by Bill Wood and Lori Foulke
These are not the grand homes that have helped to give this part of Los Angeles — known as the Historic West Adams District — more HPOZs (Historic Preservation Overlay Zones) than any other part of L.A., but smaller, modest bungalows that Charles Alma Byers, a regular contributor to The Craftsman, found to be “especially worthy of notice.”
Today, though a little worse for wear, Jefferson Park and its Craftsman bungalows are still worthy of notice. Untouched by generations of remodelers, these homes retain much of their original charm, and they remain some of the most affordable housing stock in Southern California’s high-priced real estate market. Though bungalow enthusiasts are beginning to discover and restore some of these classic homes, this neighborhood continues to be one of Los Angeles’ best-kept secrets.
Gustav Stickley visited California in 1904 and found the mild climate a perfect match for the Ruskin-inspired Arts and Crafts design ideals that he helped to popularize and adapt to the varied geographic and social circumstances of the U.S. After his visit, The Craftsman — the magazine he published in which he featured photo essays and plans for houses exemplifying the Craftsman ideal — often showed homes that had recently been built in Southern California.
Many of the Southern California houses illustrated in The Craftsman are located in areas now famed for their bungalow and Craftsman architecture, such as Pasadena and Monrovia, and Stickley’s magazine frequently credited architects by name. (As you would imagine, today these homes are highly prized and correspondingly highly priced.) Occasionally, however, a bungalow article appeared with no particulars about architect, owner or location. A case in point is a 1909 feature by Byers, titled “Split Field Stone as a Valuable Aid in the Building of Attractive Bungalows and Small Houses,” which featured six modest homes with limestone and sandstone accents, all of which had recently been built in an area described simply as “Los Angeles.”
As it turns out, these mysterious L.A. bungalows were located under our very noses. One day, while thumbing through a book of reprinted Stickley articles (the 1988 Dover title, Craftsman Bungalows: 59 Homes from The Craftsman), we realized a particular photo looked a lot like the house we had bought a little over a year before. With book in hand, we went outside to check, and sure enough, though the front door and windows had been changed out, it was clearly the same house. With a little legwork, we soon confirmed that all six houses in the article were located within two blocks of our home in an area of South Central L.A. that has been known as Jefferson Park since 1989.
Jefferson Park, a roughly 50-square-block neighborhood, was largely built between 1905 and 1920 along what was at the time the Southwestern edge of the Los Angeles metropolis. Constructed at the peak of the Arts and Crafts movement’s popularity, this area now offers some of the oldest and best-constructed housing stock, with a level of architectural detail and variation that is the hallmark of the finest bungalow neighborhoods across the country.
Byers wrote in 1909 that the modest houses of this neighborhood were worthy of notice for their use of decorative split stones — an innovation in small bungalow construction — the use of such heavy natural materials having previously been reserved primarily for much larger homes. He noted that the limestone and sandstone blocks used in the porches, pillars and chimneys of these homes were mined from local sources, creating “a link between the building and the country in which it is located” and a harmonious feeling “of long familiarity” between a home and its natural surroundings.
At the time Byers wrote his article for The Craftsman, much of the neighborhood was still vacant land. The six houses photographed had all recently been built, but the neighborhood would not be completely developed for over a decade.
The enclosed entry/sun porch had the most objectionable paint combination. The pale yellow walls weren’t so bad, but the trim, of which there is plenty in the small room, was lime green.
“I sanded off all that paint, to the point where it was embedded in my fingers,” laughs Denise. “The keyboard on my computer at work was green.”
Near the ceiling in the breakfast room the owners discovered an original decorative stencil under layers of paint, which they believe may have been created by the first homeowners, as it looks decidedly homespun. Amy Miller, owner of stencil company Trimbelle River Studios, recreated the pattern, which Denise plans to replicate on linen window curtains as well.
Although neither architect nor builder of these half dozen modest bungalows were identified in Byers’ article, these homes and many others in Jefferson Park can be traced to a local Los Angeles building firm that specialized in Arts and Crafts styles, the Bungalowcraft Company. Run by H.A. Eymann of Upland, Calif., it was later sold to Henry Menken. Prospective home buyers were encouraged to mix and match layouts and architectural features to create their own custom homes. This flexible modular approach to house plans in part accounts for the wide variety of housing styles available in Jefferson Park today.
Many years have passed since Byers wrote his article, and the neighborhood has changed quite a bit. For many people, the area of L.A. where Jefferson Park is situated conjures up associations, not of tranquil Southern California living and “airplane” bungalows, but of the 1992 riots that swept through this area of South Central. Ten years later, this attitude, while no doubt contributing to the continued anonymity of Jefferson Park, is changing. Through the efforts of community activists and members of organizations such as the West Adams Heritage Association, home buyers are beginning to take notice again of houses such as those featured in Byers’ article.
Preservation-minded residents and those who appreciate Arts and Crafts architecture will tell you that it is the abundance of original architectural details in the structures that they love most; in fact, many of the newer residents here are likely to refer to Jefferson Park by its popular monikers: “The Bungalows” or “Bungalowville.”
No matter how one refers to our neighborhood, Jefferson Park is a vibrant community, an eclectic mix of older residents — some of whom have lived here since the 1950s — adults who grew up here and decided to buy a house in their childhood neighborhood, and young couples like us, buying their first homes.
Having moved here from Baltimore where there is an active city revitalization movement, the idea of living near our workplace — in a bungalow, no less — was very appealing. Of course, L.A.’s reputation for terrible traffic and long commutes contributed to our desire to live near our work as we had done in Maryland. Knowing something of the Arts and Crafts movement and Southern California’s reputation for bungalow architecture, the idea of a city-living experience in a home with such a unique architectural style seemed like an especially exciting possibility. In fact, it seemed to us that Jefferson Park offered the best of two worlds: affordable city dwelling and all the conveniences and culture it brings, along with the suburban feel of detached housing, yards, etc., in a quintessentially Southern California house.
Across the country, many have discovered the pluses of a return to city life. In most cities, the urban renaissance has meant living in condos, co-ops and brownstones, but in an affordable Los Angeles neighborhood like Jefferson Park, “smart living” can mean a Craftsman house. Our home, the “small California Bungalow” Byers described on Flint Avenue costing $3,200 to build, and the nearby “California cottage” that was built for $2,800, are today worth much more. Even so, these 1,200- to 1,800-square-foot Bungalowville homes are consistently sold at well below L.A.’s median home price of $250,000. For home buyers on a budget, Jefferson Park offers a pleasant alternative to condos or lofts all within minutes of downtown.
Nearly 100 years after Jefferson Park was first developed, the neighborhood and its bungalow houses are still something special. For the Craftsman enthusiasts of Bungalowville, the same architectural features that Byers found to “bind a house with neighboring houses or with the landscape, into a pleasing unity” are today adding fuel to an urban renaissance in South Central Los Angeles, binding individuals with their neighbors and with an appreciation of a city lifestyle.
Bill Wood is an anthropologist and curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
County, and Lori Foulke is a project manager in the History Department of the same museum.