The Story Behind Storybook Architecture

 

A Storybook house in Hollywood.
A house in Hollywood built in the style of Storybook architecture. 

Storybook architecture begins around the time the first World War ended. The 1920s were a golden era of architecture in the United States. Soldiers were returning home from World War I after seeing Europe’s culture and architecture. They brought home with them the inspiration to recreate what they saw as exotic or different and the result was the architectural revival movement.

In addition, aviation’s rapidly expanding technology was starting to make world travel easier. Combined with the celebratory nature of the victorious and prosperous 1920s, travel and progress were themes very much a part of people’s thoughts. Los Angeles was a prime example of a city ready to embrace such movements. The movies had only recently come to town and with them came the creative types. The once dusty Western town was now bursting with artists eager to create a world that reflected the city’s artistic nature. L.A. was seen as a blank slate that artists could put their own unique stamp on and create a city centered around art, music, movies, theatre and literature.

Between the artists in town and the popular architecture revival movement, it was only a matter of time before Los Angeles would come up with its own styles. Bits and pieces were taken from multiple sources. Tudor style, castles and cottages were mixed in with imagery from fairy tales and fantasy to create a uniquely L.A. type of architecture—Storybook. Today they often draw comparisons to Hobbit houses and Snow White cottages (as seen in Disney’s movie), but when Storybook architecture was popular neither one of those existed.

Like Googie architecture, which came 30 years later, Storybook was born in Los Angeles and soon spread to other parts of the country. Also like Googie, Storybook was whimsical and employed the use of exaggerated features. Unlike Googie, however, which focused primarily on businesses and utilitarian structures, Storybook buildings were usually houses and apartments, although there were some exceptions. That might be at least part of the reason more Storybook houses survived than Googie buildings. (Although some might debate that in the current McMansion climate.)

Still, because of its popularity, there are still many examples left in various forms. Here are some key points of Story Book architecture.

Iron embellishments, like doorknockers
Whimsical chimneys
Wood shingles, often with irregular patterns
Landscaping and foliage that replicates forests or woods
Steep or dramatic gables
Turrets are seen in some, but not all, Storybook houses. Often the turret is also the entrance of the house.
Windows vary. If they’re original, they can be leaded, wavy or stained. Some are wood-framed and other are steel. Many are rounded.
Rooflines are come in a variety of curved shapes and evoke a fairytale feel. This can include swayback or sagging shapes. Eaves are sometimes rolled and gables are steep and dramatic
Doors are typically arched in some way or batten (sometimes both)
This Storybook has rolled eaves, half timbering as seen in Tudor style architecture and wood shingles. It also utilizes a lot of greenery to give the illusion that the house is in a traditionally wooded area when it's actually located in Los Angeles.
This Storybook has rolled eaves, half timbering as seen in Tudor style architecture and wood shingles. It also utilizes a lot of greenery to give the illusion that the house is in a traditionally wooded area when it’s actually located in Los Angeles.
Terrific example of a Storybook house in Los Feliz. The door is rounded and situated in a turret. The shingles are in an irregular pattern and the eaves are rolled under. There is greenery and around the house and even a broken pathway.
Terrific example of Storybook architecture in Los Feliz. The door is rounded and situated in a turret. The shingles are in an irregular pattern and the eaves are rolled under. There is greenery and around the house and even a broken pathway.
Detail of the Storybook roof in Los Feliz.
Detail of the Storybook roof in Los Feliz.
The Charlie Chaplin Cottages in Hollywood were under renovation when I stopped by (I interrogated the poor security guard on duty) and should be looking as good as new soon.
The Charlie Chaplin Cottages in Hollywood were under renovation when I stopped by (I interrogated the poor security guard on duty) and should be looking as good as new soon.
This Storybook in Encino is beautifully preserved and features many of the distinctive elements to look for, including: steep gables, wood shingles, turret entrance, stucco exterior, rounded windows, rounded eaves and irregular roof pattern. Looks like the front door has been changed out though.
This Storybook in Encino is beautifully preserved and features many of the distinctive elements to look for, including: steep gables, wood shingles, turret entrance, stucco exterior, rounded windows, rounded eaves and irregular roof pattern. Looks like the front door has been changed out though.
The less common commercial Storybook building. In this case, the Tam O'Shanter restaurant as it looked in the 1920s.
The less common commercial building in the Storybook architectural style. In this case, the Tam O’Shanter restaurant as it looked in the 1920s.

Tam O'Shanter restaurant in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles
The Tam O’Shanter restaurant as it appears today.

 

What are now called the "Snow White Cottages" are in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. They are located around the corner from what was the original Walt Disney Studios. Some believe they helped inspire the look of the Seven Dwarfs' cottages.
What are now called the “Snow White Cottages” are in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. They are located around the corner from what was the original Walt Disney Studios. Some believe they helped inspire the look of the Seven Dwarfs’ cottages.
The Spadena House, also known as the Witch's House, is probably the most famous example of Storybook architecture in the world. The whimsical house was originally part of a movie company. It now sits in Beverly Hills.
The Spadena House, also known as the Witch’s House, is probably the most famous example of Storybook architecture in the world. The whimsical house was originally part of a movie company. It now sits in Beverly Hills.

2 thoughts on “The Story Behind Storybook Architecture”

  1. I,m in awe of this architect designed home Mr. Vandruff built in the late 50’s Saw a lot in Buena park last week If the traffic wasn’t so bad We would sell our two homes in Naples fla. and Chesapeake Va. and move. into one of them. Janice LObello Chesapeake va, Hope Mr. Vandruff geets this message.

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