A gray-and-white kitten stares out of a heavily ornamented triptych window. A red collar around its furry neck mimics the red wooden trim framing the window’s exterior. The cat is a resident of what appears to be a slightly sinister, yet charming, medieval cottage. But this is not Sherwood Forest. It’s Dunn Street, in the middle of bustling, decidedly modern Palms.
The cottage is part of a complex commonly called the Hobbit Houses, one of the best surviving examples of a peculiar offshoot of revival architecture—known as the fairytale or storybook style—that has attracted curious passersby since its evolution in the 1920s.
According to historian and architect Arrol Gellner, author of Storybook Style: America’s Whimsical Homes of the Twenties, this dramatic, strange architectural fad consists of structures designed in an exaggerated medieval or otherwise “exotic” style, with features like thatching, crooked walls, and swayback roofs. Artificial aging of finishes and use of ancient artisanal decorative motifs are also important components.
Ironically, this light-hearted style sprang out of one of the bloodiest conflicts in the world. “The Great War sent many young American soldiers to Europe for the first time, and many came back charmed by the romantic architecture of rural France and Germany,” Gellner says.
The development in the halftone process also brought photographs to magazines, replacing old-fashioned engravings. For the first time the public could easily view “exotic” locations and architecture in Europe and elsewhere. “This meant the public could view European architecture, and even more exotic Middle Eastern, Indian, and Egyptian architecture as it really was, not as fancifully interpreted by illustrators,” Gellner says.
Capitalizing on America’s newfound fascination with mysterious lands became a guaranteed money maker for the rapidly expanding movie industry.
“Hollywood, as always giving the public what they wanted, began cranking out exotic stuff,” Gellner says. Films like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Robin Hood, set in historic time periods and featuring recreated foreign locations, were smash hits. “The backdrops constructed for these films were works of art in themselves, and many of the same techniques were eventually applied to storybook style buildings,” he says.
By the 1920s, Los Angeles was filled with talented craftspeople and artists from across the globe, lured by studio work. The city was flush with dramatic, newly monied movie moguls and stars looking for luxurious living quarters befitting their new status. Los Angeles became a paradise of unique revival styles of architecture. Picturesque, idealized versions of everything from Mediterranean villas to Spanish Missions and Greek Revival plantations began to pop up everywhere.
In 1921, Einar C. Petersen, a Swiss-trained Danish artist, designed and built the still-standing Petersen Studio Court on Beverly Boulevard, considered the forerunner of the storybook style. The cottage community was based on Petersen’s hometown, the port of Ebeltoft, Denmark, a fishing village known for its ancient half-timbered houses and cobblestone streets. In what is now Koreatown, Studio Court’s eccentric caretaker would live on-site until his death at the age of 101, constantly adding on to his own little sliver of Denmark in LA.
But it was the equally unconventional Minnesota native Harry Oliver, the “father of the storybook style,” who would put this playful architectural genre on the map. One of the talented artists lured by movie work to Hollywood, Oliver became a celebrated art director on numerous silent films, working often with superstars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. According to a 1930 edition of the Los Angeles Times:
Harry Oliver probably has more field experience creating true atmospheric settings and locale for backgrounds of motion pictures than any other art director in Hollywood… Oliver has traveled in France, Italy, England and Ireland in search of colorful backgrounds for motion-picture productions. He spent some time in Italy designing the settings for Ben Hur.
Oliver would be nominated for Oscars for his art direction of Seventh Heaven and Angel Street. In the 1940s, he became a self-described “desert rat,” moving to the Coachella Valley and refashioning himself as an artist, writer, humorist, and preservationist. During his decades “haunting Palm Springs,” Oliver lived in a mud adobe called Fort Oliver, which he had made by hand.
But Fort Oliver was not Oliver’s first attempt at historically elaborated architectural design. Around 1920, Oliver designed the most iconic storybook structure in Los Angeles, now known as the Spadena House—or the Witch’s House, if you’re spooky.
This drooping, intentionally dilapidated, patchwork English-style cottage was constructed at 6509 Washington Boulevard in Culver City as part of the Willat Studios. The structure’s purpose was twofold: The interior contained offices and dressing rooms, while the exterior was to be used as an outdoor set. It was also used as a calling card for the short-lived Willat Studios, which featured it in ads in papers and trades. It was said that its unique style caused traffic accidents as people craned their necks to get another look.
After the house’s appearance in numerous silent pictures, including 1921’s The Face of the World, the studio and its quirky structure came into the possession of film producer Ward Lascelle, who converted it into a home. In the mid-’20s, the Lascelles moved the structure to Walden Avenue in Beverly Hills. The converted home soon became a local landmark. Postcards were printed featuring what was quickly dubbed the Witch’s House. Tour bus companies included it in their tours of movie stars’ homes, much to the chagrin of Lillian Lascelle, Ward’s wife. The Los Angeles Times reported:
It makes the ordinarily amiable Mrs. Lascelle so mad that she almost cries when she talks of it. “I don’t know what I can do about it, but if I find anything I can do, I am going to do it. You wait and see.”
But Lillian (whose second husband was named Spadena) and future owners would find that instead of dissipating, interest in the Witch’s House only grew as the years went on. According to LAist, Phil Savenick, president of the Beverly Hills Historical Society, recalled the scene outside the house during the Halloween season in the 1930s:
The greatest memory of the Witch’s House is that’s where all the kids would convene on Halloween, so sometimes they’d get 3,000 to 5,000 kids in front of the Witch’s House, looking for candy and some of them looking for mischief. That was the corner where the police would always go looking for kids who had eggs in their pockets or whatever nonsense they would do on Halloween, so it came to represent Beverly Hills at Halloween.
