“They said Longfellow’s biggest weakness was its housing stock,” she remembers. “They said it was old and inadequately sized.”
Sixty percent of the houses in Johnson’s neighborhood are bungalows, built from 1919 to 1930. To her, these small one- or one-and-a-half-story homes with their intimate living spaces, front porches, and Arts & Crafts details were an asset, not a flaw. “Most of them are pretty much unchanged,” she says. “We have a lot of people who’ve lived in the same houses their whole lives. I wanted to point out that new and big isn’t necessarily better.”
To sell her immediate neighbors on the virtues of bungalows, Johnson founded the Twin Cities Bungalow Club. Five years later it has 300 members as far away as New York. Local members attend annual house tours and lectures on restoration, and all members receive a quarterly newsletter. Members and non-members alike can buy the Longfellow Planbook: Remodeling Plans for Bungalows and Other Small Urban Homes, which has won kudos from both bungalow owners and preservationists.
Written by Johnson and Minneapolis architect Robert Gerloff, the book offers suggestions for expanding bungalows in architecturally appropriate ways. It tells how to enlarge a kitchen, build a second bathroom, or add the mudroom so popular in new homes, thus addressing, says Johnson, the reasons people were giving for selling their bungalows.
George Edwards, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, a statewide advocacy group, has high praise for the book. “With older houses, people just don’t know where to turn. This gives them the questions to ask so they can steer their architect toward a better plan or their contractors to make more sympathetic decisions.”
Not only have Longfellow residents discovered the charm in their bungalows, but so have realtors. Resale value now seems dependent on how much of the home is original. “Some residents had ripped out their original birch cabinets or box beam ceilings, so now you see ads emphasizing ‘original kitchen’ or ‘original bathroom’,” says Johnson. Some have sold recently for $200,000.
The planbook had an impact beyond individual homeowners. City officials agreed that the steep stairways so common in bungalows would be grandfathered into the building code, potentially saving homeowners thousands of dollars in renovation costs.
As for Johnson, she has moved on, selling the bungalow she bought for $61,000 in 1990 for a $39,000 profit. “I bought an Arts & Crafts-style house five blocks away that was crying out for help,” she explains. “The bungalow was finished.”
She’s also helped write another book, this one on renovating Cape Cods and Ramblers, in cooperation with 13 Minneapolis subdivisions. “They were feeling that the homes weren’t glamorous, or big, or new. We hoped they would spend the money to rehab and stay.” Sounds familiar.