20 Facts About Chicago Bungalows You Might Not Have Known
To show appreciation for the 20,000+ dedicated homeowners who have joined as members of CBA in 20 years, we are posting one blog each month in 2020 listing 20 things of interest to bungalow and vintage home owners. #Bungalow2020!
1. The large radiators underneath your windows were designed in response to a pandemic.
Have you ever wondered why your original radiators are so big for your small home? Believe it or not, the answer has to do with the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. The pandemic infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide, taking anywhere from 20 to 50 million lives. In an effort to prevent another outbreak of the airborne influenza, health officials strongly recommended that windows remain cracked year-round to allow for fresh air.* To accommodate this health recommendation, engineering manuals from the 1920s specified that radiators and boilers be large enough to heat a room on "the coldest day of the year, with the wind blowing, and the windows open." As for their placement in front of windows? Heat rises, so by placing the radiator under an open (or closed yet drafty) window, the rising heat creates a thermal barrier to keep the sinking cold air from moving.
*Please note that airborne spread has not been reported to be a major driver of transmission for COVID-19. See the City of Chicago’s Coronavirus FAQs for facts on the current pandemic.
2. Subway tile was also designed for public health—and it really did start in subway stations!
The subway tile commonly used in bungalow bathrooms and kitchens was not randomly named––it is a style that originated in the New York City subway system in 1904. Subway stations were notoriously dim at the turn of the last century, so brightening the stations and passages with gleaming white tile removed the depressing ambiance. But, beyond that, the public nature of these spaces combined with various health epidemics and a growing understanding of the science behind transmission contributed to the cleaning up and brightening of station walls and tunnels. The white tile showed the dirt well and was easy to clean. The elegant, bright, and sanitary look of subway tile was also perfect for residential kitchens and bathrooms, a home’s main bacteria and virus collectors.
3. Chicago’s bungalows are made of brick because of our winters and the Chicago Fire.
Because the California bungalows that inspired our own Chicago bungalows were envisioned by architects as seasonal vacation homes or mild-climate homes, they were constructed primarily of wood and stucco. Our early bungalows in Chicago followed suit, but the greater durability, permanence, and insulation offered by brick construction in colder climates lead us to shift our material choice. Some areas of the city were also limited to brick and stone construction after the 1871 Chicago Fire. On top of all that, the presence of a massive regional brick industry didn’t hurt, either!
4. Most Chicago bungalows originally had asphalt shingle roofs.
The overhanging, low-pitched roof is a hallmark feature of Chicago bungalows. But what was on top? The bulk of bungalows were built with asphalt shingles, a new fire-resistant (and affordable) technology. Asphalt shingles, a.k.a. composition shingles, were widely available by the 1910s and only increased in popularity through the 1920s and 30s. Of course, there were also many homes built with terra cotta, slate, or even wood shingles. (To find out what roof material your home had historically, check out your local Sanborn Fire Insurance map. An “x” on your house indicates that your roof was wood with wood shingles. A black dot indicates composition shingles. An “o” indicates a fireproof material, such as terra cotta or slate.)
5. Your metallic stained glass windows are unique to Chicago.
Many Chicago bungalows boast double-sided gold mirror elements in their stained glass windows. This distinguishing element, known as angel gilding, is beautiful, rare, and distinctive. Chicago is the only city in the nation to use angel gilding in home windows! Popular in the 1920s and 30s, angel gilded windows reflect light both on the interior and exterior of homes in the evening, setting them apart from traditional residential stained glass windows. To make the pieces, gold chloride is dissolved in water, mixed with other chemicals, and poured on the glass. Pieces are set back-to-back within the frame to reflect light inside and out.
6. Rumor has it that plasterers used to put planks between the windows of bungalows and walk through to work on them in batches.
Word on the street from one of our favorite local plasterers is that during the bungalow building boom, because entire street faces would be bought and developed at a time, contractors would plaster many bungalows in a row and occasionally even an entire block. Because the bungalows were built close together, they would simply pass the scaffold plank through the windows from one house to the next and just march down the row!
