Springtime for the Craftsman

Posted: April 21st, 2017 | Columns, Feature, HouseCalls, News, Top Story | No Comments

By Michael Good | HouseCalls

Mission Hills Heritage celebrates the Craftsman bungalow and provides advice and cookies for the people who own them

As historian and preservationist Robert Winter, author of “Craftsman Style,” likes to say, the Craftsman Revival has lasted longer than the original Craftsman movement.

The first Craftsman bungalows began appearing in San Diego around 1905. By the time the United States entered World War I, in 1917, the heyday of the Craftsman was over.

An Old House owners dream come true: a clear historic photograph, taken
while the front porch concrete was still wet from having just been poured.

When production started up again after the war, a new style of house emerged, the historic revival — Spanish Revival, Tudor Revival, Colonial Revival. The nation’s mood had changed. The Craftsman house was modest. It was quiet and compact, thoughtfully designed and executed. But the nation was in a boisterous and extravagant mood. The playful, make-believe nature of the revival houses more closely fit the Roaring ’20s. Flappers didn’t do stenciling.

Not that the Craftsman style completely disappeared. Builders continued to build them. And many of the Mission and Spanish Revival houses were Craftsman inside and Craftsman in layout. And Prairie — Craftsman’s close cousin — remained popular until the Great Depression put a stop to most residential building in the early 1930s.

As for the Revival, it began in the early 1960s, with publication of Clay Lancaster’s “The Bungalow,” a book that said it was OK for architectural historians to take the Craftsman bungalow seriously. Robert Winter and David Gebhard’s “A Guide to Architecture in Los Angeles & Southern California” (1965) furthered the cause.

This was a time when bungalow neighborhoods everywhere were being bulldozed to make room for freeways and apartments. Winter, a professor at Occidental College who had discovered the Craftsman style through a visit to Greene and Greene’s Gamble House, continued to write and lecture on the subject, galvanizing homeowners in Pasadena who wanted to preserve the Arroyo Seco, where Greene and Greene and other Arts and Crafts designers first established the style.

In the 1980s the American public — rather than just a few thousand homeowners — discovered Craftsman. Winter published “The California Bungalow” at the start of that decade, issuing in the era of coffee table Craftsman picture books. Stickley, the company that had publicized (and perhaps named) the style in its magazine, The Craftsman, began manufacturing its Mission line of furniture again. The revival was furthered by American Bungalow magazine, community groups and neighborhood associations, and a willingness by adventurous middle-class people to move back to the bungalow neighborhoods that in the ’80s and ’90s were associated with crime and urban blight.

In San Diego, Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) — which had originally been formed in 1968 to save some Victorians in the path of a freeway — turned its attention to Craftsman bungalows as well.

Pasadena Heritage, an advocacy and preservation group formed in 1977, expanded its influence beyond Southern California in 1991 with its Craftsman Weekend, a bungalow lollapalooza featuring house tours, bus tours, walking tours, antique and contemporary furniture exhibitors, an auction, workshops and presentations.

Even tract homebuilders got on board. Entire neighborhoods of Craftsman-inspired houses sprung up. In Bend, Oregon, where 100 years ago five saw mills churned out windows for Craftsman houses, virtually all homes built in the late 1990s and early 2000s were in the Craftsman or Prairie styles. Today, on the booming west side of town, even the strip malls are Craftsman.

Completely restored: The Craftsman style house as it looks today. (Sande Lollis)

Last summer I was showing a friend the Arroyo Seco neighborhood of Pasadena, where the Greene brothers launched their version of the Craftsman house at the turn of the 20th century. We were standing in front of the former home of Ernest Batchelder, the famous tile maker.

I had just finished explaining that the house now belonged to Robert Winter, when a little sedan pulled to the curb, the passenger door swung open, and out came an elderly gentleman with a cane. As he straightened himself up, I realized this was Robert Winter. Bungalow Bob, as he was affectionately called, is the man who virtually singlehandedly resurrected the Craftsman bungalow. (A claim I’m sure he’d deny.)

It was an odd moment. I’d met Winter years ago, on a tour of his house. And I’d spoken to him a few times thereafter. I reintroduced myself, and my friend, and told him I was pleased to see him doing so well.

“It happens to be my birthday,” he said. “My 92nd birthday. We just went to lunch.” Then we talked about his house, and the neighborhood, and what he was up to. “A film crew was just here the other day,” he explained. “They’re making a virtual tour of the house.”

Bungalow Bob probably won’t be hosting many more house tours, holding forth in the living room with its floor-to-ceiling tile fireplace, telling stories about Ernest Batchelder, John Lloyd Wright and all the historical figures — and characters — he’s known over the years. Unfortunately, they haven’t yet come up with a Virtual Bob. But to keep the Craftsman Revival going, we could use one.

Loving the Craftsman

Mission Hills Heritage, a homeowner group that has fought mightily to prevent the destruction of that neighborhood overlooking Presidio Park, is combining its annual walking tour with its annual lecture series on May 6. This year’s theme is “Craftsman, Then & Now: an Immersion Experience.”

Kiley Wallace will talk about the history of the Craftsman movement and how to identify a Craftsman house. Lewis Barber will talk about how to make a modern Craftsman, and how to make your Craftsman modern. I’ll be moderating a panel discussion for homeowners who want to keep their Craftsman looking young, or at least younger than me.

