True to its name, the Storybook or Fairy Tale House architectural style evokes an air of whimsy, playfulness, and Old World charm. It’s defined not by strict rules, but by an overall atmosphere. The birthplace of the style, however, is far removed from the picturesque villages Storybook homes imitate.
Rural Romanticism, Hollywood Style
Architects term the style Provincial Revivalism because it draws inspiration from the architecture and folklore found throughout the countryside regions of Europe and, to a lesser extent, the Middle and Far East. With no time period or regional norms to adhere to, it blends elements from medieval Tudor cottages, low German hall houses, Russian country homes, and various modern revival movements as well as folklore imagery.
The style got its start shortly after WWI, when American soldiers returned from Europe enchanted by the romantic architecture of the continent’s countryside. It first took root in Los Angeles, California, a city then emerging as a hub for talented craftspeople and artists seeking their fortune as set designers in the burgeoning film industry. Many of these artisans found work designing for newly wealthy film moguls and stars who were eager to splash out for luxurious homes that displayed their status and reflected their extravagant artistic tastes. The convergence of the two groups lead to an upsurge in opulent homes in a range of revival styles.
The Storybook style is part of this movement, but it differs in several significant ways. Whereas most revival styles aim to bring back elements of past architectural styles in a largely authentic way, the Storybook style has no pretensions to authenticity. It uses exaggerated forms, artificial aging, and above all, a dreamy and exuberant blend of elements, sometimes verging into the sentimental. In fact, some techniques used in Storybook home building, such as curved surfaces and artificial aging, are straight from the Hollywood set designer’s handbook.
In 1921, Danish-born artist Einar C. Petersen designed the Petersen Studio Court on L.A.’s Beverly Boulevard. Although often considered the pioneering example of the Storybook style, the unassuming bungalow garnered relatively little attention.
That same year, art director Harry Oliver gave the city the much more elaborate Spadena House, also known as the Witch’s House, in Beverly Hills. Thanks to the building’s appearance in a number of silent films in the 1920s, it captured the public’s imagination in a way the Petersen Studio Court hadn’t.
In 1922, Van De Kamp’s Dutch Bakers co-founder Lawrence Frank commissioned Oliver to dream up a building that would bring an equal amount of attention to his bakery. Oliver fulfilled that wish with the quaintly ramshackle Tam O’Shanter Inn, thereby earning his place as the founder of Storybook style.
Designers began calling the style Romance Revival, but soon switched to the more descriptive term Hansel and Gretel-style. Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, homes in the Storybook House architectural style were popping up all over Los Angeles to spreading to Berkeley, Oakland, and elsewhere along the West Coast, and even making appearances as far away as New York and Florida.
The trend was short-lived, though. By the early 1930s, as the Great Depression took its toll on the construction industry and tastes turned toward functional, minimalist architecture, the public largely lost interest in fanciful fairy tale homes. While many original Storybook houses live on as well maintained landmarks, today, the style has only a niche following.
Identifying Storybook House Architecture
The Storybook House architectural style stands out for its sheer capriciousness. Homes in this style are heavily asymmetrical and incorporate a medley of decorative flourishes with plenty of cozy hidden nooks. Their features are artfully mismatched and misshapen, with distressed wood and masonry, all designed to imitate the look of a rustic folk building plucked from an ancient village.
Roof design is where this style really shines. Most Storybook houses are topped with steeply pitched, sometimes swaybacked, cross-gabled roofs adorned with multiple dormers to add irregularity. Clipped gables, reminiscent of Tudor Revival bungalows, are a popular feature. Towers and turrets with conical roofs, spires, and decorative chimneys crowned with chimney pots sprout from these roofs.
On cottage-style Storybook houses, you’ll often find rolled eaves that recall the thatched roofs of rural English cottages. Roofs on these homes are usually covered with wood shingles in undulating or warped patterns that further contribute to the thatched roof look. On the other hand, architects aiming for a Far Eastern look might use pointed eaves and tiles.
Windows and doors on Storybook houses draw heavily from the medieval Tudor style. Tall, narrow windows are favored and typically arranged in groups of three or positioned to peek out from unexpected places. These are often multi-pane casement windows, particularly in mullioned and diamond-paned leaded styles. Doors are often arched or half-round and adorned with ornate handles and hinges. Some homes feature intricately carved wood trim around the windows and doors, and along the roof line, a nod to traditional Russian architecture.
Decorative half-timbering, inspired by the rural German hall house, is another common feature. Columns and colonnades, while not common, sometimes appear on more streamlined Storybook houses. Siding is most often masonry. Clinker brick, with its appealing rough, mottled surface, is a favorite, as is decorative stone work. Stucco is also popular, with wood shingle and lap siding close behind.
Whatever the finish, the colors are almost universally browns, grays, deep reds, amber, and other earthy shades, rather than bright candy colors. The exterior is dressed up with finishing touches such as carvings, wrought iron, elaborate light fixtures, and other decor in unconventional designs.
The Storybook House architectural style makes for a captivating small home, but building one isn’t cheap. The irregular floorplan and roof make it more labor-intensive to construct than standard homes, and the style’s artful irregularity requires meticulous attention to detail to ensure the building is structurally sound. The hand-crafted embellishments and decor common on these homes further add to the cost.
If you’re considering building a Storybook home, starting with an existing house plan based on this architectural style will help you keep your budget under control. If you’re more interested in recognizing these homes, understanding their influences and common design elements will help you spot them in the neighborhoods of L.A. and elsewhere.