Little houses that inspire lots of love

Twin Cities Bungalow Club offers resources — and fun — for owners of the small-footprint homes

Submitted photo
Submitted photo

The Twin Cities Bungalow Club currently boasts about 300 dues-paying members who share tips on maintaining, remodeling and decorating their small-footprint homes, prized for their coziness and quality.

“We’re all about fun,” said Tim Counts, the club’s president. “We’re all about encouraging appreciation and understanding of the housing type, and also about having a good time while living in them.”

Membership comes with a subscription to the club’s quarterly newsletter, invitations to social and educational events and free admission to the Twin Cities Bungalow Club Home Tour. (This year’s tour runs 10 a.m.–5 p.m. May 13, and the cost for non-members is just $5.)

Club members also get access to a curated list of local repairmen, contractors, craftspeople who understand and specialize in taking care of bungalows. Most of the homes are around 100 years old, so they need some TLC.

Anyone can log onto the club’s website (bungalowclub.org) and peruse the list of 160-plus titles in the Bungalow Club book collection. Assembled through book and financial donations by club members, the collection is available to the public through the St. Paul Public Library.

The Southwest Journal recently spoke with Counts to learn more about the club and its history. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Here’s a good place to start: What is a bungalow?

The term bungalow applies, at least in the United States, to a small, oftentimes one- or one-and-a-half-story house that was built in the early 20th century.

Craftsman or Arts and Crafts is the typical style people think of when they think bungalow, but there are bungalows that have colonial architectural details on them and Pueblo, Spanish (and) Mediterranean (bungalows).

If you want to live in a bungalow and you consider your house a bungalow, then you’re welcome to call it a bungalow.

The word derives from an East Indian term: “bangla” or “bangalo.” They were one-story, thatched-roof buildings that had a veranda, a covered veranda that generally ran around the exterior.

British colonialists adopted the house type and morphed the word into “bungalow” and brought it back to England where it meant a sort of casual or out-in-the-country or by-the-sea sort of house.

Submitted photo.
Submitted photo.

How did the Twin Cities Bungalow Club get its start, and how long has it been around?

Near as we can estimate, it was formed in late 1994, and it was started by a woman named Kristi Johnson who lived in the Longfellow neighborhood.

The neighborhood association at the time had hired a consultant to do a survey of Longfellow’s housing stock, and they determined that about 60 percent of the housing stock was bungalows. And they listed them in the “negatives” column, as in: Oh, these are a problem, what are we going to do about them? These are old, outmoded grandma houses. Nobody wants them anymore.

Kristi saw that and she just went nuts, because she and her husband lived in a bungalow. They loved it, and she was absolutely smitten with their charm, their coziness, their manageability, the high quality of the materials and their place in American housing history.

So, she started the club singlehandedly and within five years had completely reversed the perception of the bungalow, at least in the Longfellow neighborhood, so much so that the neighborhood started putting up signs that said, “Longfellow: A traditional bungalow community.”

It really was a matter of changing perception from bungalows being something old and outmoded to something charming, full of character and quality and desirable.

Is learning about maintaining and restoring these homes one of the big reasons people join the club?

Yes it is, and that’s one of the main reasons we exist.

These neighborhoods and these houses are getting old, so a large part of the mission of the Bungalow Club is to encourage an appreciation for the older housing stock and an understanding of the housing type, the materials it was built with and the character they contain. We’ve had events about repairing and restoring windows, about taking care of hardwood floors, about finding appropriate colors to paint the inside and the outside of your house.

We certainly understand these houses need to adapt and to sometimes grow to fit modern lifestyles, but we encourage any changes made to the houses to be done with caution and respect for the original structure.

I think anyone who has driven through these old neighborhoods sees the occasional old, small house that looks like the roof has been raked off and a trailer lifted up and plopped on top of it. In the past, there have been clumsy and even painfully ugly attempts to expand the living space.

Fortunately, today there are a lot of options as far as architects or design-build firms that understand and respect the housing type and, if you want to expand it, will help you do so while keeping within the character and scale of the original house.

Are bungalows any more common in Minneapolis and St. Paul than in other cities?

I don’t think there have been enough technical surveys of housing stock in cities across the nation to know for sure. But during the early 20th century — especially during the teens and early ’20s, when the middle class was really emerging with a vengeance — bungalows were the housing type that everybody wanted.

I think the whole concept of the bungalow as something that was desirable and manageable for a couple starting out — and a young family and a growing family — is something that simply doesn’t exist today. A parallel doesn’t exist today.

I’ve got a collection of 15 or 20 (examples of) sheet music for songs written about bungalows. They were that prominent in the public consciousness that there were popular songs written about the housing type.

There’s one called “He’s Got a Bungalow” about this guy who worked hard all winter, then quit his job and rented a bungalow by the beach where he spends all day teaching the babes how to swim. It’s borderline risqué when you look at the lyrics. It’s all about this young stud who uses a bungalow as a chick-magnet. It’s really astonishing.

They were part of the culture in a way that another housing type really hasn’t been since then.

Submitted photo
Submitted photo

As you noted earlier, bungalows are small by modern standards. Is there a concern that they will be torn down and replaced by larger homes?

Yes. As I’m sure you’ve seen, there’s the issue in desirable older neighborhoods of older, smaller homes being torn down and larger modern homes being built. It’s something we’re very concerned about. It really does change the character of the neighborhoods.

We feel like, with that type of construction, it’s destroying what’s attractive about the neighborhood. These large houses really do blot out the sun for the neighbors. They loom over the street and over the lot in a way that didn’t happen with the smaller houses. The smaller houses were nestled comfortably in charming, small yards with trees and shrubs and gardens, and the new houses leave room for none of that.

Obviously, there are many desires that tug and pull at each other in different directions, and we want the neighborhoods to remain viable and desirable, but it is a challenge in trying to find a balance that protects the character of the neighborhoods.

When did you buy your bungalow?

I bought my bungalow in 1994 — just, believe it or not, as the Bungalow Club was getting started, although I didn’t know it.

I was looking for a house, and my primary criteria was (that it was) cheap. It really had to be affordable. But people had started telling me, “Tim, you really need to invest in a home instead of just throwing your money away on rent.” And so I began looking around.

In my price range, what I was seeing was just not very nice, to be honest. It was junky stuff in places where I couldn’t imagine living. But then I remember when the Realtor and I pulled up in front of this house, both of us stopped and looked and went, “Wow.”

There was something — we didn’t have a name for it, we didn’t know what it was — but there was just something about the exterior, even though it had big, heavy aluminum awnings all over the front. And when we came inside, there was something about the interior that just felt right. There was the natural woodwork. There were the hardwood floors — well, I guess they were covered in lime-green shag carpeting at the time.

There was a coziness and cohesiveness and a character and a comfort to it that I simply had not seen in any of the other houses that I looked at, so I decided to buy the house.

 

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