Craftsman homes are on fire.

The vintage architectural style, characterized by natural surfaces meant to mimic their surroundings, is more popular today than it has been at any time since the Arts and Crafts movement swept the nation between 1900 and 1920.

And that's good news for L.A.'s real estate industry, considering that some of the largest Craftsman communities in the nation are found inside the county borders.

"A well-designed Craftsman gets the highest price and brings the rest of the market up," said David Raposa, owner of City Living Realty, which specializes in historical architecture. Raposa lives in a 1909 Craftsman-style home in the West Adams district, designed by Pasadena architect Alfred Heineman.

Steve Haussler, a salesman with Coldwell Banker in Pasadena, agrees. In the past three years, he says the bungalows have increased in value faster than vintage homes of other styles. For example, a three-bedroom, two-bath Craftsman in Pasadena, with river-rock porch trim, diamond-shaped window panes and a vaulted ceiling, recently fetched in the low $400,000 range a record for its size in the neighborhood.

"Houses in Bungalow Heaven don't stay on the market very long," said retired professor Kennon Miedema, who used to teach a course on the style and lives in the 12-square-block Bungalow Heaven historic district of Pasadena. "People want to get into the neighborhood."

Bounded by East Washington Boulevard, North Mentor Avenue, East Orange Grove Boulevard and North Chester Avenue, Bungalow Heaven contains more than 900 lots, and Craftsman houses sit on 58 percent of them. The city must approve any visible exterior changes to the historic structures. The same is true of five neighborhoods in the West Adams district near USC, which has special zoning overlays to prevent remodeling with such modern materials as stucco.

Rediscovery of the classics

Evidence is everywhere of the style's popularity from the 4,000 enthusiasts who flocked to Pasadena Heritage's annual Craftsman homes tour last fall, to the booming sales of the new lines of Mission-style furniture, to a raft of publications that include American Bungalow, a quarterly that claims a readership of 65,000.

In addition to Pasadena and West Adams, Craftsman bungalows are scattered throughout South Pasadena, Glendale, Eagle Rock, Monrovia, Leimert Park and the Westside. Pasadena has the country's largest concentration of restored Craftsman bungalows outside of Berkeley, where some were destroyed in recent quakes.

But the homes can be found anywhere that experienced a building boom between 1900 and 1920. That is, unless developers mowed them down to make way for more-modern structures which is what happened to many Craftsman homes located in the Wilshire district west of Western Avenue.

The Arts and Crafts movement began in England during the mid-19th century as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. One of its founders, John Ruskin, a philosophical art critic, supported a group of renegade artists who favored a style inspired by medieval artisans, before the Renaissance introduced Italian influence to European art, according to "The Bungalow" by Paul Duchscherer.

Ruskin believed the effects of mass production had debased the decorative arts and looked backward to the Middle Ages as the ideal time for the craftsperson because in those days, people would design and complete the final product by hand instead of repeating one task as a factory assembly-line worker. The philosophy and style found their way to the United States in the late 1890s and were popular through the beginning of the 1920s.

When it came to architecture, a key tenet of the Arts and Crafts movement was "wedding the house to nature," according to Robert Winter, author of "The California Bungalow" who lives in the former home of celebrated Arts and Crafts tilemaker Ernest Batchelder.

That meant generous use of wood and river rock, and connecting the indoors to the outdoors through large picture windows, expansive front porches and pitched roofs with gables and deep overhanging eaves that shaded the outside walls during the summer.

Interior touches

Inside, Craftsman bungalows reacted to the over-furnitured, fussy Victorian style with built-in bookcases, china cabinets and compact drop-front desks to save space. A lower ceiling and dark wood paneling contributed to the homey feel.

The kitchen was smaller than its Victorian predecessor, because servants had become less common. A cozy space, with a breakfast nook, saved steps for the busy housewife.

"Ostensibly, it was not to give her freedom but to make her a better mother. There was no sense of women's liberation in bungalows," Winter said.

The consummate Craftsman homes were designed by architects, such as Greene & Greene's Tiffany glass-studded Gamble House in Pasadena. But many bungalows were produced by carpenters who worked from standardized floor plans and pattern books that were sold by the thousands, said Miedema. The style was, after all, developed for the "common man."

And while proponents of the Craftsman style, like master furniture maker Gustav Stickley, pointed proudly to their handmade creations, not all of the homes or their furniture were entirely manmade.

"Stickley liked to keep photographers away from his factory and wanted them to show people handcrafting the furniture," Winter said. In reality, though, "it was impossible to reproduce the furniture without using machinery."

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