The Story Behind Seattle's Obsession With Craftsman Homes
Look around almost any Seattle neighborhood and you’ll see them: Modest one-story homes, with large, covered porches and eaves that shield wooden siding from the rain.
They’re Craftsman-style bungalows, and you’ll find hundreds of them here, from Wallingford and Ravenna to Mount Baker and over the bridge in West Seattle.
Listener Alberta George asked KUOW’s Local Wonder project why Seattle has so many Craftsman-style homes. We decided to find out.
First, we needed to learn what a Craftsman-style home really is.
It turns out that term “Craftsman” was coined by early 20th century designer Gustav Stickley. He was inspired by England’s Arts and Crafts movement from the 1800s, which was a reaction to ornate Victorian architecture. Arts and Crafts proponents wanted simple, livable homes with clean designs.
The movement was also a philosophical push against England’s rigid class system. Adherents believed the average working person deserved as fine a home as a lord or lady.
Stickley translated this English movement into an American style of sturdy practical homes built of natural materials like wood, river rock and stone. Although there is no strict definition, these homes typically feature built-in cabinetry and furniture that was sleek and practical. You’ll find Craftsman-style homes across the country but particularly on the West Coast.
Larry Kreisman, the program director for Historic Seattle, dates the explosion of Craftsman-style homes in Seattle to the era just after the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition.
“That’s when the street car suburb got developed and platted,” Kreisman says. “People were using streetcars to move out from the industrial city center to homes of their own.”
Between 1900 and 1910, Seattle’s population tripled, from just over 80,000 to more than 230,000 people. The rooming houses and small apartments in the center city couldn’t accommodate the influx of new residents.
The advent of new streetcar lines made it possible for people to build small homes in new North End neighborhoods like Wallingford, Phinney Ridge and Greenwood, and commute downtown for work. Eventually, streetcar lines spread in other directions, moving Seattleites into the South End as well.
Seattle writer Knute Berger grew up in Mount Baker in the 1950s. His neighborhood was platted in the first decade of the 20th century, when the Craftsman style was in its heyday. Today, the least expensive house for sale in that neighborhood is $800,000. But in the early 1900s, it was a working-class community.
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“The land was cheap here,” says Berger. “You could buy a lot for a couple hundred dollars.”
And, for just a few hundred more, you could buy yourself a do-it-yourself Craftsman bungalow kit.
Many aspiring homeowners, in Mount Baker and other parts of Seattle, bought kits from Sears or Montgomery Ward. They were shipped West by rail with the parts numbered like a LEGO set.
Aspiring home owners could also find detailed construction plans in magazines, like Gustav Stickley’s publication, “The Craftsman.” This magazine was known internationally, but a journal called “Bungalow” may have had more influence in the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle entrepreneur Jud Yoho published “Bungalow” from 1912 to 1918. The Seattle Public Library subscribed to the magazine and still has an almost-complete collection of the original issues. Jodee Fenton, the Special Collections manager, says library patrons could find everything from advice on gardening, to a list of materials needed to build a Craftsman-style home.
“How many linear board feet of a type of wood, how much pipe you need for the plumbing, what kind of foundation to build,” Fenton says. “You could take that information and reconstruct this very house.”
Yoho also owned a company that built Craftsman-style bungalows. And he was relentless and inventive when it came to advertising.
“There was a Potlatch Parade every year up Second Avenue,” Larry Kreisman says. “(Yoho) had developed a float, and he built a miniature bungalow with river rock columns right on that float. Horses drew it up the street.”
At the parade terminus was Yoho’s promotional booth, where home-buyers could slap down a deposit for a full-sized Craftsman.
Several dozen of Yoho’s houses still stand in the city, including the Wallingford bungalow Yoho built for himself and his family.
Knute Berger believes bungalows like these not only housed the new Seattle residents; he believes they attracted them to the city.
“Back East, people were living in denser apartment high rises,” Berger says. “When they came here, they could live cheaply but also own homes. It’s sort of Seattle’s secret appeal – that you could find the best of urban and suburban life in the city.”
A century after the Craftsman boom, Seattle is in the midst of another population explosion. Some of these old homes are being torn down to make way for big box houses or townhomes.
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Those that remain are often coveted by homebuyers, and receive dozens of offers when they hit the market. That’s not just because they have what people call “good bones,” but because these bungalows, with their unassuming style and ornate wood work, embody the history and soul of this city.
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