Flipped Out: The End of the American Bungalow

The interior of a recently flipped 1918 bungalow in our neighborhood.

A recent story in the New York Times, “Want a House Like This? Prepare for a Bidding War With Investors” confirmed what I’ve long suspected is going on in our neighborhood. Large financial firms have turned our local housing market into a casino and in so doing have exacerbated the apocalyptic housing affordability and homelessness crisis here in Los Angeles. If you’re lucky enough to be able to buy a house here you have to compete in insane bidding wars. If you can’t afford a house you have to pay an extraordinary percentage of your income in rent if you can find a unit not being used as an Airbnb.

What the investors do in our neighborhood is take modest 1920s bungalows, gut them, and barf up the contents of a Pottery Barn to cater to what the Stalinist HGTV has deemed that all our interiors must look like. Out go the moldings and built in cabinets and in come open floor plans and marble kitchen islands. If these old houses were being torn down to build nice, affordable multi-unit housing designed by talented contemporary architects I’d be cheering but that would mean that we lived in Austria and, here in the U.S., we aren’t allowed to have nice things.

While nothing special, the bungalows in our neighborhood faced many indignities over the years. In the dark ages of the 1960s and 70s many experienced what we call the “landing of the stucco bird.” Exterior beams, and the molding around windows were ripped off and the houses dunked in stucco in the false promise of lower maintenance. Cranky generation Xers like me and Kelly can remember a brief period in the 1990s when bungalows were hip again and carefully restored but that era is over as we suffer the seemingly unending tyranny of everything “mid-century” and a new dark age of ceiling can lighting and white paint over white paint over white paint.

My inner Slavoj Zizek wants to plumb the hidden ideology of these former 20s bungalows turned into open floor plan, brightly lit granite countertop palaces. With all the walls blown out, the inhabitants of the flipped houses of our neighborhood live in a state that reminds me of Natasha Dow Schüll description of casino architecture in her book Addition by Design. Schüll says,

Gilles Deleuze proposed in the 1990s that discipline, formerly the dominant mode of power in Western Societies, had been modified and to some degree overtaken by a logic of “control” that worked not by confinement or restriction of movement, but by the regulation of continuous, mobile flows–of capital, information, bodies and affects. Unlike the punitive subjection of discipline, control does not require a subject as such; nor does it seek to produce or manage one. As we have seen, casino design follows what one leading firm calls the “immersion paradigm,” holding players in a desubjectified state of uninterrupted motion so as to galvanize, channel, and profit from what the academic consultants quoted earlier called the “experiential affect.”

With no walls or doors with which to escape the gaze of our fellow housemates and bright lights and white walls everywhere, these flipped and remudled bungalows keep us in what one casino designer called “ergonomic labyrinths” in a state of “happy imprisonment.”

But as Marshall McLuhan used to say, “If you don’t like that idea I’ve got others.” Perhaps my inner and cranky Prince Charles just likes fuddy-duddy old houses. So please people, for the love of God, if you want a mid-century house please buy one. There’s plenty to go around. No need to rip out the molding and the built in cabinets in the old bungalow. Since the Man got rid of shop classes future generations won’t be able to replace those nice old details.

San Diego’s Egyptian Court Apartments.

As an addendum let me also note that the teens and 1920s gave us a great example of multi-unit housing called the bungalow court. Kelly and I lived in a spectacular one, the Egyptian Court Apartments, while we were in grad school in San Diego. Every morning you woke up, looked out the window and found yourself in a cheesy 1920s King Tut movie. How cool is that? Now the investors who have turned our housing into an investment deem that all apartments must resemble stacked shipping containers in a style that has come to be known as “SketchUp Moderne,” a Hardie Boarded byproduct of our Capitalist Realist hellscape.

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  1. It’s horrible what’s happening to these old bungalows, but it’s not just bungalows, it’s large lots (which gave you a little breathing space in the middle of a big city) too. My grandparents owned a gorgeous 1920s Spanish-style home in the hills of Eagle Rock in the 1960s that had a multi-terraced half-acre backyard behind it. Lots of room to grow your own food and flowers, and have a detached garage and entertaining space. Went back recently and found that their old house, as well as all its neighbors, now had ugly two story stucco duplexes built where the backyards had once been, obviously for financial gain. The neighborhood now feels incredibly cramped and overcrowded. “Progress” over preservation at every turn, it seems.

    • Thanks for that link. Thankfully the Egyptian Court is still standing and in good condition as is the other Egyptian apartment/retail complex across the street. The Bush Egyptian movie theater down the street was remodeled beyond recognition in the 1950s, closed in 1997 and then demolished in 2003 to make way for an unimaginative condo complex that has a facsimile of the original facade tacked on to it incongruously. We were at the very last screening of a movie at the theater in 1997. When the movie ended the staff started crying. I think most of the rest of those buildings are gone.

