The Tale of the Whimsical Storybook Homes of Southern California
In Southern California, where historical architecture blooms in practically every neighborhood, there’s something uniquely exciting about locating an authentic Storybook house. These structures, with their asymmetric window frames and vert-ramp rooflines, ooze fairytale whimsy. They were popular with builders for a relatively short period of time in the 1920s and 1930s, and are therefore rarer than the rustic California Craftsman or retro-futuristic Mid-Century Modern domiciles that iconically populate the region.
Discovering a Storybook standing between rows of modern tract homes today feels a little like the gnarled hand of time is pointing at you from across the ages, beckoning you to take a closer look.
In 2001, author Arroll Gellner and photographer Douglas Keister detailed the history of the Storybook movement in “Storybook Style America’s Whimsical Homes of the Twenties” (Viking Press). Though the book mentions the difficulty of plumbing the origins of storybook architecture with "academic precision," it's likely the craze originated, appropriately, in Los Angeles.
The architectural trend evolved after home builders turned away from the stuffy excesses of the Victorian era. In the late 1800s, the Arts and Crafts movement--of which California was a hub--began reflecting an interest in nature and the handmade. Queen Anne houses gave way to Craftsman bungalows and Spanish Revival courts. Soldiers fighting in WWI were exposed to the construction of the European countryside. Stateside, images of a French villager played by Rudolph Valentino flickered on the silver screen (in reality, the village portrayed in the 1921 film "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" was constructed in Griffith Park).
From this cultural gumbo emerged a once-in-a-century architectural style that spread across the country.
Sputnik’s Vintage took a closer look at some of the storybook buildings scattered between Orange County, Long Beach and Los Angeles (though there are many more worth seeking out). Take a trip with us, and learn a little more about these enduring relics.
(All images by Brandon Ferguson for Sputnik's Vintage)
Wave St., Laguna Beach – Located on a hill overlooking the sparkling blue Pacific, 40 minutes south of Hollywood (on a good day), this Laguna Beach landmark is an excellent example of the style's tendency toward asymmetry. The house was designed and built by a Whittier carpenter named Vernon Barker, who went on to design UCLA medical center in the 1960s. The staggered oblong windows, and oddly intersecting lines of the roof spark a slightly unnerving feeling in the viewer standing outside the property's gates. Did Hansel and Gretel make double sure the witch was fully cremated before making their escape?
Zlaket House, Floral Park Neighborhood, Santa Ana - According to a report supplied to Sputnik's Vintage by the city of Santa Ana, this two story home was constructed in 1927. It remains unclear who designed and built the house, but it's known that the home's first occupants were Kaleel Zlaket, owner of a local ranch market, and his wife Mary. It's believed the Zlakets lived there until at least 1941. The family's market would eventually evolve into a deli in downtown Garden Grove run by successive family generations. The business thrived for 87 years before closing in 2014.
East Third Street, Long Beach - Try as we might, we haven't yet discovered the architect responsible for this gem. While employees with the city building department don't have a clear answer as to where this information might be hiding, a digitized building permit from 1925 shows the original owner was a man named Hans Julius Olson. The house's most remarkable feature, is its 'seawave roof', which features rolled eaves and crafted shingles designed to emulate thatch.
1328 N. Formosa, West Hollywood – Among the persistent rumors about this complex of units, constructed in 1925, is that they were commissioned by Charlie Chaplin to house actors working at his nearby studio. Unfortunately for Chaplinophiles, building permits at the city of Los Angeles show the property was originally owned by a Louise Casler who hired the architectural design firm of Smith and Zwebell to construct the buildings. An early city directory listing shows the property was originally referred to as Casler Village Court (now known as Village Court).
A report on file with the Los Angeles City Planning Department notes that Arthur Zwebell, was not a licensed architect and worked closely with his wife Nina, an interior designer. The two were known for constructing a number of courtyard-style complexes in various styles around the city.
