A City of Small Homes: Making the Mass Surburban City

Historical Essay

by Richard Walker

Originally published in Ecumene, 1995, Volume 2 Number 1

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Southern San Francisco as seen looking northward from San Bruno Mountain, 2014.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

The largest impress on the urban landscape of the Bay Area is made by mile upon mile of single-family homes occupied by the middling classes. This is the city of small homes. Nothing especially artful catches the eye in these vast domains of domesticity, and decent poverty hides its face behind the facade of modest accomplishment. This is the bedrock landscape of the metropolis, the starting and ending point for the lives of the vast majority of working people. The ecology of small, single-family homes is what most people mean by 'the suburbs'—though it is much less well studied than the romantic suburbs of the upper classes (with which it is too often confused). It has been greatly promoted by the bourgeoisie as the domain of working-class propriety and stability, but also decried as an empty wasteland. At best it appears banal, because we are so completely inured to its distinctiveness as a form of human habitation. (52)

The realm of small homes begins in San Francisco. Some are left from the Victorian era; the Mission District is still replete with such homes. But the small home in San Francisco takes the predominant form of stucco row houses built between the wars, running block after block after treeless block in the foggy west side (the Sunset District) and zig-zagging over hill and dale across the southern half of the city and the northern Peninsula (Daly City, Pacifica and South San Francisco). The majority of San Francisco's total land area is covered by these humble dwellings, a city few tourists ever see. The East Bay flatlands are similarly carpeted with modest bungalows, eight to the acre or more. Though often tinier than San Francisco’s little boxes, virtually all East Bay houses are detached, with a yard. These workers’ cottages begin in West Oakland as small Victorians (with only one living floor), then shade to single story neo-classical cottages in north Oakland, and then to craftsman-style bungalows of the 1910s and stucco eclectics of the 1920s-40s. In the ring of the metropolis built after the Second World War—the southern Peninsula, southern East Bay, western Silicon Valley, and outer East Bay—are the postwar tract homes: larger ranch-style, international style, and split-level houses along curvilinear streets meant to suggest an earlier romantic suburb but usually on a terrain prepared by a bulldozer.

The detached, single-family house remains an icon of independence and security for most Americans, workers as well as middle class and bourgeoisie. The mass suburban landscape has been a national project that cuts across class, and has deep roots in the nation’s widespread access to land, agrarian and small-town virtues, and the politics of a small-owners’ republic. (53) Its efflorescence in the postwar era rested on the unprecedented prosperity enjoyed by workers in the high Fordist period, but it was established much earlier. (54) In California the triumph of the small city home led the nation by the turn of the century, and the state went on to play the lead role in both the political economy and morality play of twentieth-century mass suburbanization. The reasons for this have already been encountered: class structure, capital accumulation, property development and cultural propaganda.

In California the smallholders' turf battle was joined early, as squatting became a way of life in the goldfields and towns of the 49er era. Workingmen's cottages were common in early San Francisco. The land baronies put together in the 1860s and 70s by San Francisco capitalists put a scare into the aspiring small homesteaders and proprietors of the state, and popular agitation grew widespread. In the brilliant writings of Henry George and Frank Norris, the class struggles of this era were made famous around the world. (55) In fact, the dream of small domestic property continued to be realized to an unprecedented degree in California. Los Angeles is well-known for its homes among the citrus orchards and oil fields (by 1930, an amazing 94 per cent of Angelenos lived in single-family homes), but the same thing occurred in San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. (56) While many small homes were self-built or done by small carpenter-contractors, even the large commercial builders who took command of house construction in the Victorian era provided for skilled workers with small homes on back streets and liberal credit.

