Preservation Wars: Arts and Crafts Goes to War (Rev)
Identifying the most popular house types in the U.S. in particular neighborhoods and deciding what is worth preserving is a subjective process. The deciders are usually experts in history, or architecture with an academic background, which nowadays raises suspicion of intellectual elitism and political bias. In 1980, Isaac Asimov, a titan of science fiction writing was quoted as saying, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
The knowledge in this case is that people who study architecture and design have a heightened sense of aesthetic sensibility and therefore are in a position to judge what should stay and what needs to go. Fussy Victorian architecture with turrets and mansard roofs often fall into a protected zone. Ranchers and Cape Cods, not so much. If preservation were based on a popularity contest things might be different. Magazines and real estate websites are fond of posting clickable lists of the country’s most popular house types based on the volume of them listed for sale on the Multiple Listing Service, Redfin, and Zillow.
The Craftsman style is a perennial favorite on these lists. Not as fancy as the Victorians nor as stately as a Colonial, the Craftsman and their bungalow offspring are much loved and, in some neighborhoods, protected by a ring or preservation-minded organizations manned by knowledgeable architectural experts. Although houses are apolitical buildings, the Craftsman’s past is rooted in left-wing popularism sprinkled with iconic builders and artists intent on doing things their own way.
The Arts and Crafts Movement that eventually birthed the Craftsman house style began in England around 1880. It was rooted in the notion of rejecting all things machine-made in exchange for a return to the human hand. It would eventually give way to Modernism in which the house was degreed as a machine for living by Le Corbusier and the automobile became an object of worship.
Arts and Crafts bloomed into a worldwide phenomenon influencing the Mingei movement in Japan and Art Nouveau in Europe. Its name is traced to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society which was formed in London in 1887 to promote the decorative arts which includes furniture, metalwork, jewelry, fashion, and textiles.
The Society wanted to elevate the design of functional objects and put them on the same shelf as the fine arts of painting and sculpture. Early practitioners of the movement included architects, writers, and artists. They were critical about the quality of manufactured goods and a social structure that made things tougher on the poor. Politically the movement leaned left and many of its early leaders were socialists.
In the U.S. the movement was propelled into public awareness by Gustav Stickley, born in Wisconsin in 1858 to German immigrant parents. Stickley pioneered iconic furniture bearing his name and promoted it in his magazine, “The Craftsman,” which went to press in 1901. Although he is considered an Arts and Crafts visionary, he was bankrupt by 1915 and the magazine folded a year later. In 1988 Barbara Streisand made headlines by paying $363,000 for an original Stickley-designed sideboard. Stickley’s company is still in the furniture business but isn’t owned by the family. His iconic, brand-defining armchairs sell for thousands of dollars.
Brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene were traveling on a parallel course with Stickley and the crafty set. They were born in Ohio in 1868 and 1870, respectively. Their faither was a homeopathic doctor way before it was cool. The two brothers studied architecture at MIT. Charles was working at an architectural firm in Boston just as the country slid into the Panic of 1893. Five hundred banks closed, 15,000 businesses went bust, and soup kitchens opened.
The brothers both lost their jobs and decided their chances were better to reunite with their parents in Pasadena, California. On the train ride from Boston, they stopped in Chicago for a look at the Columbia Exposition which included examples of Japanese housing styles which somewhat resemble the bungalows that would eventually become their trademark.
The word bungalow is derived from the Hindi word bangla which means, “belonging to Bengal.” They refer to a type of porch-ringed, low slung, thatched-roof cottages built for the English colonizers of Asia. Many believe the brothers were influenced by what they saw in Chicago while others think California itself was the inspiration for the first bungalow they designed, which was known as, “Job No. 11.”
No. 11 was designed around an enclosed central courtyard with a fountain in the middle. The roof pitch was shallow, designed for the California sun, not snow. A scalloped parapet wall on the courtyard staircase used a mission-style hacienda as a departure point, but No. 11 never got built.
