California Whimsy: Building Storybook Fantasies

Que, Erin, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Nelson, Louis, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
Wilson, Richard, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
Crane, Sheila, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia

In 1920s and 1930s California, a new architectural style emerged with exaggerated, whimsical, or theatrical qualities, evocative of medieval Europe. It appeared most often in houses or bungalow courts. Historians in the 1970s described this architecture as “dollhouse” or “Hansel and Gretel.” More recently, authors use the term Storybook Style, likely because writers often used storybook and fairytale references to explain the architecture. In the midst of California bungalows and Spanish Colonial Revival buildings this is an odd occurrence. This thesis is an examination of the two decades of architectural production in California during which this previously understudied architectural phenomenon emerged.

Two million Americans migrated to California in the decade of the 1920s. As a result of new money and new opportunity, the state rapidly developed. Concurrently, with the rise of the film industry, there was increasing creativity in design through the intermingling of set designers and architects, and greater exposure to other countries, cultures, and worlds through films. There was also increased and improved production of children’s books, especially fairy tales, featuring highly imaginative designs. The architecture suggested a desire to return to the world of the child and created a romantic atmosphere. This thesis will argue that this so-called storybook architecture materialized as a specific product of the California context, though the particular attributes of the style do not readily indicate California.

Chapter One examines California in the 1920s and proposes that storybook architecture offered a third alternative to the prevailing trends of Spanish Colonial Revival and Modernism. Chapter Two investigates the advent of the film industry in Los Angeles and its impact on the development of this architectural tradition. Chapter Three explores the simultaneous development of storybook architecture in San Francisco, the impact of children’s book illustrations on the architecture of Carmel, and the other key designers in the area. Chapter Four will address the perpetuation of storybook elements through Dixon plans and advertisements. Thus, it was the confluence of events and ideas in California that gave this type of revival architecture a strong footing, resulting in the largest collection of storybook architecture in this state alone.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
Studio Court, Arrol Gellner, David Gebhard, Sidney and Noble Newsom, Hansel and Gretel architecture, Stonehenge Apartments, American architecture, Spadena House, Wallace Neff, Edmund Dulac, 1920s architecture, Oakland, Los Angeles, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Berkeley, Kay Nielsen, Harry Oliver, domestic architecture, Carr Jones, 20th century architecture, Irvin V. Willat, California architecture, courtyard housing, storybook architecture, set design, revival architecture, children’s book illustrations, F. Pierpont and Wallace S. Davis, Arthur Rackham, Normandy Gardens, Hugh Comstock, Lee Gottfried, Disney Court, William R. Yelland, Hollywoodland, Carmel, Walter Wilbur Dixon, Alice in Wonderland, Michael J. Murphy, Hollywood, Willat Studios
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