BY GORDON BOCK
OVER THE YEARS, I’ve come to learn that the Maryland portion of the Washington, D.C., area is a hard-to-figure, even schizoid, place. Technically below the Mason-Dixon Line, it’s not quite as iconically South as nearby Virginia, or even Baltimore just up the line, yet it’s certainly not the North. For example, here you spend almost as much money air-conditioning your house in summer as you do heating it in winter. And the same is true of bungalows. They’re often neither fish-nor-fowl—vaguely Craftsman perhaps but at the same time vaguely Colonial, or just plain vague. That’s why when I got to know Betty Scott and Jim McMullen, I was immediately struck by the clear personality of their house and the way it confidently stands out from the local pack.
“It’s a California Bungalow,” Betty explained to me, “or that’s what we always heard.” Like so many houses of a certain age, the provenance is sketchy, and records at the County Court House are long-gone. “The original owner, Charles Wilburn, was an interior designer, so the story goes, and he had spent some time in California.”
(This must have been in the 1910s because the house was built in 1918.) “Then when he married, he built this house as the first home for him and his wife Mary based upon something he had seen out West—so that is where the California idea came from.”
Indeed, beyond a cute story, the few facts ring true in the building itself. “The clapboard siding is all redwood,” says Betty, “which is pretty extraordinary for the mid-Atlantic a century ago, but that’s what Wilburn decided the building had to have.” She notes that the wood was a wise choice because, besides having an ample exposure of about 10″—a characteristic bungalow detail, but a stretch dimensionally for Eastern woods—the clapboards hold paint beautifully and are still in excellent, bug-free condition. “He also liked to entertain, so he built this wonderful, big dining room —almost equal in size to the living room, depending upon how one accounts for the stairway area.” Betty demonstrates with a walk-around that the floor plan creates a nice flow through the rooms, which no doubt would be an-other asset for a host.
If bungalows seem to attract their own enlightened breed of owners, this building is no exception. Betty and Jim are both educators—Jim a career science teacher and Betty a longtime music teacher who now heads the Artist in Resi-dence program at Strathmore Music Center, the concert venue for lower Maryland. Both are musical omnivores, from blues and jazz to bluegrass, and Betty is a 1999 Grammy-award winner for best choral performance, with the Mary-land Boy Choir. However, she is also an avid historic-building devotee and co-organizer of the local annual Progressive Dinner, which hosts attendees through a literal moveable feast of courses at noteworthy homes.
BEYOND THE BUNGALOW NORM
Architecturally, one might suspect that, like so many bungalows, the house is a ready-cut design or other “kit” build-ing or mail-order plan but, so far, no evidence to that effect has turned up. On the contrary, it has some distinctive, if not uncommon, features. First to meet the eye are the multiple clipped or jerkin-head gables on the roof. Clipped gables have a venerable history—Andrew Jackson Downing borrowed them from Europe for Gothic Revival houses in his 1840s books—and they pop up in Arts and Crafts architecture as a natural way to accent broad, low-pitched roofs, but they are hard to find in this locale. Eave brackets are practically essential for any card-carrying bungalow, and most came from millwork catalogs of the era in solid-timber configurations, but these are a nifty multi-board design that suggests they were made on site.
Though the entrance porch is supported by a pair of classical columns, they are straightforward with minimal capitals and bases that brings them close in effect to the “heavy, round pillars” favored by Gustav Stickley and others.
Clear evidence of the interest lavished on the dining room is the large bay window that brings in light while creating a natural space for a table or sideboard. A nice flourish is the leaded glass in the main window, flanked by six-over-one double-hungs. “That one got beaned by a neighbor’s rock when my son David was a kid,” recounts Betty, pointing to a crack, “but since it’s wavy glass and otherwise intact, I’ve always left it as is.” When asked if there was ever a wainscot or other typical bungalow wall finish in the dining room, Betty says, not that she ever saw. “However, originally there was a large French-doored china cabinet along the wall next to the kitchen,” not surprising for entertainers.
Nonetheless, a few quirky features of the practical past still hide here and there. While Betty says there’s nothing to suggest there was ever a breakfast nook, off the back of the kitchen is a roomlet that unquestionably was once a pantry. “This is where the shelves were,” she indicates, waving her hands in mid-air, “but today it’s much better used for the refrigerator.”