I’ll be joined on the panel by John Eisenhart, an historic architect and SOHO board member, who you’ve read about in this column; and Marc Tarasuck, an historic architect who’s undertaken many restoration projects including Heritage Park, where SOHO and the city moved those Victorians from the path of Interstate 5 back in the 1960s.

Homeowners will be invited to take part in the discussion, whether they have a very specific question about how to go about restoring something, or a colorful story about how they discovered it’s not a good idea to work with steel wool around an electrical outlet. There also will be a number of tradespeople on hand — in booths set up outside the auditorium of Francis Parker School. Most important, there will be cookies, and they will be handcrafted, as the situation merits. The only thing that will be missing is Virtual Bob. Maybe next year.

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Advice for the homeowner

On May 6 at Francis Parker School in Mission Hills, homeowners can quiz a panel of experts about how to properly restore and update their old house. Historic architect Marc Tarasuck will be on the panel. Here are his thoughts on some of the questions commonly faced by homeowners:

The difference between working on a Craftsman and another type of old house, such as a Victorian: With a Victorian, you can put a layer of wallpaper on it and make it look pretty. With a Craftsman, you have to be sensitive to the level of detail and craftsmanship. Restoration is always our first option. But if you make an addition, you have to be careful you don’t make it fancier than it was. Some clients think every house that has even a little bit of arts and crafts in it has to look like the Gamble House [which was a high-style mansion for one of Pasadena’s richest citizens]. Lots of times the house was originally a workingman’s cottage. You have to be sensitive to the way it was built and to that point in history.

The latest trend: Absolutely one of the biggest flaws with earlier Craftsman houses is that they do not take advantage of the opportunity to have an indoor/ outdoor feel. Now, when we do a redesign and reinterpretation, we use every square inch of yard as living space. Land is too expensive in San Diego not to.

Frequent mistakes: Again, some people try to make a little more out of it than it was intended to be, such as double height living rooms. La Cantina glass doors (the type that fold up like an accordion). We can still get outside, but do it in a more sensitive way. Also, using materials that would never be used in a house of that era. Granite just doesn’t work. Some homeowners want to make too much of the kitchen. I often find that a white painted kitchen is the best way to go. Then the rest of the house can be the art of the home.

On selecting contractors: Ask around. Knock on doors. Do your homework. Talk to your neighbors. Talk to your friends. Talk to Mission Hills Heritage. Referrals are the No. 1 way to go. If you get a good referral, check that person out. My feeling is if the builder is known as the best for that work, if he’s known to be fair and ethical, I don’t think you’ll need to go around and interview three people. The advantage of talking to more than one person is you do get some good ideas. That’s the main reason to talk to more than one person.

Who should you hire first? The architect or the contractor? Of course I’m biased. When you start with architect you get the combined knowledge, education, experience and actual depth of design you may not be getting when you start with the contractor. Most homeowners enjoy the process of working with an architect or designer. An architect brings different ideas to a project than a contractor, whose focus is often on the bottom line.

Don’t forget the craftsmen: I’m a very hands-on architect during construction. I like to be involved on the job site. When craftsmen have an investment in what they’re doing, it just really helps. There’s a sense of pride. I’ve seen artists and workers bring their family back when the project’s complete and show it to their family and kids. And remember, a little refreshment on the project goes a long way. Don’t forget the chocolate chip cookies.

Craftsman defined

Craftsman, like the term “arts and crafts” is more a philosophy than a style.

It is humble, unpretentious and simple, without being cheap or plain. The Craftsman house celebrates the crafts people who built it.

But most historians identify the Craftsman by the details, as if examining a rare creature through field glasses.

That’s the approach of Virginia Savage McAlester in her book, “A Field Guide to American Houses.” Her identifying features: “Low pitched, gabled roof (occasionally hipped) with wide, unenclosed eave overhang, roof rafters usually exposed; decorative (false) beams or braces commonly added under gables; porches, either full-or partial-width, with roof supported by tapered square columns; columns or piers frequently extend to ground level (without a break at level of porch floor); commonly one or one and one-half stories high, although two–story examples occur in every subtype.”

What’s inside counts almost as much as what’s outside with the Craftsman. Inside you’ll find an extensive use of clear finished millwork, used in a utilitarian, not flashy way, following the strict lines of Classic architecture, but without the flourishes of earlier 19th-century designs. Inside, the Craftsman followed the tenets of the Prairie School, with a more open floor plan, and rooms divided by half-walls, pillars and broad doorways without actual doors.

The Craftsman never went completely out of style. It was legislated out of existence, first by revised building codes in the early ’20s, which required greater lot line setbacks. Craftsman houses were distinguished by their broad eaves, and builders had to either eliminate those, make smaller houses or find bigger lots. Then, in the 1930s, the FHA created guidelines for builders, who were told to eliminate most detail, such as extensive wood trim and built-ins.

In the ’40s and ’50s, midcentury architects revived the Craftsman ideal, building hand-crafted, carefully designed, small-scale modest houses using mass-produced materials, such as plywood, T&G paneling and aluminum sliding doors. Many of these young men trained with Craftsman architects, such as Irving Gill and Frank Lloyd Wright. Their work provides a glimpse of what might have been, had the Craftsman been allowed to evolve over time.

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