7. Four different types of front bays can be found on Chicago bungalows.
The primary design feature of a Chicago bungalow façade is the window bay. Window bays occupy between half and three-quarters the façade of a bungalow with a front entrance, and can stretch the entire length of the façade on side-entrance bungalows. The bay is what architects and builders used to best showcase the variety of artistic bungalow detailing, and most Chicago bungalows feature one of the following four front bay forms: flat, square, polygonal, or curved.
8. That interesting window above your door is meant for air cooling and ventilation.
Chicago bungalows were built without air conditioning, but they were designed with cooling in mind. Transom windows, located above doors both exterior and interior, could be opened to facilitate circulation and let out hot air in the warmer months. Double-hung windows were also designed for enhanced ventilation and air circulation, as they’re able to open from the top and the bottom. Your transom and double-hung windows will still cool and ventilate your home marvelously! (Missing your transom window operator? You can order a replacement online.) Back-of-the-house sleeping porches are another forgotten cooling and ventilating element, as they’re often remodeled.
9. Original bungalow kitchens were small and mighty.
Today, open concept kitchens are queen. But back when your bungalow was built, separated, compact kitchens were all the rage. Kitchens were considered private family spaces and were designed for one person (read: woman) to work in efficiently. Some had room for a small table or built-in breakfast nook, but not much else. And while laundry facilities were relegated to the basement, you can still find built-in ironing boards in bungalow kitchens! (Check out our Bungalow Expansion Project and Driehaus Bungalow Award winners for ideas on how to expand your kitchen without tearing down your dining room wall.)
10. Bungalow closets seem small today because they were not meant for hangers.
Many homeowners find their bungalow closets to be small and oddly shaped. That’s because many closets in older homes were built for wall hooks, not hangers. Modern clothes hangers weren’t even invented until the early 1900s, and it took a while for their use to go mainstream. People also owned far fewer clothes, so it’s no wonder closets seem so tiny as compared to what you would find in new construction! (Check out This Old House for some closet organization tips.)
11. The average Chicago bungalow cost $5,000 to $7,500 to build.
Between 1900 and 1930, tens of thousands of bungalows were built in Chicago, and the benefit to standardized construction was obvious. The average cost to construct a brick Chicago bungalow was usually around $5,000 to $7,500. This was a great deal for developers, especially if they bought up several lots at a time, acted as their own contractor, and sold them for $8,000 to $9,000 each—still a manageable price for the working class families moving to the area. (Have some fun with this Inflation Calculator to see what these costs would be today.)
12. A handful of architects built thousands of bungalows.
Bungalow neighborhoods typically had contributions from dozens of architects, but often there were a few who dominated the area, working with a developer who bought up entire street faces at a time. Many of these architects, like Earnest Braucher, L. J. Allison, and W. E. Sammons were responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of homes in numerous bungalow neighborhoods around the city.
13. Nearly 100,000 bungalows were built in Cook County, with approximately 80,000 in Chicago.
Between 1910 and 1940, with a peak building boom between WWI and the Great Depression, an estimated 100,000 bungalows were built in Cook County. About an 80% majority of them were built within the Chicago city limits. The 1940 census reported that half of the city’s housing had been built between 1910 and 1930. Why so many bungalows? These bungalow boom years coincided with Chicago’s population more than doubling, and the enormous popularity of bungalows spearheaded the expansion of homeownership. In 2003, when Chicago bungalows were nominated to the National Register of Historic Places as a significant architecture type, they were believed to still make up nearly one-third of Chicago’s single-family homes!
14. Streetcars played an important role in the growth of the Bungalow Belt.
Long before the CTA (shoutout to our dedicated bus and train operators!), Chicago was home to one of the largest streetcar networks in the world. In fact, the expansion of this electric transit system in the 1910s and 20s meant once outlying suburban areas became connected and accessible—doing its part to fuel the bungalow boom along with the increasingly popular automobile. This map of the system at it’s 1937 peak shows just how extensive it was. (Take a deep dive with primary source material on Chicagology’s website.)