Today, the Witch’s House is owned by the real estate agent Michael Libow, who has had it lovingly restored. Oliver’s other storybook style masterpiece is also still an LA landmark. This is the famous Tam O’Shanter, originally called Montgomery’s County Inn, which was the brainchild of Lawrence Frank, one of the co-founders of Van de Kamp’s Dutch Bakers (Oliver would also design its iconic windmills). Frank hired Oliver in 1922 to design a building that would garner as much public attention as the Witch’s House, and Oliver delivered.
“Oliver borrowed many of his set-design tricks to give the Tam O’Shanter a venerable look,” Gellner writes in Storybook Style. “The building’s walls were purposely framed off-plumb, and its plasterwork was distressed to resemble aged masonry. Exposed timbers were first charred in a local lumberyard’s incinerator and then wire-brushed to produce the effect of great age.”
The fairytale architecture also served as a powerful promotional tool for those passing through sleepy Atwater Village. “The Tam O’Shanter … was on a stretch of Los Feliz Boulevard that was still rural in the 1920s,” Gellner says. “Harry Oliver’s design—which was more exotic in its original form than it is today—served to make sure motorists going 20 or 30 miles per hour couldn’t miss it.”
Soon the storybook style was proliferating all over Los Angeles, then in the midst of a massive building boom. The 1920s Hollywoodland development in Beachwood Canyon featured a civic center designed in storybook style and included fairytale cottages featuring accents including rubble stone chimneys and picturesque drawbridges. The style became particularly popular in Northern California, with mountains and forests perfect for a haunted cottage or mansion.
The style also probably inspired Walt Disney, then a small-time animator living in Los Feliz. Disney became a lifelong patron of Tam O’Shanter and included many stylized storybook structures in his films and parks.
“The old Disney studios on Hyperion Avenue were in the neighborhood of a well-known storybook enclave, ironically now known as ‘Disney Court,’ that predated the studio,” Gellner says. “It was probably seen by many a Disney background artist on the way to work, and it’s not unlikely that it might have inspired the background art in some early Disney work.”
Despite its faddish success, the heyday of the original storybook style would be brief. “By the early 1930s, the Great Depression had slowed all building to a crawl,” Gellner says. “The style’s popularity had been limited to begin with, and its over-the-top design made it date very rapidly in an era that was increasingly turning toward modernist architecture. By the mid-1930s, all revivalist architecture, and particularly the theatrical storybook work, was seen as embarrassingly outdated.”
But for eccentric designers, the fad would never end. In the 1950s and ’60s, former World War II fighter pilot and architect Jean Valjean Vandruff designed affordable tract homes that his wife, Eleanor, dubbed the “Cinderella House.” Variations of his $14,000 ranch-style cottage with storybook style elements like gables, shake roofs, and gingerbread trim would be built all over Orange County and suburban Los Angeles.
Then there are the Hobbit Houses, designed by Lawrence Joseph, a nautically obsessed carpenter and aerospace engineer who worked at Disney for two weeks before being escorted out of the studio, according to longtime resident Vince Tanzilli. In the 1940s, Joseph began creating his own fairytale land, which featured a fish-stocked pond, cottages with spooky exteriors, and interiors reminiscent of the cabin of boats, with plank flooring and built-in furniture. Joseph would officially complete the project in 1970, but tinkered with it until his death in 1991.
“He was a tough old bird,” says Tanzilli, who has heard many stories of Joseph during his tenancy. “He didn’t allow your parking anywhere in the courtyard; you had to put your car in your designated garage or carport. You didn’t, he would start rapping the top of your car with his cane until you came out and moved it; he gave you five minutes to unload your groceries but that was it. He used to jump in a sailboat and just take off for a week or so out in the sea.”
For almost two decades, Tanzilli has lived in a microscopic apartment of only 180 square feet. “I’ve always been interested in living in either a tiny house or a small sailboat,” Tanzilli says. “So, when I had this opportunity, I jumped on it. I was living across the street on Venice Boulevard in a regular apartment. When I first saw it, I was immediately enamored. I knew it would be perfect for me, then I found out the rent was only $450 a month.”
A new resident at the Hobbit Houses, who gave her name as Erica, had a similar story. “I used to work at Culver Studios, and five years ago, I’d always walk to this one sushi place, which no longer exists,” she says. “I’d always walk past here. And I was like, someday I’m going to live there. I’d go, and we’d look at the turtle pond, and I would just think, this is the most enchanting place.”
Years later, Erica hit pay dirt. “I was just bored one day at work because I just started working in Culver again and it was out of the blue,” she says. “It’s like, I’m just going to check Zillow. And they just posted it like a minute prior, and I was the first person to call.”
Living at the Hobbit Houses required a change of lifestyle. She had to fit her possessions in a one-bedroom apartment with a plethora of built-ins. She sold her dresser, dining room table, and chairs. “But I get to live in Snow White’s cottage,” she says.
For Gellner, the magic and playfulness of the storybook style harken back to the dreamy era when it was created. “For me, the storybook style exemplifies the exuberance of the 1920s,” he says. “It was an unapologetic era that loved theater. Take, for example, the Hollywood Sign, which originally read ‘Hollywoodland’ and was originally built to advertise a housing development in the hills below. How far would a 500-foot-long light-bulb-studded advertising sign get with the planning commission these days? It was also an era that didn’t take itself too seriously.”
It is the playful aspect of the storybook style that still entrances children and adults today. “The ‘secret sauce’ of intentional whimsy or humor are essential for a storybook house,” Gellner says. “These houses aren’t dry academic studies like so much revivalist architecture—they were meant to entertain. They’re really ice cream sundaes for the eye.”