The era of the mass suburban home arrived by century's end, and the Bay Area was heading back to the land in trolleys. The purest embodiment of this democracy of shelter was the California bungalow, a small, one or one-and-a-half storied house with neither attic nor basement (a peculiar California practice). The bungalow wave hit California in the 1880s and carried through the 1920s—hence the multitude of this housing type in the central East Bay, which grew explosively during this same time. The prototypical bungalow features a large porch and wide eaves for shade, a low-pitched roof (usually hipped), and a square layout. The shift from the verticality of Victorian townhouses to the horizontality of bungalows on open lots could not have been more striking. Windows, porches, wider frontages, and front and back yards gave a feel of more light, space and access to the outdoors, even as the amount of floorspace dropped sharply from the average Victorian. At the same time, the new houses were better engineered. Floor plans were opened up and rationalized to fit the exigencies of modern domestic life: no servants, fewer children, and mother as home manager. Ceilings came down to save heat; corridors were eliminated. Cabinets and closets were built-in. Homes also rapidly filled up with the technology of industrial life: electricity, indoor plumbing, gas heating, kitchen appliances. (57)

While the bungalow came out of India and was introduced into England as a holiday cottage in the 1860s, it only became a form of mass housing in California. From California, the bungalow enjoyed immense popularity across North America through the 1920s—re-entering Britain later. It was not the invention of a single mind, then, but a well travelled idea entering by professional networks and carried forth on a veritable flood of popular magazines and pattern books. Nor was the bungalow an off­shoot of the trolleys, though they allowed lot sizes to expand and home prices to fall. It was, rather, the child of a set of propitious circumstances of political economy, as Anthony King has put it so well in his global history of this building type. But the bungalow has deeper antecedents in California than King realizes. Not only was the first shingle-style, middle-class bungalow built in the Oakland hills a scant half-dozen years after the first English seaside bungalows (by Reverend Joseph Worcester, friend and patron of the young circle of Bay Area architects), but the skilled workers of the region already occupied large numbers of free-standing small houses from which the bungalow proper was but a small step.

Bungalow suburbs represented a convergence in housing between the well-filled ranks of skilled blue-collar and white-collar workers, and the modestly paid members of the new middle class. The guiding principle for the good life was suddenly held to be 'simplicity' in design, furnishings and way of life, in opposition to Victorian bourgeois excess. The 'simple home' was as much a watchword of the middle-class ecotopians as of promoters of working-class real estate sales. (58) Bungalows were originally associated with the arts-and-crafts movement, but the term quickly came to embrace small houses of almost any style, in which handicraft was minimal. In other words, eclecticism won out here, too (the small row houses of western San Francisco even retained the solid streetfront and stylistic hints of the Victorian era).

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Mission style and other mass-produced bungalow homes line the streets in southwestern San Francisco over a former horse race track.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

What made this mass suburbanization of homes possible was the rapid accumulation of capital in California, and San Francisco's long supremacy on the Pacific slope. While luxury consumption took a healthy share of the wealth, a solid portion was reinvested in manufacturing and commerce that employed incoming workers. Part of it went to construction and utility networks. Part was redistributed to workers and college-educated professionals as high wages because their supply was relatively scarce. Part of it was pumped into property development by capitalists (such as Borax king, Francis Marion Smith) eager to hit paydirt again in land speculation. And another part circulated through the banks and savings companies, eager to press credit into the hands of those who would subdivide, build and buy. (59) California presents a puzzle for the theorists of Fordism, in that it led the nation in mass consumption, grounded in automobile and housing, while never becoming a premier region of Fordist, or assembly line, mass-production industries. (60)

The mass suburban house was the immediate product of builders who could make a profit on simple homes (small bungalows could be had for as little as $400, c. 1910). Large builders learned to organize production in a more efficient manner and some prefabrication was introduced. These builders quickly filled up subdivided lots with speculative houses, orchestrating dozens of subcontractors for all the modern add-on fixtures. ( 61) But most builders of small homes remained modest operations well into the twentieth century. The Second World War ushered in a new breed of community builders who unified land development, construction and sales under one company, filling tracts with several hundred homes at one time. (62) The first was not New York's Alfred Levitt at war's end, but California builders of the late 1930s and early 40s, exemplified by Henry Doelger on the west side of San Francisco, David Bohannon in the East Bay and on the Peninsula, and Fritz Burns in Los Angeles. Even Henry Kaiser, fresh from his success in roads, dams and ships, took the plunge with Kaiser Community Homes, an alliance with Burns. (63) These builders accelerated the pace of mass suburban development and, after the war, tracts of small homes proliferated throughout the state.