15. Skinny Chicago lots are part of what make our bungalows unique.
Brick construction isn’t the only characteristic that makes our bungalows distinctive among others in the country. Chicago’s city lots are long and skinny, typically just 25 feet wide and 125 feet deep. With 5 to 15 feet between buildings, that leaves less than 20 feet for the whole house! Thankfully, quality craftsmanship and thoughtful design—with rooms opening into one another eliminating the need for hallways—keep bungalows from feeling cramped. As the Bungalow Belt expanded in the 1920s, so did lot widths, expanding to at least 30 feet in new subdivisions.
16. Bungalows were designed for single floor living, considered then to be a modern and convenient way to live!
Chicago bungalow designers intentionally moved away from the typical single-family home layouts of the time and instead mirrored the layouts of urban apartment living, which had considerable conveniences. Eliminating unnecessary stair halls and foyers offered a more efficient use of space. Putting all rooms and conveniences on a single floor, merging certain rooms, and bringing living and dining rooms into a continuous space, these thoughtfully designed homes required much less housework.
17. Bungalows were part of a movement towards simplicity and nature (and away from the Victorian era).
The Arts & Crafts Movement at the turn of the 20th century came at a time when Victorian style had long been popular. These new Arts & Crafts designers saw Victorian residences as cluttered, frivolous, over-decorated and unnatural. They responded with simple designs, plain interiors, and efforts to bring the home back to nature with natural building materials, less rigid landscaping, and the inclusion of many porches and windows to blur the line between inside and outside. William Morris, a major proponent of the British Arts & Crafts Movement, famously said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
18. The word “bungalow” derives from Bangla, meaning “of or from Bengal.”
The original Indian bungalows were mud and thatch huts built by and for peasants in rural areas. For the British Raj, bungalows became a symbol of leisure, and they adopted the style in the late 1860s as summer cottages near London. Not long after, the bungalow came from Europe to the United States with the spread of the Arts & Crafts Movement around the turn of the century.
19. The bungalow was the first architectural trend in the U.S. to spread from west to east.
With the spread of the Arts & Crafts Movement from Europe to the U.S., the bungalow first arrived in Southern California and then spread eastward. This makes the bungalow unique because earlier national architectural styles moved from east to west. In 1909, a writer in the popular Keith’s Magazine on Home Building, Una Nixon Hopkins, wrote that, “Nearly all fads originate in the East and move westward, but the bungalow was born in California, and has been adopted in the East—increasingly at a surprising ratio.”
20. The early Arts & Crafts architects opposed the use of bungalows in cities, and even as primary residences!
The first bungalows out of the Arts & Crafts Movement were seasonal vacation homes all about outdoor living, and their architects strongly opposed other uses. Gustav Stickley, considered to be the chief promoter of the American Arts & Crafts Movement, wrote of bungalows in 1909: “We need hardly say that a house of the kind we have described belongs either in the open country or in a small village or town, where the dwellings do not elbow or crowd one another any more than the people do… [Bungalows] should be in some place where there is peace and quiet, plenty of room and the chance to establish a sense of intimate relationship with the hills and valleys, trees and brooks and all the things which tend to lessen the strain and worry of modern life by reminding us that after all we are one with Nature.” Expressing the same view in 1911, architect Wilson Eyre wrote, “In my opinion, this bungalow style is not destined to produce any lasting effect on domestic architecture in America.” In any case, these opinions would have little effect on the vernacular bungalow boom across the country, and it definitely would not stop Chicago’s bungalow builders!
Homer Hoyt, One Hundred Years of Land Values in Chicago, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1933), 105, 439-440.
Chicago Ancient Building Permits, accessed on microfilm at the Chicago History Museum
The Chicago Bungalow, Chicago Architecture Foundation, 2003
Charles E. White, The Bungalow Book (New York: MacMillan Company, 1923), 4. and “Comfort And Economy Combined in Small Craftsman Homes,” The Craftsman (February 1915
Una Nixon Hopkins, “The Bungalow,” 21 Keith’s Magazine, 21 (June, 1909), 314; see also Waldon Fawcett, “American Bungalows and Chalets,” Keith’s Magazine, 22 (December, 1909): 311-316.
Gustav Stickley, Craftsman Homes, 197-198; and Wilson Eyre, “The Purpose of the Bungalow,” Country Life in America, 19 (February, 1911): 305-307.