By Bonnie Nicholls
Editor’s note: This story was paid for and provided by the South Park Business Group, producers of the Old House Fair. For more information visit theoldhousefair.com or call 619-233-6679.
South Park is home to several bungalow courts – individual cottages arranged around a communal garden space – that reflect a Southern California architectural phenomenon of the early 20th century. One of these bungalow courts is included in the Old House Fair’s Historic Home Tour on Saturday, June 15th.
The tour features five addresses, including six residences (two at the bungalow court), with a free shuttle available as an optional way to travel from stop to stop around South Park. At each house, docents will guide tourgoers through the architectural, historical and design highlights. Tickets are $25 per person, available in advance online or at the 30th & Beech St. Ticket Booth on the day of the event.
“There is so much architectural variety among the historic homes of South Park,” explained Maureen Ceccarelli, co-director of the Old House Fair. “This year’s tour touches on that range,” from the small bungalow courts to classic Craftsman bungalows to the Arts & Crafts masterpiece built 100 years ago as the personal residence of famed local architect Edward ‘Ned” Quayle.
Bungalow courts represent an important aspect of twentieth century life in San Diego, as they carry on a legacy celebrating outdoor living and a sense of community in an urban center.
The first bungalow court in Southern California appeared in 1909 in Pasadena and was built by Sylvanus Marston, most likely for rich vacationers who wanted to escape the cold winters of the East Coast, according to Robert Winter in his book, “The California Bungalow.” But eventually bungalow courts became known as affordable single-family residences.
Typical bungalow courts are six to 10 units, attached or detached, surrounding a garden or courtyard space. Architectural styles vary from Craftsman and Spanish to modernist and even Art Deco. Most bungalow courts were built on streetcar lines – such as the one that ran through South Park in the first half of the 20th century – so residents could use mass transit to commute to work.
Single working women often chose to live in bungalow court homes, according to Dr. Jim Curtis, a Cal State Long Beach professor of geography and urban studies. “It became a kind of niche,” he said. “especially for young women who worked downtown in office typing pools. [The bungalow court] in neighborhoods like South Park fit their needs.”
They preferred bungalow courts over living in “a great boxlike building” like an apartment, a “Ladies Home Journal” article noted in 1913. Women could also feel safer in a bungalow court, said other articles. A 1988 study by Professor Curtis and the late Dr. Larry reported that people “liked the idea of other people being around when they weren’t.”
That certainly holds true for Christine Winter, a resident of a South Park bungalow court for two years, and the Historic Home Tour docent manager for the Old House Fair. “Everyone looks out for each other,” she said. “You keep your eyes out for everyone, but you’re not in everyone’s business.”
Still, there’s just enough space between cottages to enjoy privacy. “You don’t feel like you’re living with 10 other houses,” Winter said, explaining that her court is well constructed and she never hears noise from her neighbors. “No one lives above you. It’s really well laid out.”
The garden also adds to the appeal. It is attractive from the street level, and encourages residents to enjoy the outdoors. Plus, with one’s living space so small, “there’s a greater proclivity to move out into that open space,” Curtis explains.
The garden setting definitely appeals to Winter, who enjoys sitting on her doorstep, without the responsibility of maintaining a large yard. Another advantage over apartments: you can go outside without having to walk down a long hallway or take an elevator to feel the sun on your face.
In many ways, bungalow courts represent a sense of place – specifically, Southern California – with bougainvillea and other Mediterranean plants in the gardens, and architecture typical of the region. That sense of place emphasizes a more laid-back, outdoor-oriented way of living, Curtis says, essentially a Southern California lifestyle.
Most bungalow courts were built before World War II, as developers’ focus moved from urban areas to the suburbs after 1945. Still, most bungalow courts continue to thrive. Curtis’s 1988 study found 278 bungalow courts in central San Diego, most located near Balboa Park in neighborhoods like South Park, North Park, and Golden Hill, and 80 percent were still in good condition.
“The bungalow courts still work as a viable housing option,” Curtis explained. “You get a single-family home, albeit small,” with light coming in from all four sides. “They’re just as attractive now as they were when they were built in the first half of the last century.”
Visitors to the Old House Fair will receive a copy of the souvenir Program & Resource Guide, including articles on the architectural history of the Historic Home Tour residences, including “Elm Court.” Admission to the Fair is free of charge. Tickets to the Home Tour are $25 per person.