Spinning around, she then hunts for a flashlight and guides me out of the kitchen area and upstairs.
“What I really want to show you is this.” Taking me into a bedroom and opening a shortened door to a tight, triangular knee space under the eaves, I peer into what I assume will be a tiny closet. “See this,” Betty points with the light, and then materializing out of the darkness and dusty boxes I could clearly see the bronzy glint of a bathtub-sized solid copper tank. “It’s this amazing water-storage system,” she exclaims. Out in the backyard under what is now a gazebo was once a well that apparently pumped water upstairs to the tank. Then, in a likely arrangement for the era, water was fed to the kitchen below by gravity.
“My mother was skeptical, though,” she says. “Coming from West Virginia, she always wisecracked that the tank was a still!”
When Betty bought the bungalow in 1972 for $27,500, it was effectively in an estate with a murky recent history. “I’m not actually sure how many people lived in the house before we moved in,” she says. “Mrs. Averill owned the house a long time, probably raising two daughters there.” (Noting her emphasis on Mrs., I learn that, “Back then, around here you never called a neighbor by their first name!”) By the time Mrs. Averill passed away, the two daugh-ters were grown, married, and living out-of-state. “I think the house might have been rented for a while —perhaps to college students, because when I moved in there were some odd colors going on.” She adds that there was also “all kinds of leftover welding stuff downstairs.” No one’s ever been sure what that was about.
Suffice to say by this stage the bungalow was ready for some TLC. “When we moved in, all this finish was alliga-tored,” Betty says, petting the natural-wood trim in the dining room, “but I just went over it with denatured alcohol and fine steel wool, and it came back pretty well.” She reports a similar revelation for removing the old flooring in the kitchen. “After trying all sorts of stuff, I thought, ‘Oh heavens, this is going to take forever!’ Then one day, we spilled water on the floor and discovered the adhesive was water-soluble!”
Another project was restoring the front porch. Betty explains that when she acquired the house, a third of the porch deck that was unprotected by a roof had rotted away, leaving the porch visually lop-sided. “My dad was very handy,” she recalls, “so one day while I was leaving for work, he asks ‘How would you feel if I made the porch sym-metrical?’” Thinking at the time he was proposing some repair carpentry, she laughs at the memory. “So he goes out there with a hand saw and cuts off the other end, leaving us with just the middle third—the part under the roof!”
Later, Betty had the whole porch rebuilt to the original form. “To my mind that’s one of the things that makes this a California bungalow more than a D.C. bungalow—this wide deck with the middle third under a roof.”
Also uncommon for the area—even today—is that the bungalow has its own garage. For a neighborhood that in 1918 was borderline rural, and served more by passenger rail than any paved roads, such a prominent garage smacks of the influence of California’s early car culture—especially when compared with the nearby Nation’s Capitol (which was a streetcar town until the 1960s). Moreover, this garage is no afterthought. Nicely related to the main house with architectural details, such as its own clipped-gable roof, the garage is nearly as large. In the same way, it also shows signs of former lifestyles. “In the back right corner there’s a side door,” says Betty, “and when I moved in it had a wall with roosts and shelves—a chicken coop—which was pretty cool.” The simple batten door still shows the chicken entrance cut out in the bottom corner. She notes that since she and Jim had no plans to compete with Frank Purdue in the poultry business, an early project was to open up the garage space by taking down the coop wall. Jim later com-pleted the transformation by paving the garage with a proper floor in brick. In the coop’s place now sits a beautiful, 1910s–era workbench that Jim rescued from a building near where he used to teach. A natural fit for a garage from the early auto era, when every car owner had to be their own mechanic, it’s the kind of design the Greene brothers might have owned. Looking at the wide, shallow drawers and all-wood handles, you can almost hear the strains of a Scott Joplin rag playing somewhere in the background—or maybe it should be “California Dreamin.”
Gordon Bock, coauthor of The Vintage House (www.vintagehousebook.com), lists his 2015 seminars, lectures, and workshops at www.gordonbock.com.