Provincial Revivalism, more commonly referred to as storybook architecture is an architectural style that spread like wildfire in Hollywood after WWI. Even though technically, there’s no formal definition of what elements a building should have to be considered a storybook house, most storybook houses share a sense of whimsy and playfulness with rustic, old-world village elements, uneven roofs, cobblestone decorations, and window/door openings that might appear to look odd-shaped and mismatched. In this post, we’ll introduce you to the storybook houses of Los Angeles and the West Coast and teach you everything there is to know about this interesting architectural style, including its history, characteristics, and more.
But let’s start from the beginning…
What Is A Storybook House?
Storybook houses, also known as fairytale houses, or Hansel and Gretel houses are whimsical buildings with elements of traditional medieval European cottage architecture that were built in the US, mainly during the early or mid-20th century. The structures borrow elements from many different European architectural styles, including Gothic, Tudor, Tudor Revival, French Norman Revival, and English cottage style. And where else would this architectural style become famous, if not in the unique city of Los Angeles, the film capital of the world?
Here’s how it happened…
History Of Storybook Houses
Ironically or not, the history of this dramatic architectural fad is closely tied to one of the bloodiest conflicts our world has ever seen. During the Great War, many American soldiers were sent to Europe and during their stay, many of them were absolutely charmed by the rustic romantic architecture of rural France and Germany. And as soon as Hollywood writers, producers, and art directors heard about this, a spate of Storybook architecture made its way across Los Angeles and the West Coast in the 1920s and 1930s.
Initially, the houses were built as landmarks for wealthy Hollywood clients looking to show off. The unusual visual appearance of the houses was quickly noticed and made news across the country with many new buyers coming in wanting to own a sample of this new fad. That’s when the storybook houses started spreading north to Berkeley and even south towards San Francisco and later, outside of California and the West Coast.
However, despite the fad in the 1920s and early 1930s, storybook architecture was always going to remain a niche market. The architectural style was stifled even further by the Great Depression. One couldn’t expect otherwise, knowing that luxury items are the first thing that’s going to lose value in an era of harsh economic conditions.
Today, the storybook homes still continue to inspire a small group of eccentric architects, homeowners, and builders. The houses are as eye-catching as ever but in complete honesty, the biggest flaw of this style is that it has no pretensions to authenticity. Instead, it uses exaggerated forms and blends elements from other architectural styles to create visually unusual and interesting buildings…
Key Characteristics Of Storybook Houses
Storybook houses are usually constructed from simple materials, including brick, stucco, and half-timbering. The aim of the exterior is usually to create a faux-medieval look that makes the house appear a lot older than it actually is in order to lend it a sense of history and timelessness.
Most of the structure is typically asymmetrical with distinct individual features that on a glimpse, look like they’ve been hand cobbled together. The doors and windows are usually rounded or arched. Some houses include eyebrow dormers or window boxes. The roofs typically have wavy patterns and sometimes include shingles, dovecotes, or turrets.
Similar to the exterior, the interior is filled with quirky layouts. The rooms and walls are rarely square or rectangular and feature curved shapes, frequently decorated with hand plaster finishes.
How To Identify Storybook Houses?
The first thing you’ll notice in a storybook house is its sheer capriciousness. A few other things all storybook homes have in common include asymmetrical elements, distressed wood and/or masonry, and other rustic elements which are designed to imitate the look of a medieval house located in some rural part of Europe.
The roofs are usually steeply pitched, sometimes cross-gabled, and often feature irregular dormers. Windows and doors are also irregular more often than not, featuring spheric or round shapes. Half timbering for decoration is often used, inspired by rural German houses.
Lastly, the main color combinations include brown, grey, deep red, or amber.
The First Storybook House?
The oldest storybook house that’s still standing is the Petersen Studio designed by artist Einar Petersen in 1921. The house is basically an unassuming bungalow and it garners relatively little attention compared to some other storybook houses in Los Angeles but it should be noted that this is a pioneering example of the Storybook style.
Enjoying this post? Then you may also enjoy our article about the architecture of colonial Williamsburg.