The new breed of developer was a master of marketing, including the use of model homes and the arrangement of financing working hand in glove with the federal government and their favorite mortgage lenders. The inclusion of many common factory workers and laborers among their customers depended on cheap mortgages. Federal insurance brought the 30-year mortgage into general use, while special protection for savings and loan companies guaranteed an ample pool of capital reserved for housing; postwar interest rates were historically very low thanks to the abundance of funds and lack of debt in that privileged moment in American history. (64)

At the same time, houses became cheaper to build. The simple home became the 'minimal home', as architects, planners and housing reformers in the late 1920s joined forces with engineers, industrialists and developers in the pursuit of further efficiencies in house design and production. (65) Ideologically, this campaign rang the klaxons of scientific management in vogue in that epoch, as designers aimed at elimination of wasted space. (Housing researchers even carried out 'space and motion' studies of family activities.) Slab foundations came into regular use. Houses became more horizontally oriented to the street, on 40- to 50-foot lots, with a small garage built in. Back yards opened up to lawn and patio, as clotheslines and dustbins disappeared. While much was made of the ideal of mass production, including experiments in ‘factory-built housing,’ the principal gains in building efficiency were through rationalized batch production, in which standardization of fixtures, doors and windows played a big part, along with new products like plywood, plasterboard, and prefab cabinets and serialized site fabrication from subassemblies. California led the way in these respects. (66)


Sunset houses blanketing former sand dunes as seen from Golden Gate Heights, 2014.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

In the 1950s popular writers like William Whyte scorned suburbia for its facelessness—quite the opposite of the glowing press given to the Romantic suburbs. Apparently, the mass arrival of the working class and their small, unadorned homes had removed the lustre. Even the sophisticated inhabitants of the bohemian realm looked down their noses on the minimal homes, famously in Berkeley’s Malvina Reynolds’ song ‘Little Boxes’. (67) yet what made the little boxes of San Francisco and Daly City so ridiculous at first glance was the attempt to maintain the city’s tradition of the solid streetscape of undetached or semi-detached row houses at a lower height, with reduced, repetitious styles (an effect that looks charming in more upscale areas of the 1920s such as the northern waterfront, or Marina District). Nor was modernism much appreciated in small home styling. Joseph Eichler was well-known for the aggressively modernist aesthetics of his tract home designs, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and drawn up by a stable of young architects: flat roofs, exposed beams, large overhang, walls of glass opening onto patios. But Eichler was regarded as an oddball and the modern style was absorbed into the general eclecticism of suburban housing (even Doelger had every fifth house a modern flat-roof job). Over time, Eichler homes have been softened by heavy landscaping to look more and more like part of the bohemian woodlands. Curiously, the Bay Area's realm of mass suburban housing was never able to break fully with the landscapes of either the Victorian or the ecotopian era.

The small home realm of the Bay Area, for all its success, depended on what now seems a fragile balance between a robust center of the class structure and ample profit rates on capital. This balance was already in doubt by the 1960s, which saw the same profit-squeeze as the 1920s and the same result: smaller homes and more multiples, including the newly minted 'condominium' and attached 'townhouses' with shared common space. (68) The postwar property boom came tumbling down in the recession of 1973-5. Toward the end of the boom, builders were already shedding the minimal house in favor of the higher-profit margins of an upscale shift to larger homes. Indeed, the taste of the upper middle class for postwar subdivisions was only slowly acquired as housing cost and size ratcheted upward. (69) As building again surged from the late 1970s through the 1980s, builders abandoned the mass of the working class, whose wages were stagnating, and turned to the expanding legions of middle­ and upper-class yuppies. By the 1980s, the Dopler shift to the high end of the market had gone as far as it could, and its paradigmatic community was Blackhawk, on the flank of Mt. Diablo in the fast-growing outer East—monster houses too ritzy to house the masses and too vulgar to suit the bohemians.