Instead, the brothers found themselves building typical Colonial-style rip offs and renditions that transplanted Midwesterners wanted to live in. They chafed against the norm as Charles wrote a magazine article called “California Building” about a fictitious client named, “Mr. Know It” who wanted a house called, “Old Colonial.”
Things changed for the firm when they met Arturo Bandini, a horse riding, grizzly bear hunting client who was born in a U-shaped, single-story adobe wrapped around a central courtyard. He commissioned the Greenes to build him something like the place where he grew up.
The result was a naturally finished wooden structure clad with board and batten siding. The home’s living room was dominated by a huge cobblestone fireplace. The firm’s designs in the early 1900’s began to feature visible roof trusses supported by bracketed columns and beams. The homes looked slightly Asian but also included stained glass windows. They baked-in pergolas, verandas, and courtyards to connect the interior with the outside world.
Some observers called the style “Swiss” while others still saw Japan. The exposed roof beams were dubbed “rafter tails.” They began to refer to their own style as “ultimate bungalows.” Their 1908 Gamble House, which was built in Pasadena is considered their masterpiece. It was constructed for David B. Gamble, the son of James Gamble, founder of Proctor and Gamble. The Gamble family considered selling it at one point until the prospective buyers talked about painting the interior woodwork white. That ended the discussion, and the family eventually turned the house over to the U.S.C. School of Architecture. The home is now listed as an official National Historic Landmark and a California Historical Landmark.
The brothers’ work was virtually ignored during the 1920-30s. Their attention to detail in the form of complex joinery and built-in bookcases defied mass production and commercial work held little appeal for them. They were rediscovered in the 1940s by architects, critics, and Elizabeth Gordon, editor of House Beautiful. They dissolved their firm in 1922 after Charles moved his family to Carmel, California. By 1957 both brothers were dead.
Tinkering with a bungalow can be a fighting matter, even if it’s not designed by Greene and Greene. Bungalows and two-story versions of Craftsman style homes gained popularity and eventually caught the eye of the Sears Department store chain. In between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold more than 700,000 homes out of a catalogue. They became known as a Sears Kit House. The homes were shipped disassembled by rail for the owner to put together on a piece of land. The kits contained everything needed to build a house Including plans, pipes, fixtures, wiring, roofing, doors, windows, and nails. Lumber, nails, and outside framing was shipped first so the building could be closed in before the interior finishes arrived.
Sears appropriated different basic house styles and components of popular house types of the era including Victorians, Craftsmen, and bungalows. There were even a few early-stage ranch style houses as well as barns and apartment buildings available for purchase.
The 1913 version of the catalog which Sears entitled “Modern Homes” offered 112 different designs, offered free plans and a list of materials, and promised a prospective homeowner that they would not have to “pay a penny for architectural services.” The company pegged a value of $100 to the plans and materials list. Cement, brick, and plaster was not available from Sears and had to be purchased locally if the house plans called for it. Sears promised savings of $150 on a $600 house and $1,500 on a $6,000 house. Freight charges from the various Sears warehouses were also an add-on.
Rather than offer exact copies of classic designs, the Sears homes were imitative mutations borrowing the roof line of this and combining it with the front porch of that. They were not designed to be architectural icons but rather a kit of parts that could be transformed into affordable housing by anybody who had the skills to put the pieces together. Any town on a rail line between 1908 and 1940 including Washington D.C. are likely candidates to host kit houses from Sears. Those same rail lines were used in years prior to transport the pattern books, plans, trim, and stick work that defined Victorian-era, Queen Annes, Second Empires, and Shot Gun styles.
In 2015 Federico Asch and Ana Barac, both physicians who were living in Bethesda, Maryland at the time made an offer on a Sears Kit House that was for sale in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington D.C. Cleveland Park is a leafy, desirable neighborhood in Northwest Washington that was built as a streetcar suburb just north of downtown. “I love city living,” says Barac, “I would live in an apartment, but Federico wanted a house. The other problem was the houses we looked at, we wanted to change everything.”