A city permit from 1947 requesting permission to repair fire damage shows that ownership of the property eventually passed to Patrick J. McGeehan. This is presumably the same McGeehan who did voice work for Orson Welles, and later, for the Red Skelton Show (interestingly, Skelton bought Chaplin Studios in 1960). Village Court was granted historical monument status in 2018, which means it can’t be demolished prior to Cultural Heritage Commission review.
No official word on whether Drew Barrymore lived here as a child (another persistent rumor), but old city directories suggest the complex was once home to an assortment of creatives and studio workers including magician and screenwriter Eugene Poinc ("Olly, Olly, Oxen Free") as well as Academy Award-winning film editor Paul J. Weatherwax ("Around the World in 80 Days").
2906 Griffith Park Blvd., Los Angeles – This complex of eight cottages designed and built in 1931 by Ben Sherwood appeared in one of the most haunting scenes in David Lynch’s noir LA thriller “Mulholland Drive”. The scene involves a woman with a wicked case of amnesia, her wannabe private detective friend (played by Naomi Watts), a decomposing corpse, and perhaps a portal to an alternate dimension. Leave it to Lynch to find horror and mystery lurking within the quaint.
It has been suggested by more than one source that this complex’s proximity to Walt Disney’s Hyperion Studios may have influenced animators working on the 1937 film "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Watching the classic landmark cartoon, it does appear that the silhouette of the Dwarfs' cottage shares a similar bell shape to these storybook buildings -- but that's just us. If you're a fan of the movie with an opinion to share, feel free to comment below.
The next storybook landmark on our list, the Tam O’Shanter restaurant, has a much more solid connection to Disney history. Keep reading to learn more.
Tam O’ Shanter, 2980 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Angeles - The Tam O’ Shanter restaurant is located less than two miles from the Los Feliz cottages. It’s well documented that Walt Disney was a regular patron here during the days when his animation studio was located on nearby Hyperion avenue. When indoor dining is a thing in LA again, Disney fans can request to be seated at table 31, which was the favored table of Walt Disney and his Imagineers.
Architect Harry Oliver (who also designed the next house on our list) was commissioned to build this structure in 1922 by Walter Van De Kamp and Lawrence Frank.
Like the previous location on our list, it has been suggested that this large building also provided inspiration for hungry animators working on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs".
On the left of the red line is a window at the Tam O' Shanter. On the right is a screen grab showing a window of the Seven Dwarfs' cottage.
Comparing the windows of the Tam O' Shanter along Los Feliz Boulevard, with their repetitive circular patterns, to a scene in which Snow White prays by window light inside the Dwarfs’ cottage, it’s hard to imagine animators didn't soak up at least some inspiration from this structure.
Fun fact: The Tam is also located within walking distance of the Griffith Park carousel that inspired Disney to build his first amusement park.
Spadena House, Beverly Hills – With its dizzying rooflines, purposely bent stove pipe vents, and landscaped moat, the Spadena House is arguably the most camera-ready home on our list. In 2014, LA Mag interviewed owner Michael J. Libow, who offered some background on the building's history. Known to Beverly Hill’s locals as the Witch House, it was originally constructed in 1920 as a set for Willat Studios in Culver City. Film producer Ward Lascalle owned the property in Beverly Hills where the house is currently located. It’s believed he saved the building from the wrecking ball when he had the home moved to Beverly Hills circa 1924.
Architect Harry Oliver, who according to IMDB served as art director for a number of films in the 1920s and '30s, was perhaps as eccentric as the Witch House he designed. In his later life, he settled in the California Desert and for years published what could be described as a desert-themed zine known as the Desert Rat Scrap Book.
Lawrence and Martha Joseph Residence, Culver City - This complex of homes was built over a period of decades spanning 1946 to 1997 by Lawrence Joseph. Described by the Los Angeles Conservancy as an expert carpenter and sailor, Joseph worked for Walt Disney Studios as well as Lockheed's top secret "Skunkworks" division. Looking at this jumble of buildings with egg shaped rooftops, and diamond paned windows, is to look at unfettered creative expression. It's hard to figure out which is more absurd, the whimsical Hobbit houses, or the nearby office buildings and concrete parking structure.