Find guidelines for the renovation of bungalows, with sections on interior planning and design, colour schemes, lighting, exterior finishes and garden styles.

Hels said...

Mark said...

Hi Helen,

Thank you for your wonderful blog. I am in my first year of studying building design and as part of a history subject I am required to give a short presentation on Cal. Bungalows, particularly in Queenscliff VIC.

I am hoping you can help me with some general information about these beautiful buildings. I have noticed that some bungalows will be adorned with small terracotta ridge finials and as far as I understand these were an added feature borrowed from other styles of architecture.

Could you help me shed some light on these curios little gargoyles? What style they might have come from? And are they particular to a style of bungalow, such as the earlier craftsmen style you mentioned in your blog?

Many thanks,

Helen said...
I am delighted you are doing some historical research on the beloved Californian bungalow. The subject deserves attention.

I can't find any small terracotta ridge finials in my hundreds of photos of bungalows, so that leads us to a number of possible conclusions e.g.
1. they were loved by a particular builder in a particular region and are not found elsewhere.
2. they were added, not when the bungalows were built in the interwar period, but at a much later period.

Do you have any 1920s and 1930s photos, with the terracotta ridge finials in place?

Alecia said...

Hello Hellen, great site, we have a Californian bungalow and love it! Like many of the comment here we are also about to start an extensive renovation/extension. I look forward to reading your site more.
Is it ok for me to reference you on my blog? www.worst2best.wordpress.com

Hels said...


good luck with the renovations. It is hard work getting the architecture and decorative elements right, but worth every moment and every penny.

Certainly reference this post :)

George said...

Hi Helen

Love your site which I came across whilst searching for info on California Bungalows (I own one in Coburg).

Terrific mix of art, history and architecture (if there was a section on aviation it would pretty much encompass all my interests).

Will be checking frequently.
George D

Hels said...


great topic, isn't it. After all, it is a long time since the first Californian bungalow was erected in Sydney in 1916.

I do travel as well, but no aviation.

Hels said...


the older I get, the more passionate I am becoming about bungalow homes. They used a totally sensible design for the interwar years, and I think they are becoming suitable for our economies once again.

Outdoor living direct said...

I love to have simple home like this.

Hels said...


I would too.
We are still living in the family home, even though the boys are married and gone. My ideal home for this stage of life would be a 2-bedroom bungalow, with one large living room and plenty of trees and back yard space.

Anonymous said...

"They could be sent to any part of the country where a skilled carpenter could put them together in a day by following the instruct­ions provided."

A day, as in one day?

Unknown said...

Your Bungalow seems to be very beautiful and lavishing. Great to have such an accommodation, keep sharing.

Tamborine mountain

Hels said...

Oprah beth

Thank you. I am amazed and delighted that of all the posts I have written, the Californian Bungalow is the one that has always captured peoples' attention. It was written in January 2009!

Anonymous said...

It's amazing to visit this web page and reading thee views of all colleagues on the topic of this
paragraph, while I am also keen of getting familiarity.

Take a look at my blog: arthur falcone

Hels said...

although this post was written way back in Jan 2009, it has remained by far and away the most popular post I have ever written. So thank you.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever considered writing an e-book or guest authoring on other blogs?
I have a blog centered on the same subjects you discuss and would really like to
have you share some stories/information. I know my viewers would appreciate your work.
If you're even remotely interested, feel free to send me an e mail.

Also visit my weblog; North Narrabeen Plumbers

townsvilleplumbers said...

I enjoyed reading your blog on the bungalow and on Bauhaus. What an extraordinary thing the web is.
Also Visit my Web for Plumbing. Townsville Plumbers

Andrew said...


What a great blog! You have given me inspiration and great ideas on Bungalows, as we design them and build them through out Northern Queensland. If your ever down our way, please look us up! Would love to buy you a coffee in exchange for your knowledge!

Hels said...

North Narrbeen Plumbers, townsvilleplumbers and Andrew

many thanks. There must be something very special about the Californian Bungalow that makes it a favourite architectural design, decade after decade after decade. I have written thousands of blog posts since 2008, and never has ANY other post had anything even approaching the response rate that this post has had.

My knowledge isn't so cheap! At least an espresso and a Danish pastry!!!

Hels said...

I would like to create a link to The "Lost Bungalows of Great Misery Island"

It is a fine analysis of the weekend bungalows that were all the work of Salem architect Ernest M.A. Machado.

Najaf Rugs & Textile said...

I appreciate your skill.Very useful information
Home Rugs Melbourne Australia

Unknown said...

About 3 years ago we viewed a California Bungalow in Brisbane and went to the auction. A big crowd attended. Bids went wild and it went for far too much money at the time. Its back on the market and to my horror I see someone has painted the panelled walls white ( though left the timber detail on the coffered ceiling). The panelled walls were such an attraction and had a warm feeling when you walked in - they absolutely glowed. How could one possibly rectify it once its been painted -- without knowing whether it was a ply in the squares or a veneer of some sort. My first thought was "sacrilege" and other unmentionable phrases.
Any advice?

Hels said...


always always take careful photos of all elements of a home, BEFORE making any changes. That way the original decorative details, although invisible to the modern viewer, will be well documented in the records.

Sandy Shaw said...

SSH Reno is a well known and reputed Corporate Office Interior Design in Singapore. They are known for the thoughtful approach to interior designing and sharp attention to details, quality and finishing and they are also the Best Residential Architects in Singapore

Hels said...


I have been casually noting the changes in domestic architecture, before my time in the history books, and over the last 40 years with my own eyes. Californian bungalows are still my favourites. Would you say the same for Singapore?

Ecologique Developments said...

Good blog as well as very informative please keep sharing as like more in coming future. Ecologique Developments

Australian Classified said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hels said...

Australian Classified

I am glad you enjoyed the post, but no advertising please.

CATCO Enterprises said...

Great Post! Thanks for sharing such beautiful information with us. Please keep sharing.

Please visit Patios bunbury

Hels said...

CATCO Enterprises

Thank you. The Californian Bungalow was indeed Australia's favourite home in the interwar years, but I am beginning to think it is still very popular now :)

Sinta Wiranata said...

Very good information. Indeed, there are many residential complexes that offer houses with attractive designs. However, still the design of the developer is not necessarily as needed, so there are still many who choose to build a house.

Hels said...


I agree with you, re the original design. Many people would prefer a house that was more modern, with bigger rooms and large glass window spaces etc. But there is nothing with better passive climate control, local building material and heritage taste than the Californian bungalow.

Townsville Plumbers said...

Thank you for the great article! It is interesting how the bungalow design has spread across Australia. I wonder how the construction and building style has evolved over the years to accommodate for various climates across Australia.
Cyclones and floods in North Queensland consistently produce challenges for Townsville plumbers.

Hels said...


and not just climate. Styles develop because of cost considerations, most readily available building materials, topography, favourite architects' tastes at home and overseas, council building regulations etc etc. However your floods have been particularly terrible :(

CATCO Enterprises said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hels said...


I am glad you enjoyed the post, but no advertising please

Home Renovations said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hels said...

Home Renovations

many thanks for reading the post, but no advertising please.