Besides fixer-uppers they also considered buying an existing house in rough shape and doing a tear-down as the search became frustrating. “We put offers on six to ten houses, and we always came in second,” says Asch. The search eventually led to the Sears-version bungalow built in 1922, that backs up to a branch of Rock Creek Park.
“We saw this one before it came on the market, called the realtor Thursday night, and said we wanted to see it Saturday morning,” says Asch. “We offered way more than they were asking but only if they agreed to take it off the market. They said ‘no’ and they did an open house. Tuesday came and we took second.”
The family’s luck finally turned three weeks later when the listing agent told them the house was going back on the market and if they re-submitted their offer of $1,256,000 it would be accepted, which they did.
While their search was going on Barac found Kube Architecture, based in the District, and began calling them in to consult on houses the family was interested in. The bungalow deal didn’t leave any time for a pre-purchase consult. They contacted the architects after they bought the house and laid out some basic design goals. “They wanted to take advantage for the views out the back because it’s open to a forested area,” says Loosle-Ortega, partner, and founder, Kube. “There were great views, but it was all closed in.”
The home’s location is under the purview of three organizations dedicated to preserving the home’s historical pedigree, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, the Cleveland Park Historical Architectural Review Committee, and the DC Historic Preservation Review Board. Steve Callcot who works with the District’s Historic Preservation Office told the homeowners that the house was a Sear’s kit house. Asch is originally from Argentina and Barac grew up in Croatia. Neither one of them had ever heard of a Sears Kit House. According to their research the family had purchased an “Elsmore,” a bungalow-style cottage with some nifty stickwork under the front eaves.
The closing was scheduled near Thanksgiving, 2015 but title research revealed the house was sitting on two lots. It took two months to straighten out and the closing was rescheduled for December 31. The family had already booked a trip to Argentina to visit Asch’s relatives, so they assigned their power of attorney to a family friend and enlisted their realtor to do the final walk-through.
The walk-through was happening as the family was boarding their flight. “Our agent calls and says. ‘I’m going to walk in the house take a look,’” says Asch. “He opens the door and there is silence then he says, ‘Oh my god you can’t believe what my eyes are seeing.’”
A pipe had burst in an upstairs bathroom and the house was completely flooded. The family flew on to Argentina and told the sellers they still wanted the house if the leak was fixed. Unfortunately, the bank cancelled the sale as the house was no longer in livable condition. It took the sellers another two months to make the house habitable again and the closing finally happened in February of 2016.
The new owners had been told that getting permits for a major renovation to a home in a historic district would take a year. To help cover the mortgage on their new home they rented the bungalow stayed in the house in Bethesda and started the design process. Since the owners and designers already knew each other, the process moved smoothly. “We left the design to them, but we would chime in,” says Asch. “The one thing we told them we love the park, and we want to be able to see it from every room in the house.”
The first round of designs was presented to the review boards and were quickly rejected. “The first ‘no’ was so striking we thought ‘okay this isn’t a negotiation,’” says Asch. “So, we started pulling back.” The review boards believed too much of the renovation was visible from the side and was overpowering the original house. The basic rules dictate that any renovations to a home in a protected historic district, including Cleveland Park, cannot be visible from the street.
“We had designed a bigger third floor, but we couldn’t do it,” says Loosle-Ortega. “We had to go straight down from the third floor and put more space on the lower level.” The second iteration moved easier through the three-ring organizational approval process, the lease expired on the tenants and construction began in June of 2018.
The home was stripped back to a three-sided shell as the basement level pushed out towards the park below. The homeowners sold their house in Bethesda and negotiated a rent-back arrangement while the new house was under construction which provided funding for the renovation along with a new and pressing deadline.
The construction lasted seven months and uncovered new wrinkles. “The walls were crooked and tilting out,” says Jorge Concepcion, design associate, Kube. “The original house was under-framed, and we had to change out all the joists.” The central staircase, which was measured from the crooked walls had to be reconfigured as it intruded too far into the living space.
