History of the Bungalow in La Jolla: Did you know these seasonal homes got their start at the foot of the Himalayas in the 1800s?


As part of this year’s La Jolla Landmarks Week, the La Jolla Historical Society hosted architectural historian Diane Kane with a presentation on the California-style bungalow, which has become an iconic local treasure.

While many associate construction of these houses with the 1920s, Kane told the packed hall on March 20, their establishment was a steady evolution, rooted in Craftsman architecture, and going as far back as the late 1800s — and as far away as India.

“We were a melting pot and stew for architecture at the end of the 19th century,” Kane explained. As such, the Craftsman-style houses built in the early 1900s incorporated different styles, features and influences to become the California bungalows we know today.

It all started, Kane said, with a style of house called “bangla,” a seasonal home at the foot of the Himalayas, which was common in the 1800s.

“Much of India is very hot and humid, so if you were trying to escape that, you would head to the foothills,” she explained. “This (sanctuary) would be something you would only use in the summer. It had a steeply pitched thatched roof with a couple of rooms surrounded by a porch on all sides, and was fairly open to catch the breezes and take advantage of views.”

By the late 19th century, Europeans started to discover the beach scene. “People wanted fresh air and sunshine and to get away from the city pollution,” Kane said. “To accommodate this, we started to build houses of the style we saw in India. These came from a catalog; you could order it and they would ship it to your site with a screwdriver, so you could build your own.”

These catalogs are the first time, she said, the word “bungalow” appears in European literature.

As such, in the seaside towns of Coronado, Ocean Beach and La Jolla, “tent cities” began to emerge that contained small structures like those in India. “They served as a seasonal dwelling and were tightly boxed, with a pyramidal roof. They were fairly ephemeral and not expected to be there forever,” Kane said.

“In La Jolla, which was built around the same time, the streets were curved to address the topography. When our town was being subdivided, it was tough to get here. It was almost a full day’s journey (from downtown San Diego) until the train got here. People often showed up on horseback and were tired when they arrived, so if you wanted to spend some time in a temporary dwelling, we had bungalows. They too, looked like the banglas of India.”

In the early 1900s, and as architectural opportunities arose on the West Coast (specifically the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego) architects on a mission to build permanent housing (like Irving Gill), would look at topography, climate and available materials to answer the question: What is here to inspire us to build something that is “California”?

Using Craftsman-style features common for the time — such as a low-pitched roof, deep eaves with exposed rafters, decorative knee braces and kept to one story and with breeze-friendly open features in mind, such houses became known as the California-style bungalow.

“By 1910, Pasadena was crawling with bungalows made from sturdy redwood,” Kane said. “Architects added shingles to protect the wood from the elements — including sun and rain and termites.”

In La Jolla, as with most things, there’s a Scripps connection.

Citing the 1904 custom house that would become Wisteria Cottage (the current home of the La Jolla Historical Societyat 780 Prospect St.), Kane said, it has the first use of cobblestones by Ellen Browning Scripps. “There is no cobblestone here, so where were these come from?” Kane posed. “She was buying it from other areas of San Diego, and the cobblestone walls were added to give the appearance of the simple life.”

As running water, electricity and other technological advancements dawned, the interiors became more modern and functional by the 1920s.

“Bungalows were the major style and building typology when La Jolla was developing through the 1920s,” Kane said. “We used to be covered in them. It was all Craftsman in the downtown area, and then, we started building. And after a couple of high-rises went in, and in 1972 we passed Proposition D to stick to a 30-foot height limit. So building began spreading out in the 1980s, then we got post-modernized. Those new buildings wiped out the bungalows.”

Some of the buildings that weren’t “thrown in the trash” were moved as part of the “innovative” creation of La Jolla’s Heritage Place on La Jolla Boulevard or saved through historic preservation efforts.

“These houses were built to be very light, were moved a lot (in their historic uses), and meant to be moved. Right now there’s a La Jolla Boulevard property on which bungalows were moved to be preserved. And while there are still some historic bungalows in other areas of The Village, such as on Eads and Fay Avenues,” Kane said, “they are going very rapidly.”