  2. We notice the same thing in our 1940’s neighborhood east of San Francisco (Walnut Creek). We are one of a very few properties left with the original footprint of about 1000 sq ft, 3 beds, 1 bath. Everyone builds on, takes out walls, makes everything open plan. We are very satisfied with our little house and have managed living in it, with two kids, for 15 years now. Soon they will leave to go to college and it will feel just right for two. We have a large, flat yard which has helped us spend much of our time outdoors gardening/farming, so that keeps us out of each other’s hair. Anyway, our little ranch has no style to speak of, but is made of the original redwood and oak, with lots of little rooms, and we wouldn’t change that for anything.

    • We’re in a similar situation as you, just over the hill in Berkeley: 1000 sq ft 1940’s house with mostly original everything. (There’s a mysterious dead space in the wall between dining room and kitchen that we think might have been another fireplace, and the bedrooms have molding, but the living room doesn’t, so maybe it got removed?) The rest of the neighbors have had extra bedrooms and decks tacked on, some artfully, most not.

      It’s time to do some repairs, and as we’re preparing, we’re researching what these houses would have looked like when they were built. It’s a fun history project for sure! Also an interesting design challenge, to maintain the original character like the scalloped molding in the kitchen, while incorporating modern life, like dishwashers.

      Love to hear that you’re 15 years on in your house and still happy with the original plan!

  3. I was ecstatic to hear that open floor plans and granite counters were out.
    Why would anyone rip out molding, inside or out? That is where the character is. It’s like we would all shave our eyebrows. I like that floor plan you posted.

  4. Erik, I say this with love. You need to take some deep breaths. Maybe even tilt back a stiff drink. Yes, the real estate market is insane right now. And yes, some modest bungalows are getting flipped by investors. But this too shall pass. Really. Every economic bubble is in search of a pin. It will all end someday. And then people will reminisce about the Good Old Days of the teens before everything turned to crap.

    • That bubble might end soon–a few of the more misguided flips have sat on the market for many months without a buyer. And there’s also some good news I didn’t note–a few developers are integrating old houses into new multi-unit complexes and some are attempting to fix up some of the neighborhood’s poorly maintained bungalow courts. One ongoing problem is the city’s ridiculous parking requirements that have prevented improvements to bungalow courts. I have very mixed feelings about this particular effort but this covers what’s going on with the courts in our ‘hood: https://la.curbed.com/2019/6/18/18663419/coliving-rent-control-bungalow-courts-node.

    • As the article mentions, just shortly before we moved in the previous owner had attempted to jack hammer off all the Egyptian ornaments in an attempt to prevent the building from being declared a monument. Thankfully some of the tenants intervened, but not before a lot of the details had been destroyed. Thankfully it was bought by a better landlord who did a decent job restoring what had been removed. The manager lovingly tended the building and replanted the central courtyard’s water garden which featured lots of papyrus, of course. It was a really delightful place to live. I went by it recently on a trip down to San Diego. It’s still there and in good condition even though the neighborhood has changed quite a bit.

  5. OMG, cranky GenXer right along with you here. And while we’re at it, could we please, for the love of god, Montresor, end the trend of everything being bright white? It is *so* institutional and sterile. I once saw a picture of a house that had been “remodeled” by everything being painted white, all the bricks, the concrete walls lining the driveway, even the blankety-blank boulders in the yard. Insanity.

  6. A former boss of mine, who high-tailed it back to Canada, told me one of the reasons that residential housing was so insane in Vancouver was the effect of foreign investors. In particular, a high percentage of new (only new, for some reason) housing construction is snapped up by Chinese nationals or investment companies. The owners hold it until the selling price increases to the desired profit margin. The units aren’t even rented – they sit empty, to preserve the “new” premium in pricing. As far as the extreme open floor plans: where does a gal have to go to scratch or unpick a wedgie?

    • I know people who buy really expensive cars this way.

      They drain everything, all the fluid, oils, etc. then moth ball them in garage. Then a few years after, they see what the market is like, then they sell ’em for a big profit.

      Arabs do this. Maybe Chinese learn from Arabs, just buying homes instead of cars.

  7. Here in Mooroolbark, the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia we have what is considered to be very large blocks of land. 800-1000sqm. Not sure what that is in feet. Pretty much every block is being sub-divided with a second house built behind the original one. And rendering of the bricks is the trend, not unlike stucco but a smoother surface. Years ago it was artificial brick cladding sheets put over the weather board houses. Open plan is starting to become big here. I hate it. Today a visitor didn’t want to leave mt nice warm ‘cave’ aka closed off lounge room, heated (it’s winter) with a wood burning heater. Old school

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