Architectural Style – American Craftsman

It was the end of the Victorian era, gone was the desire for elaborate, frilly, eclectic designs. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Every Revolution has a backlash. One backlash to the Industrial Revolution was the rise of the Arts & Crafts Movement. The desire was to reject any trace of new and mass-produced construction style in favor of handcrafted products created by artisans. Factory and machine-made products were thought to be a decline in quality standards. The machine aesthetic was cold and impersonal, so the solution was to embrace a home where all the elements, both inside and out, displayed artful attention to detail.

This style acted as a transitional bridge from the lavish Victorians to the sleek Modern designs of the 20th century. Most American Craftsman are considered to be bungalows, but not all bungalows are American Craftsman. The Craftsman home was modest and affordable to the rapidly expanding American middle class. Today, builders have taken it to new luxurious heights and interpretations. Classic elements are infused with today’s floor plans and modern materials.  

Elements of this style may have first been used by the Hindus in India. The term bungalow comes from “Bangla”, which means a low house for travelers with surrounding porches. Early Indian bungalows had thatched roofs that heavily overhung the front porch. British officers returning home in the 19th century brought the Indian architecture with them and adapted it to their own homes. The Arts & Crafts Movement began in Britain and eventually migrated to our shores. In 1897, the “Arts & Crafts Society” was formed in Chicago to promote the aesthetics of the movement.

Mr. Gustav Stickley was an American furniture maker and must have had a keen mind for sales. His story began in his Uncle’s Pennsylvania chair factory when he was 18. This start made way for Mr. Stickley to begin his own furniture company. Mr. Stickley became an Arts & Crafts Movement enthusiast who eventually added publishing to his business plan to promote his designs. During the summer of 1900, he developed an experimental line called ”New Furniture” in the Arts & Crafts style. Clean lines, unadorned surfaces, sturdy oak selectively stained to enhance the beauty of the wood, and hammered metal fittings.  It came to be commonly known as the now-iconic Mission Style. Eventually, his furniture, matching textiles, lights, sculptures, etc, under the name “Craftsman Products”, were represented and sold at over 100 retailers nationwide. In 1901 he started publishing “The Craftsman” magazine to promote the movement’s design philosophy, advertising of his products, articles on designs that matched his products, and an in-house written reviews of his products. In some ways, he was the IKEA of his time. Quite brilliant and unique marketing. In late 1903, “The Craftsman” magazine announced the “Craftsman Homebuilders Club” to provide architectural plans to its subscribers. No coincidence, these homes happened to be a perfect setting for Stickley’s “New Furniture” line.

You could build a Craftsman house from a plan book, or have it delivered. Several manufacturers of precut houses shipped anywhere there were train tracks. You could just pick up your Sears & Roebuck catalog and order a house to be shipped complete with doors, trim, windows, even plumbing. All the homeowner had to do was dig the foundation, drill a well and install a septic system. All the details were thought out, not just the exterior, it included planned interiors with stained wood and exposed beams. A total lifestyle immersion. Large fireplaces, eat-in kitchens with plenty of cabinetry throughout are part of the general design. Built-in furniture, glass-fronted cabinets, window seats, reading nooks, wood crafted bookshelves are all found in the antique versions of these homes. Built today or yesterday the Craftsman offers warm, inviting interiors.

Craftsman-style homes were instantly popular.  Craftsman is considered a truly domestic architecture evolving along with the Shingle Style and Prairie Style and is thoroughly influenced by the Arts & Crafts Movement. This style is characterized by the rustic texture of the building. Traditional Craftsman homes would take on an earthy color scheme with rust, dusty pink, tan, moss green, and browns. This durable design typically began as a one-story or one-and-a-half-story building. That half story often started out as an attic space. Look at the roof, the roof tells us so much about the house underneath it. A classic Craftsman roof will have a low pitch, either gable or hip, with some type of overhang. This roof overhang is typically decorated or supported with simple rafter tails or eave brackets or knee bracers. Double dormers are often added to increase livable space on the second floor with a gabled roof. Hip roofs more often feature a front and/or rear dormer for expansion.  

When the covered front porch extends beyond the house, you may see a low-profile double gabled roof. The second gable may be offset but it will follow the lines and angles of the main gable. The front door is square in the middle of this home, even when the porch itself is offset to one side. The front doors often incorporate panes in the upper third of the door itself or in the transom or sidelights. Large porches commonly have trellis work or pergolas. The charming entrance features heavy tapered squared columns with a front stoop to socialize. Stonework features rounded cobblestones laid out in random patterns. The lower half of the entrance columns and front porch can exhibit impressive stonework.

The lower portion of the building was often battered or sloped to the ground. Redwood or cedar shake shingles alternated patterns on the upper floors from the lower floors. In some parts of the country, the effect was created with brick color/patterns.  Most of the windows are either six-panes-over-one-pane or four-over-one. A prairie style or patterned style of double hanging window. The main window may include a large picture or bay window with an overhang. Real stained glass windows will be found in the originals. New builds can add that touch to pendant lights, transoms, fanlights, and fixed windows.

Clean lines and asymmetry are reflected in this low profile, comfortable home. It’s been around a hundred years now as a favorite design. American Craftsman may have changed, but its spirit is alive and well. It will continue to be re-invented and replicated long into the future.

Shannon Aldrich Whaley (c) 2021

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