The Dingbat: An Appreciation

Southern California is home to some of the best examples of architecture out there. We have Spanish Colonial revival, Tudor, Arts and Crafts—everything.

Dingbat apartment buildings get their name from the kitchy fonts used to announce a building’s nam

But there is another style of architecture that is absolutely everywhere and frequently overlooked. You’ve seen it but probably didn’t know what it’s called. But it’s Dingbat apartments! That’s right. Dingbat. They’re the stucco apartments that practically blanketed Southern California during the 1950s and 1960s. They get their name because many of the buildings had various kitschy fonts on the front spelling out names like “The Palm” or “The Camelot.” No one knows where the term originally came from but architecture historian Reyner Banham popularized it in the 1970s.

People often look down on Dingbat apartments and call them names like “ugly,” “cheap,” “cookie cutter” or “formulaic.” But I love Dingbats because they’re such an integral part of our region’s history. In fact, I lived in one for 14 years. (They were also popular in places like Nevada, Florida, Arizona and Hawaii. Really, they’re all over the place.)

Here in California, the population boomed after World War II. Aging structures—often older and crumbling single-family homes or duplexes—gave way to apartment buildings as a way of accommodating the influx. Because they went up so quickly and in such great numbers, they sometimes lack the craftsmanship seen in buildings from the first half of the twentieth century. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have value or tell a story.

Here are some style elements that are also representative of their time.

Dingbat are known for boxy shapes, clean lines and car ports.

Straight Lines and Simplicity
More complicated, curvy or architecturally creative buildings would drive up prices so Dingbats used simple structures to keep construction costs down. In turn, these apartments were typically affordable for middle income folks to rent.

Short, Square Structures
Generally, Dingbat apartments were two- or three-story boxy buildings. Each unit had its own door that opened to the outside to give the appearance of single-residence living, like a house, instead of one general door on the front of a building. If apartments had balconies they were usually square and is in with the overall straight-lined motif.

A classic Dingbat complete with carport, name printed on the front and decorative starbursts.
A classic Dingbat complete with carport, name printed on the front and decorative starbursts.

Carports and Garages
The 1950s and 1960s was the era of America’s car culture and Dingbats offered something many of its multi-residence building predecessors did not—carports and garages. The first level was usually devoted to cars and could even fit the larger vehicles of the day.

Ornamental Touches in the Front
Some, but not all, Dingbats have decorative elements on the front that were popular at the time, such tiki, space or mid-century motifs. Other elements might include starbursts, carriage lamps, tiles, rock. There were all kinds of things. These elements, along with the cursive script that announced the building’s name, tried to create a fantasy feel to the building.

Another Dingbat style in which there is an entrance to a courtyard-shape complex. Dingbats displayed a remarkable versatility.
Another Dingbat style in which there is an entrance to a courtyard-shape complex. Dingbats displayed a remarkable versatility.

Today, you’ll find some people singing the praises of Dingbat apartments and others making fun or ridiculing them. To be fair, while some of them have been lovingly maintained, an even greater number have aged poorly. And what a shame because they can be great. But however you want to look at them, here’s the thing: Dingbat apartments actually worked. They were a terrific option for all types of people and families. They offered something for everyone; the newly arrived out-of-towner; the family; the first apartment; the commuter. They offered nice amenities at affordable prices.

Today we see a huge resurgence of Mid-century Modern aesthetics and Dingbats are a part of that heritage. Maybe a less glamorous cousin to what we think of as Midcentury Modern, but an important part of the heritage nonetheless!

3 thoughts on “The Dingbat: An Appreciation”

  1. I work in an area surround by apartment neighborhoods of just this type. Yes, I thought of them as cheap but I will now look at them with a new appreciation.

  2. Wow! I always thought these were sort of the basic apartment one might be “stuck with” in a sense, but now I have a completely new appreciation for them. This info Should be handed out to every new resident of one!

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