Originally published February 14, 2013 at The Los Angeles Beat
We’ve established again and again that Los Angeles is a city of dreams and dreamers. A city where the yellow brick road does lead to the sparkling city of Oz for many. It is a city of recreated realities. That is why it isn’t too peculiar that a form of architecture called Storybook style took an odd foothold here in the 1920’s-1930’s and rarely cropped up in force anywhere else in the United States. This architectural style was prompted by fantasy and magic; our bright blue, sunny skies formed a perfect backdrop.
While there is no specific definition of what makes a house Storybook style, the main factor may be a sense of playfulness and whimsy. Most seemed snapped out of a craggy old-world village with intentionally uneven roofs, lots of cobblestone, doors and windows which may look mismatched and odd-shaped. This style was contemporary with Walt Disney and his fledging animation studio and it is possible that these houses may have contributed in some way to his fairytale creations.
Here are some of the more well-known Storybook houses that still exist in Los Angeles. There are dozens more that are scattered around the city. If you look hard enough you will probably find one in your neighborhood.
The Witch’s House (516 Walden Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210)
This Storybook architectural-style house was one of the first of its kind, built in 1921 by Hollywood art director Harry Oliver. Oliver worked on more than 30 films between 1919-1938 as art director, art department & as set decorator. The Witch’s House was originally built to function as offices and dressing rooms for Culver City silent film studio, Willat Studios. It was moved to Beverly Hills in either 1926 or 1934 (accounts vary) and converted into a private home. Designed with a lopsided roof, tiny windows (no two are alike!), overgrown English-style garden, functioning moat and fairytale bridge, it looks like something out of a Hansel & Gretel story. Neighbors in this upscale neighborhood have not always been pleased with this house. Considering it an eyesore in the land of McMansions, they have tried to have it torn down at various points in its long history. Luckily, its current owner is in love with the property and has taken special care to restore it to it’s original condition.
Harry Oliver also designed more Storybook madness. Both the Tam O’ Shanter restaurant (built in 1922) on Los Feliz Blvd and Van de Kamp bakery’s trademark windmill buildings were due to Harry’s architectural vision.
Charlie Chaplin Cottages (1330 N. Formosa Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90046)
This collection of four quaint little European- style cottages was commissioned by silent screen legend Charlie Chaplin. It was built in 1923 by Arthur and Nina Zwebell, a husband-and-wife architectural team. It functioned as living spaces for film luminaries such as Judy Garland, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, John Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin himself and other actors who filmed at Chaplin’s nearby studios on La Brea Avenue.
Entering the courtyard is a magical journey, it is fascinating to look at the cobblestone walkways, crooked roofs, old world shingles, beveled glass and to dream of the history you are breathing in. It now functions as a collection of apartments occupied by musicians and artists. If you are lucky enough to meet one of the current residents, as I did, you may be regaled by fascinating ghost stories or of the crazy parties of the long ago occupants.
The Snow White Cottages (2900 block of Griffith Park Blvd, L.A., CA 90027)
Designed and built in 1931 by architect Ben Sherwood, these 8 craggy roofed cottages and old European-style tower housed animators at Walt Disney’s original studio, which was located a few blocks away. Apparently census records prove that at least one of the animators who resided here in the late 1930s was centrally involved in helping make the 1937 animated classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It is believed that these cottages may have provided direct artistic inspiration for the dwarves cottages in the film.
Later on, cottage number 2906 housed tortured indie musician Elliot Smith, who did much writing here before his controversial suicide. These cottages were also used as a location in the 2001 David Lynch film Mulholland Drive. Currently functioning as rental properties, they are lived in by mostly artistic types.
The Hobbit House (3819 Dunn Drive, Culver City, CA 90232)
Disney artist Joseph Lawrence worked on his dream house for 24 years. Built from 1946 to 1970, he constructed several unique round roof cottages in a lot he owned in Culver City. Comprised of odd shaped windows with leaded glass, rustic stone-hewn walls, a rough cut cupola, and sloping, uneven roof tiles this small cluster of buildings has been dubbed The Hobbit House. Surrounded by a jagged fence and a magical looking pond with turtles, it is truly a whimsical creation. Like many of the others, this house has been converted into apartments.