Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 24, 2018

Your Los Angeles Story Setting: Bungalow Courts

When you write your Los Angeles novel or film script — as I know you will — where in the vast sprawl of the metropolis will you set your scenes and where will your protagonist live? Obviously, one temptation is those palatial mansions behind wrought iron gates and green lawns in Brentwood or Pacific Palisades, or the luxury “beach cottages” of Malibu. Well, it’s your story.

There are novels and movies set all over Los Angeles from Nathanael West to Raymond Chandler’s city of noir to the present day. Michael Connelly first put Harry Bosch in a lonely house on a cliff in the Hollywood Hills, then moved him onto a boat in the marina in San Pedro, just down the hill from me. Thomas Pynchon’s mined the beach cities of the South Bay — Manhattan, Hermosa, Redondo — in a few of his books.

It’s a vast place, and you have areas that range from enclaves as wealthy as Beverly Hills, without the over-familiar name — I’m thinking San Marino — the widespread jumble of the San Fernando Valley or any number of cities, towns and neighborhoods that run the gamut from workaday midtown suburbs to recondite hillside enclaves at the base of the mountain ranges.

Here’s Your Set

Location is up to you, but I have a classic Los Angeles set for you. It’s a genuine Los Angeles form of architecture, invented here and still to be found: the Bungalow Court.

SP 1st St bungalows Brad Nixon 0910 660

Early in the 20th century, as L.A. was attracting dreamers, drifters, grifters, the hopeful and those for whom hope had failed elsewhere. Real estate developers took note. Visitors from farther east looking for first-time housing or a place to spend a few weeks or months in sunny, burgeoning southern California needed places to stay. In 1909, a man named Sylvanus Marston had the idea to build 11 small units on a single property in Pasadena. To squeeze them into one parcel of land, he built them in two parallel rows with a central walkway/courtyard. That idea not only caught on, it caught fire.

RB Bungalows Brad Nixon 0753 660

“Bungalow” architecture was already well-established and enormously popular, especially on the west coast, from Vancouver to San Diego. Arranging small, single-floor units into “bungalow courts” became a way to maximize revenue while keeping the venues more attractive than mere apartment blocks.

RB Bungalows Brad Nixon 0756 660

The form proliferated across the L.A. basin and — to a limited degree — in San Francisco/Oakland, Seattle and San Diego, but Los Angeles and its satellite cities became the nexus of bungalow court development, which spanned the years 1910-1930 and continued at a lesser pace for some time after that.

HM Bungalows Brad Nixon 0695 660

Initially, the period’s popular Craftsman style dominated, as here at H&M Courts in Redondo Beach, from 1923.

HM Bungalows Brad Nixon 0692 660

Developers seeking to distinguish their properties explored a wide variety of motifs, including Mission Revival, Tudor and even an ancient Egyptian Revival model in that era of Egyptian and Persian themed movie palaces. I regret I don’t know of an extant Egyptian bungalow court, but Frank Winter has an archival photo of one in his 1980 study, The California Bungalow. Naturally, Spanish Colonial and Mission Revival, reflecting the city’s Spanish heritage, became staples of the genre.

RB Bungalows 518 Brad Nixon 0765 660

The archway courtyard entrance is a common feature.

For storytellers and filmmakers, the bungalow court offers innumerable advantages.

RB Bungalows Brad Nixon 0743 660

First, it’s an L.A. thing, not unique to the city, but authentically SoCal, not an import. It’s a detached dwelling, so there’s some privacy, but in close proximity to neighbors who share that central courtyard/walkway, adding to the dramatic possibilities.

RB Bungalows Brad Nixon 0748 660

They might be jewel thieves, a famous reclusive artist, a disgraced politician in hiding or The Girl Next Door.

RB Bungalow Cat 605 Brad Nixon 0818 660

Philip Marlowe encounters one or two on his beat, as do innumerable other private eyes. They’ve played a role in a number of films, including the ur-L.A. epitome, The Big Lebowski. The abode in which The Dude abides is a real-life bungalow court (it’s in Venice).

I shot the photos in this post in Redondo Beach and San Pedro, but several hundred bungalow courts survive, peppered all across the cityscape. Some are run-of-the-mill or simply run-down, but some are ineluctably appealing. Look more closely at #605, above, in Redondo Beach.

RB Bungalow Cat 605 Brad Nixon 0820 660

Yes, that’s an ocean view, friends. Not bad.

