Back in the late 80s, I was living in Colorado, having just received my Master’s Degree in Architecture. Colorado was in the grips of a terrible energy related recession , and it really couldn’t have been a worse time to hit the job market. My first job ended after 6 months when the firm folded . That was followed by another gig, that lasted just 5 months before the same thing happened . After briefly contemplating joining a traveling circus, I steeled my resolve, and decided, like so many before me, to try my fortune on the west coast. I’d stick with Architecture, but try it in California, and San Francisco specifically.
A few weeks before leaving, I remember renting a torrent of movies set in California. One in particular I remember was “Day Of The Locust”, a John Schlesinger adaptation of a Nathaniel West novel. It is set in 1930s Los Angeles, and it’s a wonderful period piece about a midwesterner by the name of , improbably, Homer Simpson (pure coincidence), played by a young Donald Sutherland, who comes to LA, to follow his dream. And try to get with the Hollywood obsessed Karen Black.
The movie is set in a complex of bungalows arranged around a courtyard. The layout fosters the perfect setting for us to get to know the other characters in the movie, all, like Homer, from other places. They all inhabit the edge of the 30s movie industry, desperate for a break. But this is not a cheery story, it climaxes with a riot after a Hollywood premier, the hangers-on striking back. It is a dark and dystopian view of the world. I enjoyed it, but probably not the best of movies to watch on the eve of my departure. My takeaways were ,one-, at least I wasn’t in the film industry, and two, I loved those apartments. They seemed like the perfect setting to start a California life. Turned out they had a name- aptly- Bungalow Courts.
They were, and are, generally single story apartments arranged around a courtyard, often rentals. The arrangement is a way to get more units onto a deep lot, but at the same time elevate the humble cottages sense of place by fronting on a lavishly landscaped Mediterranean mews. However, the bungalow courts seemed much more a Southern California feature, particularly seen in places such as Pasadena. So what about Northern California?
Living in San Francisco for years, I never lived on a bungalow court, but we eventually found our way to what I would call the most prevalent approximation, living on a tiny alley , off of a main street, that fostered its own sense of community. The tiny street or path took the place of the courtyard. For years we lived on a small one block lane on Nob Hill, and while there, I became fascinated with these narrow hidden lanes , paths, stairways, that peppered Nob, Russian, and Telegraph Hills. On streets that were often barren of trees , one could turn into a mid-block reprise , a tiny lane teeming with life. A few feet away from our front door was this delightful 3 foot wide path- Golden Court, an actual public San Francisco “street”.
This was San Francisco’s version, and no accident then that Armistead Maupin chooses fictional Barbary Lane (supposedly Macondray Lane in Russian Hill) as his setting for “Tales of The City”. Our street, and our small building, was an eclectic mix along these lines- home to the world’s first trans police commissioner, a fashion photographer below us who never slept, the professional dog walker and his 10 dogs, an eccentric contractor who was never done with his house, the genial launderer at the corner and his community center/laundromat . The intimacy of our shared space on the lane resulted in greater frequency of encounter, and a strong sense community followed. It was a delightful experience. On Nob, Telegraph and Russian Hills, these lanes have names like Golden, Auburn, Havens, Reed, Filbert, Macondray, Russell, Darrell. These streets and lanes are often lurking mid block, just walk in and get lost.
But these are all intimate settings arranged around public rights of way. Were there any examples that more closely to the classic So Cal model? Well yes.
First, there is Hillgate Manor, on Taylor at Jackson. This is a wonderful building , more of an apartment building, but it has a central mews style court that frames an incredible view of downtown San Francisco. Great name with a classic gate, on my favorite 3 block stretch of San Francisco- Taylor Street. How I fantasized of living here back then.
The website for this rental property implores you to imagine life here, enjoying the neighborhood offerings, drinking mint juleps (?) on this lawn, and luxuriating in a building that still has “cross-street cred”(?).I have no idea what that means. Nor I think, would Armistead Maupin. But how lovely.