The community developers also ran into public opposition as they became bigger and more ambitious. San Francisco Bay itself was the prime target for development (what could be cheaper land than water?) and was soon in danger of being filled up entirely by new towns such as Foster City, Redwood Shores and Harbor Bay Isle. (New Jersey's James Rouse got the most press for his new towns, but the greatest number were, once again, to be found in California.) These were quickly seen as a bigger affront to environmental sensibilities than Doelger’s humble boxes. (70) From Redwood Shores to Blackhawk, the big developers ran into a wall of environmental protest that brought the Bay Area’s love affair with private profit and unlimited expansion once again into question, and strong growth controls were slapped on bay, coastal and hillside development throughout the region.

A prosperous economy driven by electronics and finance, an upwardly skewed class structure, and property speculation fuelled by easy lending in the era of financial deregulation drove housing prices in the Bay Area through the roof. Prices trebled in each of the last two decades, eroding the foundation for the mass consumption home. They are the highest of any metropolitan region in the country today, and have been since at least 1975. The 1978 median price was $84,300. In 1989 it was $261,500. This compares with a national average of $93,500, a California median of $200,800 and a Los Angeles County median of $215,800. Bay Area housing is also the least affordable in the nation, with only 10 percent of local households able to buy the median-priced house in 1989, compared with 48 per cent nationally and 18 per cent in Los Angeles. (71) This undermines the position of the working class, and drives a wedge between those alder workers who enjoyed postwar prosperity and younger workers who cannot find an affordable home anywhere within 50 miles of San Francisco or San Jose. It also makes living independently harder for single and divorced women, and favors immigrants with extended families over more isolated American-born workers. The bourgeoisie and high-paid middle class have become the only ones able to afford houses in large parts of the region. Meanwhile, mass housing for the middling classes has jumped as far out as the Central Valley, leaving the Bay Area's historic commitment to mass housing a rather distant memory, and intensifying the class schism between the elites occupying the hillsides and spruced-up Victorians, and the common people hanging on to rent-controlled apartments and cheap hotel rooms.


The Bay Area's distinctive aura of urbanity and suburbanity sets it off from the run of American cities, including nearby Los Angeles, even though there are many commonalities. This is not a gift of Nature nor the Market, but the outcome of favorable social conditions and fervent struggles. The ecologies indicated here only begin to capture the characteristic ways of life of the region and the living tissue of social action and political conflict behind the facades of a static 'landscape'. My treatment of Pacific coast bohemianism, transient cosmopolitanism and redwood romanticism barely scratches the surface of the region's traditions of political openness, sexual liberation or environmental fervor, for example. To be sure, the Bay Area—for all its pretensions to cosmopolis and civitas—is no idyllic retreat from the thundering hoofs of capitalist bulls. Yet some things pleasant and worthy have been carved out here, very often in opposition to the commercial and culture mainstream of America, and these need to be understood, cultivated and extended.


