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All-American bungalows

   A venerable Saratoga bungalow, on Circular Street just blocks from the Victorian buildings in the town center

High on the list
of Saratoga’s selling points is its charming Victorian architecture. But the city is home to architectural markers of many periods, from the Federal style of the Olde Bryan Inn, to the Greek Revival mansions around Franklin Square, to the Modern architecture of Skidmore’s current campus.

“You could teach most of the history of American architecture right here,” says Saratoga architect John Muse, “and it’s walkable.” Starting from the center of town, you can walk through time, tracking the evolution of architectural styles as the city expanded outward. Around the 1910s and 1920s, you’ll get to the bungalow era.

When most people think “bungalow” they think of the modest and efficient homes popularized by Gustav Stickley in his magazine The Craftsman in the early 20th century. The style became hugely popular—the Sears catalog offered complete kits—especially in California. It also flourished in Saratoga, says Muse, where “it’s one of the most dominant styles in the city.” Oddly, one of the best examples is the National Museum of Dance on South Broadway. Built in 1918–20 as the Washington Baths, it has the dramatic sloping roof and long dormer window common to the bungalow or craftsman style. But it is highly unusual to find such architecture in a large-scale public building.

James Kettlewell, Skidmore professor emeritus of art history and author of Saratoga Springs: An Architectural History, sings the praises of this otherwise “unsung epoch in the history of American architecture.” He singles out 172 Circular Street: “As an architectural design this is one of the finest houses in Sara­toga Springs.”

The key feature of the bungalow is the continuous double-sloped roof extending all the way to the first floor on the front and back (or, in a variation, from side to side), interrupted by a dormer or set of windows. Wide eaves are supported by exposed beams or brackets, windows are arranged in connected rows, and a large porch spans the front. Typical natural materials include wood shingles on the upper level and rough stone on porch pillars and chimneys. “Bungalow” derives from rural single-story homes of India that featured wide verandas. But for both Muse and Kettlewell, the evolution of bungalow style is all American.

On Saratoga’s Fifth Avenue, walk the two blocks from Nelson to East Avenue and, as Muse says, “you can literally see the transition from late Queen Anne Victorian to bungalows.” First admire several Queen Annes, with their refined details and asymmetrical towers. Then notice 20 Fifth, where there is still a tower on the side but the rustic stone base, shingle siding, and gambrel roof signal the emerging craftsman style. Cross over Ludlow Street and examine the shingle house at 24 Fifth, which adds the broad porch across the front, a roofline starting to come down, and, instead of a tower, a center dormer.

Finally, look across to 29 Fifth, built in 1915, one of the finest examples of bungalow architecture to be found—though, as Kettlewell writes, almost every example of the style “could be considered architecture at its best.” It is large, with the mass and scale of the “transitional” homes at 20 and 24 Fifth. But as you continue out Fifth, you see smaller examples, and if you then turn north on East Avenue, you encounter several blocks of the smaller homes that came to represent the style.

“Many people have a hard time understanding how you went from a Queen Anne to a little bungalow,” says Muse. “Well, you didn’t. You went from a Queen Anne to a shingle to a bungalow.” All in the span of a few decades—and a few city blocks. —KG