The result is a modern knock out hiding inside a front façade that still looks like it came straight out of the world of Arts and Crafts. The view from the front door offers a glimpse of the greenspace beyond and the custom steel staircase that connects the three floors. A custom-built, free-standing coat closet provides a partial privacy screen and storage.
Floors on the first level are made from engineered oak. To the left is a home office and to the right, a hang-out space equipped with casual seating and a piano. The room is separated from the kitchen by a cabinet mixed with drawers and open shelving topped with a black steel countertop.
The kitchen includes a rectangular island offering casual seating with dark laminate cabinetry below by Alusso Cucina. The stoves are Wolf, the range hood is Zephyr, the fridge is Thermador, and the dishwasher is Bosch. The white base and wall cabinetry is also a laminate by Alusso. The design team opted to use a washable painted surface as a backsplash.
The dining area is adjacent to the kitchen is defined by a Bonaldo dining table with a distinctive red and orange base, colors that also show up in the ground floor powder room and staircase supports. Views to the park are maximized from the main living area which is defined by ceiling cove lighting that changes colors.
The staircase is naturally lit by an overhead skylight. The basement level contains a workout area, guest bedroom with full bath, laundry room, storage, kids’ playroom, and a large living area with sliding glass doors that lead out to the back patio.
The third floor holds the master suite with two walk-in closets, and master bath. The master bath has twin vanities with a natural wood surround, shower, and a tub with a perfect view down to the park. The family’s daughter’s room is also on the third floor along a with another full bath.
The result is a board-approved study in juxtaposition. “We love contrasts,” says Asch. “The challenge was to build all that while keeping the front historic. I’m glad that was required because now it’s part of the identity of house. Building from scratch we never would have thought about that.”
The story about the house and the hoops that had to be jumped through to update it went live as a cover story in the Real Estate section of The Washington Post on July 1, 2021. It immediately began to generate controversy as seen by the admiration and vitriol that appeared in the comments section. The sticking point was the totally modern interior. Some readers were thrilled by the transformation, but many were appalled. One reader likened the renovation to physical experiments conducted by the Nazis to graft a third arm onto a human being.
From the outside and all visible angles, the house appeared just as it did before the house changed hands. That was the point of going though the reviews – to make sure the architectural character was left in place.
As the comments started to pile up, the paper’s algorithms pushed the story to the front page of the online version. Real estate stories don’t generally raise a lot of comments. There’s usually no celebrities or political intrigue. There’s no scandals and no gossip. The story made it onto the Post’s wire service, which sent it to newspapers all over the world. One of the most active commentators came from Dublin Ireland arguing against that no changes should have been made to the interior of the house by people he had never met, living on a street that he would probably never see. A commentator identifying themselves as “Ms. Fuzzypants” said, “This looks like a Frankenstein House. Just awful.”
A commenter known as “Frankiquilts” said, “This house is absolutely horrid. Modern in the worst possible way. All the white combined with primary colors actually draws the eyes away from the windows and their coveted ‘park’ that they insisted be visible from every room. I would have been more impressed to see them turn a small craftsman cottage into a wonderfully large craftsman style home.”
The real estate business is propelled by the jet fuel of pure capitalism and incorporates bidding wars, house flipping, hard money, evictions, and foreclosures. It is measured against “comps” computed by Zillow and Redfin. It’s financed and underwritten by Government Sponsored Enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac who are backed up by Uncle Sam’s Treasury Bills.
But when it comes to tinkering with a bungalow – even a fake one from Sears, everybody is an artistic critic.
House types and their age are parameters are frequently used to determine whether a building is worth preserving. House type wasn’t a factor for the doctors in Washington, it was more about the neighborhood that the home sits in. Bungalow replicas are still built today. Take a look at the basic massing and forms used on “modern farmhouses,” and you’ll see a straight line drawn back to the Craftsman era. The Arts and Crafts period began to flame out in the 1930’s and would be shouldered aside by Modernism. Epic battles would ensue as the rise of the automobile and the highway would change the way many people lived. Entire neighborhoods filled with historic homes would vanish under the steamroller of urban renewal.