52. It is this banality and the human heart beating within that Bill Owens captured so tellingly in his 1960s photographic study of Livermore, in the outer East Bay. B. Owens, Suburbia (San Francisco, Straight Arrow Books, 1973).
53. This powerful national ideology was more than Jeffersonian agrarian values, as it touched the heart of the artisan and industrial craft workers of the nineteenth century. Home ownership meant control and stability, not to mention the lordship of the family partriarch over his dominion. Immigrants felt that owning property and a home was the way to be a 'real American'. In this century, 'own your own home' became the slogan that steered capitalist interests, worker independence and state policy into a convergence. On home ownership, see C. Perin, Everything in its place: social order and land use in America (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1977); M. Doucet and J. Weaver, Housing the North American city (Montreal, Queens-McGill University Press, 1991); E. Blackmar, Manhattan for rent, 1785-1850 (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1989); C. Clark, The American family home (Chapel Hill. University of North Carolina Press, 1986); R. Harris and C Hamnett, 'The myth of the land: the social diffusion of home ownership in Britain and North America,' Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77, 2 (1987) pp. 173-90; and Marsh, to ‘Separation to togetherness’.
54. For the Fordist reading of the golden age of housing, see R. Florida and M. Feldman, 'Housing in US fordism: the class accord and postwar spatial organization,' International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 12, 2 (1988), pp. 187-210. No one disputes that the detached single-family house flourished after the Second World War, but family-owned small homes have been prevalent in small towns and cities such as Baltimore since the nineteenth century. Nationally, the leading urban home owner group by 1900 was the rising professionals, with skilled workers next and common laborers lagging badly until after the Second World War—but rates vary dramatically over time and by class, with ground gained and lost quickly (see, for example, the detailed figures for Hamilton, Ontario, in Doucet and Weaver, Housing the City, Table 7.7). Postwar prosperity and federal policies generated extraordinarily high ownership rates by the 1960s (close to 70 percent), but by English standards, home ownership rates among the US working class were already very high—25-40 percent—in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Peter Rowe, Making a Middle Landscape, (Cambridge Mass, MIT Press, 1991).
55. On Henry George, see C. Baker, ‘Henry George and the California background of progress and poverty,’ California Historical Society Quarterly 24, 2 (1945), pp. 97-115. On Norris’ Octopus in light of economic conditions in California, see G. Henderson, Regions and Realism: Social Spaces, Regional Transformation and the Novel in California, 1882-1884 (unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley, 1992).
56. On Los Angeles, see R. Fogelson, The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles, 1850-1930 (Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1967). San Francisco home ownership in 1910 was 38 per cent, compared to 20 per cent in New York and 26 per cent in Chicago (data from 1910 Manuscript Census, thanks to Phil Ethington, Department of History, University of Southern California). On early San Francisco housing, see generally Bloomfield, Real estate associates; and Moudon, Neighborhood architecture. On the Santa Clara valley see G. Matthews, A California middletown: the social history of San Jose during the depression (unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of History, Stanford University, 1977).
57. On the bungalow and its epoch, and the key role of the California bungalow in particular, see King, The bungalow: the production of a global culture (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), C. Lancaster, The American bungalow (New York, Abbeville Press, R. Winter, The California bungalow (Los Angeles, Hennessey and Ingalls, 1980); and D. Holdsworth, 'Regional distinctiveness in an industrial age: some California influences on British Columbia housing,' The American Review of Canadian Studies 12, 2 (1982), pp. 64-81. On improvements in house design, see A. Gowans, The comfortable house: North American suburban architecture, 1890-1930 (Cambridge, MIT Press, 1986). On the efficient and mechanized home, see A. Forty, Objects of desire: design and society, 1750-1980 (London, Thames and Hudson/Cameron, 1986); and R. Miller, 'The Hoover in the garden: middle class women and suburbanization, 1870-1920,' Society and Space 1 (1983), pp. 73-87. On the family-centered home, see Marsh, 'Separation to togetherness'; G. Wright, Building the dream: a social history of housing in America (Cambridge, MIT Press, 1981); G. Wright, Moralism and the model home: domestic architecture and cultural conflict in Chicago, 1873-1913 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980); and D. Hayden, Redesigning the American dream (New York, Norton, 1984).
