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Storybook Architecture

The whimsical fairy tale architectural style of 1920s southern California.

Before the eye-catching styles of Tiki or Googie, the playful architectural style of southern California was Storybook. In the 1920s & ‘30s people looked to fairy tales and European provincial architecture for inspiration.

Storybook architecture is difficult to pin down but whimsy is certainly a unifying element. Crooked roofs, off kilter windows, rustic masonry, slightly askew fences – storybook ever so slightly warps & twists buildings to be a fantastical altered version of reality.

spadena house
The Spadena House today, a witch house sitting in the middle of Beverly Hills.
spadena house 1921
The Spadena House when it was originally an office in 1921.

Perhaps the most famous example of storybook is the Spadena House (aka the Witch’s House) in Beverly Hills. Built in 1921 it was designed by Hollywood art director & humorist Harry Oliver. The house originally served as an office for director Irvin Willat in Culver City but in 1926 it was moved and became the home it is today. Oliver also designed the storybook style Tam O’Shanter Inn, a Scottish themed restaurant. Opened in 1922 it was popular with both Walt Disney and his animators and influenced the art direction of 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

the Tam O'Shanter in 1922
The Tam O’Shanter’s original exterior in 1922, when it was called Montgomery’s Country Inn.
Charlie Chaplin Studios
Charlie Chaplin Studios in the early 20th century.
Charlie Chaplin Studios today as Jim Henson Company Lot
Charlie Chaplin Studios today as Jim Henson Company Lot. As a nod to the past Kermit atop the tower is dressed as Chaplin’s famous character the Tramp.
the Hobbit Houses of Palms, LA
The Lawrence and Martha Joseph Residence and Apartments, aka the “Hobbit Houses”.
the Hobbit Houses of Palms, LA
The turtle pond of the Hobbit Houses.

Other examples of storybook architecture include Charlie Chaplin Studios (today Jim Henson Company Lot), Lawrence Joseph’s “Hobbit Houses”, as well as the Snow White Cottages which were so nick named because they too were said to have influenced the art direction of Snow White. The Snow White Cottages were also briefly home to Elliott Smith and can be seen in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

As the Great Depression hit, and other styles were born, storybook architecture faded out.

Added info: Harry Oliver’s creativity & humor took many forms. Over the decades he designed buildings in a variety of playful styles that would have been right at home in Disneyland. In his desert rat persona living in the Borrego Valley just south of Palm Springs he had a bit of fun crafting fake peglegs and scattering them around the desert. It was his practical joke to lead tourists to think they may have stumbled upon a clue to the Lost Pegleg Mine of 19th century Thomas Long “Pegleg” Smith (Pegleg Smith later was a character in Oregon Trail II).

Sunday Morning takes a tour through the Spadena House.