The adjective storybook as applied to a house or cottage is the stuff of fairy tales, a collective notion about what a timelessly romantic, cozy, charming, dreamy little home is supposed to look like. But Storybook architecture (note the capital S) is also a niche building style that was created in Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century and spread throughout the United States, where these eye-catching life-sized gingerbread houses still capture the imagination of kids of all ages.
What Is a Storybook House?
Storybook-style houses (also called Fairytale, Hansel and Gretel, or the more formal Provincial Revivalism) are whimsical structures built in the U.S. in the early 20th century that riff on traditional medieval European cottage architecture as reinterpreted through a fantastical Hollywood set design lens.
History of Storybook Houses
Storybook architecture in the United States originated in Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century. Borrowing elements from popular Tudor and Tudor Revival, Gothic, English cottage, and French Norman Revival styles, Storybook homes, apartment complexes, and occasional commercial buildings were less a revival of any particular style and more of a reimagining, amounting to a cartoonish pastiche of centuries of European cottage architecture rendered with cinematic flair.
In Los Angeles, the film capital of the world, a spate of Storybook architecture made its debut in the 1920s and 1930s. This was in large part thanks to the city’s population of Hollywood art directors, who used their set building skills to create what would become landmark buildings for wealthy clients with Hollywood money looking to show off. These scene-stealing structures made news across the country, and Storybook architecture spread north to Berkeley, CA and across the U.S., turning heads wherever it went.
However, Storybook architecture has always been a niche market. What's more, this ultimately short-lived architectural style was stifled by the Great Depression and later supplanted by simpler, less elaborately built styles. Nevertheless, original Storybook homes continue to surprise, delight, and inspire a select group of eccentric architects, home owners, and builders today.
Key Characteristics of Storybook Houses
Constructed from simple materials such as stucco, brick, and half-timbering, the Storybook house exterior is built to create a faux distressed look, using aging techniques to lend it a sense of history and timelessness.
The roof is one of the most expressive elements of a Storybook design and is often deeply pitched and/or thatched. It often seems to have an undulating sense of movement thanks to the application of shingles in wavy patterns. The roof often includes multiple gables and pointed or rolled eaves, and may include turrets and dovecotes.
The structure is typically asymmetrical, with an assemblage of individual features that look hand cobbled together. Storybook homes often features rounded, arched doors and windows. Windows are often mismatched rather than uniform, such as a mix of arched and tall windows in rows, and may include eyebrow dormers, stained or leaded glass, and window boxes.
Landscaping is sometimes intentionally overgrown to enhance the Storybook effect, with climbing ivy, and secret gardens.
Interiors feature quirky layouts, with walls and rooms that aren’t square or rectangular, but frequently feature curved, sloping walls covered in textured hand plaster finishes.
Notable Examples of Storybook Architecture
The Spadena House in Beverly Hills, CA
Erected in 1921 by prolific Hollywood art director Harry Oliver, the Spadena House was purpose built to function as office space and dressing rooms for Culver City silent film studio Willat Studios. Later moved to Beverly Hills where it became a private residence, this L.A. landmark is today considered a quintessential example of Storybook architecture that has been affectionately nicknamed The Witch’s House (a reference to Hansel and Gretel).
Charlie Chaplin Bungalows in Los Angeles, CA
Designed by architects Arthur and Nina Zwebell, these Storybook bungalow apartments built around a common inner courtyard were commissioned by Charlie Chaplin in 1923 to house himself as well as cast and crew such as Judy Garland and Rudolph Valentino while they were filming on set at his nearby film studio on La Brea Avenue.
Snow White Cottages in Los Feliz, California
The 1931 Snow White Cottages were designed by architect Ben Sherwood, just a few blocks from the original Disney Studios location in Los Feliz, CA. This collection of eight Storybook cottages is said to have served as inspiration for Disney’s 1937 movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and remain an L.A. landmark.
Meares H. The Spellbinding Storybook Houses of Los Angeles. Curbed LA.