58. See, for example, Keeler, The simple home, and Maybeck's efforts to design a cheap home for the masses; these men were radicals by the standard of downtown lawyers, of course. ('Simplicity' was later replaced by 'efficiency' as the code word of modernity, a change which indicates a loss of idealism and gain the 1920s.)
59. The first innovation in home financing was installments, said to have been invented in Cincinnati in 1880s, but San Francisco's Homestead Associations of the 1860s already allowed people of modest means to buy lots on the installment plan, according to Bloomfield, Real estate associates.
60. Allen Scott, the leading student of industrialization in Southern California, has also come to this view in his recent work. See A. Scott, 'Industrial urbanism in Southern California' (unpublished paper, Lewis Center, UCLA, Los Angeles, 1994).
61. Doucet and Weaver, North American City, argue that integrated mass production had appeared in places by 1900, but the generalization of the community builder only came later and in no case did even the largest merchant builders handle their own sales; this was contracted out to realty firms. Weiss, Community Builders, p. 40.
62. Some huge tracts (of both small homes and barracks housing) were built during the war, encouraged by the Federal government because they housed defense workers, particularly around aircraft plants in Los Angeles and shipyards in the Bay Area. G. Hise, Roots of the Post-war Urban region: Mass Housing and Community Planning in California, 1920-1950 (Unpublished dissertation, Dept. of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley, 1992); and G. Hise, ‘Home building and industrial decentralization in Los Angeles: the roots of the postwar urban region,’ Journal of Urban History 19, 2 (1993), pp. 95-125.
63. For the Levitt-centered view, see Eichler, Merchant Builders; Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier; and B. Checkoway, ‘Large builders, federal housing programs, and postwar suburbanization,’ International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 4, 1 (1980), pp. 21-45. On Doelger, see G. Brechin, ‘Mr. Levitt of the Sunset,’ San Francisco Focus (June 1990), pp. 23-26; Brechin claims that Doelger was the biggest homebuilder in the country before Levitt. On Burns and Kaiser, see Hise, Postwar Urban Region and ‘Industrial decentralization,’ Kaiser took many of his cues from David Bohannon, who built Rollingwood in Richmond during the war for Kaiser's shipyard workers.
64. Ned Eichler, Merchant builders, calls finance the key to the postwar mass market for homes. See D. Harvey, The urbanization of capital (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press. 1985); A. Schneiderman, The hidden handout and the Keynesian welfare state (unpublished PhD dissertation, University of California Berkeley, Department of Sociology, 1994); Gelfand, Nation of cities; Walker, Suburban solution; and Florida and Feldman, Housing in Fordism.
65. The case for the new minimum ideal in homes is carefully made by Hise, Postwar urban region. He argues that the small home tract was perfected during the Depression by the Farm Security Administration for its rural labor camps in the Central Valley, proposed by Berkeley activist Paul Taylor and designed by Bay Area architect Vernon DeMars.
66. Los Angeles builders were, overall, the most advanced in subcontracting and the complex of building material suppliers was largely self-contained. See Eichler, Merchant builders. Kaiser Homes, in particular, led the way in rationalizing mass construction. California had a definite advantage in year-round work that kept capital turning over. Standards for buildings had been heavily promoted by Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, as he carried the gospel of modernization in housing from California to Washington in the early 1920s. E. Hawley, ed., Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce: studies in new era thought and practice (Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1981). They continued to be pushed by the new Federal Housing Administration in the 1930s.
67. It must be said that Doelger gave little regard to Nature, building tracts right on the bluffs where the San Andreas Fault plunges into the sea and the ground is wrenching beneath the rows of little houses. J McPhee, Assembling California (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993).
68. Kaufman and Broad broke into LA with these, while George McKeon of Sacramento blanketed the state with four-unit condominiums.
69. On this housing shift and the passing of the first generation of merchant builders by the 1973-75 recession, see Eichler, Merchant builders. Joe Eichler worked in Foster City and on San Francisco apartments before going bankrupt in 1974.
70. M. Scott, The Future of San Francisco Bay (Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, 1963).
71. Figures from the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and California Association of Realtors. Add to this the destruction of the protected pool of mortgage finance represented by the now-defunct Savings and Loan industry, which self-destructed in a desperate attempt to stay profitable in the face of financial deregulation and the loss of their interest-rate advantages. See Schneiderman, Hidden Handout.