Bungalow Courts on Main Street

Bungalow courts were a great idea when they were new, and now that they’re back, they’re still a great idea. The concept is simple—six, eight, or ten small detached houses nestled around a courtyard. Each house is private, but it fronts on a common green space.

There’s some debate as the ultimate origin of the bungalow court, but the first development planned as a bungalow court was the brainchild of Pasadena architect Sylvanus Marston, who built the St. Francis Courts as luxurious vacation cottages in 1908. Marston had no idea that he’d invented a form of architecture that would appeal and endure. The bungalow court was an instant success, first in California, then elsewhere.

From the beginning, bungalow courts appealed to people who wanted warmth and connection in big cities—single women, childless couples and empty nesters. Throughout the 20th century, bungalow courts were more than a form of architecture. They were an instant community. Mickey Garcia, who restored a historic court in Suffolk, Virginia and who now lives around the corner from the development, said, “If you want to be in the house, nobody bothers you. If you come out, you can be in the mix.”

In the late 1990s, a Seattle developer—who had grown up in California and liked the bungalow court idea—decided to build an updated version. Jim Soules, who heads the Cottage Company, calls the courtyards “pocket neighborhoods.” The Cottage Company’s comfortable detached houses, clustered around a green space, were a big hit in Seattle, too.

The Midwest never had a strong bungalow court tradition. If you’ve lived through a Midwestern winter, you know why—it’s no fun to linger in the courtyard when the temperature is well below zero. Ron Korsh, a developer who works for the Greater Metropolitan Housing Corporation in Minneapolis, was nonetheless inspired by the Seattle courts. When the GMAC acquired a double lot in a northeast neighborhood, he decided to maximize its use—and test the courtyard concept—by building six detached houses around an open green space.

The Main Street Bungalow Court was designed to have a Craftsman feel from the exterior, and to feel like a cozy bungalow from the inside. The sustainable touches were deliberate. Especially important in those frigid Minnesota winters were the highly efficient heating and cooling systems, which earned the houses a Five Star Plus energy rating.

Even though these houses don’t have period detail, they have a bungalow feel. The primacy of the fireplace is right. The galley kitchen suits the space. And so is the upstairs, with its bedrooms of equal size, all scaled right for a smaller house. If you’ve been in a period bungalow, the coziness and small scale are absolutely familiar. It’s as close as you can get to historic living with brand-new mechanicals and energy-saving design.

Old or new, bungalow courts are a great idea.

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