Prominent Examples of Storybook Architecture
In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the most famous storybook houses in Los Angeles and the area.
Spadena House, Beverly Hills
Erected in 1921 by art director Harry Oliver, the legendary Spadena House is probably the second-oldest storybook home in the USA. This house was built to function as an office space with dressing rooms for the purposes of the local silent film studio. A few years later, the house was moved to Beverly Hills where it became a private residence, one of the most popular landmarks in Los Angeles, and a living testament of Storybook architecture. The house is also known as “The Witch’s House” (the witch is a reference to Hansel and Gretel)and it’s absolutely magnificent ,especially during autumn.
Location: 516 Walden Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Snow White Cottages, Los Feliz
The Snow White Cottages in Los Feliz were designed in 1931 by famous architect Ben Sherwood. This complex consists of eight cottages and according to urban legends served as inspiration for Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. No surprise there, considering Disney’s studio is located just a few blocks away and the place was actually visited by one of Disney’s animators before the creation of the cartoon. The complex is a beautiful example of storybook architecture, it’s one of the most famous houses in Los Angeles and it even appeared in David Lynch’s classic “Mulholland Drive”.
Location: 2900 Griffith Park Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027
The Hobbit House, Culver City
Even though its formal name is Joseph Residence and Apartments, most people know this storybook home as the Hobbit House of Los Angeles. The building incorporates elements of European Medieval cottages and was created by Lawrence Joseph, a designer that would later become one of the forefathers of the storybook architectural style. The house is called the Hobbit House because it features many of the elements that can be seen in the houses of the Shire in Peter Jackson’s classic.
It has curved walls, haphazard tiles, leaded window panes, and even a pond that will make you feel like you’re actually in the Shire. Today, the Hobbit House is a private estate but if you’re in the neighborhood, you can always admire it from the outside while taking a stroll past it.
Location: 3819 Dunn Dr, Culver City, CA 90232
Tam O’Shanter, Los Feliz
The famous Tam O’Shanter restaurant in Los Feliz is one of the oldest and most fascinating examples of storybook architecture. Unlike most other storybook houses in Los Angeles, the Tam O’Shanter is a restaurant and it’s actually Los Angeles’ oldest restaurant operated by the same family in the same location. The restaurant was opened more than 100 years ago and its interior is still as rustic as it once was. Inside, you can see a lot of traditional Scottish decorations like kilts and crests and get some fine Scottish whiskey and Irish ales.
Location: 2980 Los Feliz Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90039
Hlaffer-Courcier Residence, Los Feliz
The Hlaffer-Courcier Residence is another quirky storybook house located in Los Feliz. It was designed in 1924 by Rufus Buck (the designer behind a few other storybook houses in the Los Angeles area). It consists of two floors, its façade features three gables with steep, and the roof has two stucco chimneys with clinker brinks. The interior is dotted with triangular tops and half-timber elements.
Address: 2574 Glendower Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90027, United States
Charlie Chaplin’s Bungalow Court, West Hollywood
During the storybook fever of the 1920s, even Charlie Chaplin got himself a storybook house for him and his crew working in the La Brea Avenue studios. The site consists of four storybook-style bungalows, stone walkways, crooked half-timbering (made that way on purpose, of course), and pitched wavy roofs. Many famous Hollywood people stayed in the bungalows throughout the year and today so can you; the bungalows were recently turned into boutique hotels.
Location: 1328 N Formosa Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046
Honorable Mention: Normandy Village, Berkeley
Now, Normandy village might not technically belong to this list of the best storybook houses in Los Angeles because after all it’s more than 300 miles away from LA but we still felt it deserved at least an honourable mention. The building consists of 8 apartments and is located near the University of California, Berkeley. The building was designed by William R Yelland and was erected in 1927. The construction was commissioned by Colonel Jack Thornburg, a participant in WWI who wanted to revive his impressions of northern France.
Address: Thornburg Village, Berkeley
How did you like this ultimate list of storybook houses in Los Angeles? What do you think about this quirky architectural style? Did you ever visit any of these houses? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!
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