There is a second example not far away, this on Bay Street near Hyde. Las Casitas sits on an incline, and these are owner occupied, well, casitas actually, that share an inclined court and stair .
But what makes this place special is how you get to the units, for they share a funicular. Yes, you read that right. And here it is:
So here, I suppose, the mint juleps would be drank on the ascent, I imagine a full time bartender at the street would fill your glass for the ride up.
A few years ago, we moved to Berkeley. Our new home would be a variant on the bungalow court, a deep lot with multiple cottages arranged around an extraordinary garden of fruit trees. And soon I found our neighborhood was a treasure trove of Bungalow Courts , closer in spirit to the Southern California model. This a function of a real estate parcel map as much as anything- the block pattern has some extra deep lots, and when you put two lots together, you can assemble a bungalow court. They tend to be a bit more utilitarian, lacking names like Hillgate Manor, but they serve a vital housing function in that they provide smaller footprint housing at a reduced price. And with their off-the-street communal spaces, they can be ideal for families. Several courts near us are filled with big wheels and orphaned barbies. Some others orient towards students. These can be seen throughout our neighborhood in North and West Berkeley.
They come in a variety of forms, framing a narrow path, or a lawn, or a driveway, with parking right out front. Here’s a tour:
My favorite is on Hearst one block east of Sacramento. It has parking in the rear, off an alley, and from the rear, you pass through a building to access the court. The access is marked by a curtain, with the curtain pulled taught to reveal the most delightful court.
Welcome To The Dollhouse
Beyond the planning of these complexes, an often equally critical consideration is its character. Some tend to the basic, but occasionally , one finds true inspiration, as designers create elaborate and fantastic assemblages , taking their cue from the petit scale to create miniature villages that look straight out of the Cotswolds, Normandy, or perhaps Moorish Spain. This is the pinnacle of the Bungalow Court, where one could imagine the newly arrived could find a Hollywood like setting to craft his screenplay, or great American novel. And this highest form of the art has a name- “Storybook Bungalow Court”. Though dear reader , I have not done exhaustive research on the breadth of these in the Bay Area , I can share several.
First, Alameda is lucky enough to have a number of Bungalow Courts. Like in Pasadena, many were developed in the 20s and 30s as a means to provide more housing for a growing population of newcomers. And the height of the art in Alameda is Stoneleigh and Stonehenge, adjacent bungalow courts , built between 1927 and 1930. The impressive stone portals reveal an ensemble of quaint stone and half-timbered Tudor revival cottages, arranged along rose-lined paths.
And in Berkeley, we have a large complex, Normandy Village. This isn’t so much a Bungalow Court as it is an entire village. It is extraordinary.
The walk above was my first visit, a late fall afternoon, and for all the world I could have lost in a Norman farm town. Originally developed as Thornburg Village in 1927, there are 43 rental apartments that line its’ lanes. I fully expected Bilbo Baggins to round a corner at one point. It is unknown why developer Jack Thornburg opted for the rural French village as his aesthetic in downtown Berkeley, but am glad he did. Berkeley incidentally has several other ensembles of storybook cottages, both residential and commercial. It’s a bit of thing here, which I love.
As an Architect, one can get swept up in the fashion of the day. And , to put on my curmudgeon’s hat for a minute, it is getting hard to find quirky places such as these buildings. Whether its donut shops shaped like donuts, or apartment buildings straight out of 14th century Normandy, these can be a welcome respite from a built environment that can lack diversity, both regionally and block to block. The world of 2018 seems to preclude over the top fantasy as an aesthetic choice, and I wonder if we are the poorer for not having more of these occasional exceptions
But the real charm in these developments is the public space. Reagardless of the aesthetic, this is where community forms and grows. So , I suppose it’s icing on the cake if you also get to arrive home on a funicular sipping a mint julep. Or, spend evenings in a turret, , writing a novel, and watching the world go by.