Home & Garden

Twin Cities man refurbishes modest home to 1920s pristine

The beloved bungalow

This 1926 bungalow is in Minneapolis’ Corcoran neighborhood. (Brian Peterson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)
This 1926 bungalow is in Minneapolis’ Corcoran neighborhood. (Brian Peterson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)
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MINNEAPOLIS — Tim Counts’ modest Minneapolis bungalow looks much like it did in 1926, the year it was built.

Over the quarter-century he’s owned the house, he’s refinished the wood floors, added porch lighting and invested in maintenance and repairs.

But the original oak buffet, bookcases and trim are still a deep rich brown, not the enameled white preferred by many of today’s homeowners. And the cozy kitchen still boasts its original cabinets, a vintage breakfast nook with built-in benches and table, and a retractable ironing board.

“They’re increasingly rare these days,” he said of his bungalow-era kitchen. “Even people who like the aesthetic of the oak woodwork consider kitchens and bathrooms disposable.”

Counts is longtime president of the Twin Cities Bungalow Club, which promotes appreciation of the classic houses, and encourages preservation of their original elements.

That message is a harder sell than it once was.

“With HGTV, there’s this whole mind-set that it’s not only my right, it’s my obligation to rip out what’s here and do my thing,” he said.

And for a generation that came of age admiring open-concept floor plans and white shiplap on “Fixer Upper” and midcentury modern cool on “Mad Men,” the classic bungalow is a harder sell, period.

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“Some millennials like bungalows,” said Michael Farnsworth, a real estate agent with River Realty. “But millennials lean more midcentury modern. They think midcentury houses are old, and bungalows are just ancient.”

Rebecca Maung, 34, bought her first house in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis six years ago. Now that she and her husband have a child, they’ve been hunting for their next house — in St. Paul — “something midcentury in Mac-Groveland,” she said.

WHY NOT A BUNGALOW?

“I love them aesthetically,” Maung said. “But almost universally, there are not three bedrooms on one level. That’s become really important to us.”

And those natural wood built-ins, so prized by previous generations, make many bungalows too dark for the couple’s taste. “I like a lighter stain,” she said. “We’ve walked into a lot where the rich red tone makes the whole space really dark. You always have the opportunity to paint, but it feels like blasphemy.”

Painted woodwork in a classic bungalow used to be considered a negative, probably because it’s so hard to undo, but not anymore, according to Pat Rosaves, owner of River Realty and Farnsworth’s brother.

Still, she’d never advise an owner to paint woodwork before putting a bungalow on the market. “It goes against my grain. I’ve been at an open house with beautiful natural woodwork, and a buyer said, ‘We could paint it.’ I said, ‘Maybe this isn’t the house for you.’”

THE BACK STORY

In their heyday, bungalows were a much beloved house style.

“There are songs about bungalows — ‘He’s Got a Bungalow’ and ‘Our Bungalow of Dreams,’” Counts noted, as well as a quarterly magazine, American Bungalow.

Bungalows come in many variations but are typically a small to medium-sized house, 1 1/2 stories, with deep eaves, built-ins, natural materials and a large covered front porch. The bungalow’s roots are in the native architecture of Bengal, India, where they were called bungales and banggolos, later Anglicized to “bungalow.”

In the United States, bungalows were built mostly in the first half of the 20th century during the era of the Arts & Crafts movement, a reaction against the ornate aesthetic of the Victorian era. The style really took off in California, especially Pasadena, a bungalow mecca.

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In the Twin Cities, the vast majority of bungalows are in Minneapolis and St. Paul and were built in the 1910s and ’20s, according to Counts.

But bungalow love was on the wane by the mid-1990s. Johnson started the local club after Longfellow, her neighborhood at the time, did a study which concluded that much of its housing stock was obsolete.

“Longfellow is a neighborhood full of two-bedroom, one-bathroom homes, and a lot of them happen to be bungalows,” she said. “I was concerned about sprawl and loss of farmland. The best way to stop sprawl is to get people to see the quality of existing housing stock. Bungalows were “built to last,” she said, with old-growth wood. “The material in those houses is so irreplaceable.”

Counts didn’t even know what a bungalow was when he bought his in 1994. He just knew it felt like home.

“I didn’t have much money, so I was primarily looking for cheap,” he recalled. After looking at a lot of unappealing houses, he and his agent pulled up in front of a bungalow in the Corcoran neighborhood. “We both said something like, ‘Wow! That’s really nice!’” Counts recalled. “It was the charm, the aesthetics, the natural oak woodwork — intangible qualities.”

He became a charter member of the club, which currently has more than 325 dues-paying members. The club hosts field trips and educational events, plus an annual tour of local bungalows. That was canceled this year after two participating homeowners had to back out, but the tour will return in 2020, Counts said.

Buyer tastes may have changed, but bungalows have staying power, according to Farnsworth. “They’re old but still beautiful. You can’t afford to build a house like that today.”

But today’s buyers want them to be updated. “They expect to just move into them.”

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Counts’ message to buyers of old bungalows: “Be cautious and careful, and resist the temptation to immediately dive in and start remodeling,” he said. “We understand that they have to change. But live with it for six months or a year. Let the house teach them.”

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