The History of LA's Bungalow Housing
When many people think of the ideal neighborhood you think of a single-family neighborhood where everyone still has their own space with their own yards and their own living spaces, but have you ever considered a bungalow court? Most people have never even heard of a bungalow court, so let's do a little explaining.
Bungalow courts are tiny private homes sharing a common yard and amenities this style of house evolved on two separate tracks in the early-20th century, according to housing-policy expert Mark Vallianatos. In working-class neighborhoods in South and East Los Angeles, courts were a way to house several families on one plot of land without incurring the high cost of constructing an apartment building. These neighborhoods were often crowded owing to racially restrictive covenants that forced minorities into certain neighborhoods, but bungalow courts offered both privacy and fresh air.
According to historian and urban designer Todd Gish, in 1908, the city unveiled a new government-funded court on Navarro Street in the East L.A. neighborhood of El Sereno—one of the first model courts that was not considered “slum” housing. Featuring 18 two-room lodgings, shared latrines, and common public space, each tiny home was rented to families, predominantly people of color, at $5 a month. Similar courts, both privately and publicly funded, soon sprang up in working- and middle-class neighborhoods across Los Angeles and a few from the 1920s still survive on 81st and 82nd Streets in South Los Angeles.
More well known are the early tourist courts of nearby Pasadena—an upscale seasonal resort that brought wealthy Edwardian Midwesterners to Southern California in droves. Perhaps borrowing from the idea of the summer cabin, the presumed first Pasadena bungalow court was commissioned by developer Frank G. Hogan in 1909. Named St. Francis Court, and designed by architect Sylvanus Marston, the development boasted 11 small Arts and Crafts–style mini-bungalows, each with its own front yard.
Soon bungalow courts, many of them rentals for seasonal tourists, were springing up all over Pasadena. This proliferation (around 100 bungalow courts still survive in the City of Pasadena) coincided with popular Arts and Crafts and Revival movements, and the courts followed suit. Bungalows—usually one- to three-bedroom units—were built in architectural styles embraced and refined by SoCal architects, ranging from the Mediterranean to Swiss chalet to mock English Tudor to Spanish Revival.
As the population of the Los Angeles area boomed during the 1910s and ’20s, thousands of bungalow courts were built to house newcomers to California. The courts were often placed close to streetcar stops and business districts with working- and middle-class residents in mind. “It was a very lucrative building type,” says Sue N. Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage. “If you had a single lot, or two lots, in a residential area, rather than building one house or two houses, you could actually build six housing units or ten housing units and either rent them or sell them … It was really a pretty good business proposition.”
So lucrative and practical was the style bungalow courts were soon being adopted everywhere from Phoenix to Des Moines. “The idea of having your own private home was very much part of the American experience—the American Dream—in the early 1900s, and the bungalow court gave you that,” Mossman says. “And yet you could walk outside and have a bigger garden, a bigger open space, and a shared neighborhood feeling instantaneously.”
But the city would unintentionally ban the style in 1934. That year, Los Angeles made one parking spot per unit a requirement in all new residential buildings, according to Vallianatos. The city also passed an ordinance requiring a front, side, and back yard for every new residence. “Those two things together basically eliminate them, without I think anyone wanting to, which is really sort of the tragedy and the irony,” Vallianatos says.
In 1980, a young Pamela Perrine moved into a dilapidated bungalow court in West Hollywood. “When you’re young, you want to be around young people and feel safe. Bungalows courts were affordable back in the day, so you almost always had young people renting them,” she says. “We all became very close.”
Perrine remembers a community filled with Sunday barbecues, lawn concerts, and the occasional bad mushroom trip. Her neighbors were a collection of L.A. tropes—an up-and-coming photographer, a kind old man, a waitress-actress. She remembers one handsome neighbor named Rick whose “bungalow was filled with books, books everywhere from floor to ceiling. He would knock on my door and ask me to help him tear the sleeves off his tee-shirts to make them into muscle shirts.”
Today, roughly only 350 bungalow courts survive in L.A., but the sense of community and camaraderie among residents has made them one of the city’s most beloved and desirable styles of housing—one that some argue should be revived as a solution to L.A.’s shortage of affordable housing.