They’re not all so stylish, and the courts were adapted to any number of settings.

RB Bungalows 511-513 Brad Nixon 0760 660

In time, the form morphed to include courts with blocks of apartments rather than separate units. Click on any of the next three images for a larger view.

The “Casitas de la Paz,” in San Pedro, is an interesting transitional hybrid of bungalow court and apartment complex.

SP bungalow Paz Brad Nixon 0787 660

If you pause to think of the year 1910 or so, and then consider those assemblies of small bungalows around a communal space, another archetypal American form of architecture may come to mind. It has everything to do with the cultural and technological trends of the early 20th century. It is, in fact, a direct outgrowth of the bungalow court: an application, if you will. If you have an idea what that might be, leave a comment. I’ll reveal it in a post during the next week.

And good luck with that novel.

Some Useful Links About Bungalow Courts

A detailed article from early 2018 about bungalow courts, their history and current status from Curbed L.A. at this link.

Some landmark Los Angeles bungalow courts are listed on this page from the Los Angeles Conservancy website.

Information about bungalow courts in Redondo Beach from the Redondo Beach Historical Society, click on this link.

An interesting list of 100 books set in Los Angeles is in a blog post by Bookriot at this link.

© Brad Nixon 2018, 2019. Sources include the websites above as well as Robert Winter, The California Bungalow, Hennessey and Ingalls, Los Angeles, 1980.


  1. Hmmm…Well, I’m not the greatest at guessing games, but I’m going to guess that the bungalows were added onto with another story or two giving rise to taller more modern apartment buildings and perhaps even contributing to the rise (literally) of skyscrapers.

    I’m probably WAY off, but hopefully you got at least a laugh out of my guess!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good one, but requires a shift to a different building use. You ARE correct insofar as several generations of post-bungalow court housing in LA (and elsewhere) have now become courtyard apartment blocks. There are thousands upon thousands. Thanks for weighing in. Stay tuned for the answer next week.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d say condominiums. But I can’t think of any significant piece of literature that takes place in one.


    • A reasonable suggestion, but not what I have in mind in this not-entirely-fair puzzle.


      • I was afraid of that.

        Although people usually think of a condo as a type of community living space, a condo is in fact a purely legal construct of divided and shared ownership, rather than an actual physical structure.

        Oh, well. Guess I’ll have to wait. What torture!


      • Not a distinction I’d considered, either. Thank you, former counselor.


  3. Believe it or not, there was a lovely spot in Newton, Iowa called Bungalow Court. I never thought of it as anything but the name of a place in town, but a look at a combination of real estate listings and Google maps shows that it’s exactly the sort of the place you’ve described here.

    There were at least fourteen homes, most of which were 816 square feet, although a couple are listed as being 1,100 square feet. The satellite view shows them gathered around a central green space. Each that includes a construction date in the listing was built in 1925.

    Unfortunately, the area’s declined substantially, and none of the bungalows is especially appealing now. But it’s still an interesting reminder of how far some new housing ideas spread.

    As for that application of the bungalow court model, the first thing that came to my mind was the airstrip or golf course community, where homes are built around a different kind of ‘green space’ that caters to the interests of a group of people.


    • Impressive memory moment. I found it, along with numerous listings from Zillow and Trulia. Yep, a bit the worse for wear after 93 years, but I have no doubt it’s right there in the trend of bungalow courts, which had been a thing for a dozen years by the time they were built. It’s another reminder that ideas and trend were already spreading rapidly in what we risk thinking of as an unconnected, local era.
      That’s an excellent suggestion regarding the golf course and airstrip housing, although not what I have in mind. It’s entirely possible they’re outgrowths of some part of that idea, though. Thank you, as always.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting bungalows. The gardens add a lot of interest. But they just seem so close together.


    • Yes, they are. But remember, this is in an urban area where any space is at a premium, and the alternative is to be in an apartment building sharing hallways instead of a central walkway/courtyard. Not to everyone’s taste, absolutely.


      • I know space is at a premium in Urban Areas. I was in Toronto for a few days this summer, a city of over 4 million people and there are so many buildings at 60 storeys high and of course the CN Tower at 1700 feet tall.


  5. Actually, I think Toronto has Los Angeles beat for “fattest Highway” the 401 is 16 lanes wide in places.


  6. Great Post! I love the different architect in Los Angeles. CHeck out my blog!


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