An Architectural Whimsical Treat: The Storybook Style

All buildings have stories (that’s my personal philosophy anyway). But some architectural styles are all about the story – such as the aptly-Storybook Style – a short-lived, whimsical flourishing of houses evocative of fairy tales, medieval Europe, and an architect’s fevered imagination. And, it all began in the land of movies – California.

The Spadena House in BeverlyHills, California is perhaps the most famous example of the Storybook Style. Photo Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons.

The Spadena House in Beverly Hills, California is perhaps the most famous example of the Storybook Style. Photo Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons.

Designed by Harry Oliver in 1921 as office and dressing rooms for a movie studio in Culver City, California, the Spadena House captures all of the fanciful movement and detail associated with the Storybook Style. (It has also been known as the “Witch House” throughout its existence.) Featured in a handful of silent films of the 1920s, the house was moved to Beverly Hills in 1934 and converted to a residence.

While the Spadena House might be considered the gem of the style, all Storybook houses draw inspiration from historic buildings in England and Europe, and share many traits with revival styles of the time, including the Tudor Revival. A few common traits include rolled eaves, jerkinhead gables, and a facade that extends out onto low wing walls – but the most important characteristic seems to be a sense of the fantastic.

The Frank Long House on Linden Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois.

The Frank Long House on Linden Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois.

On my recent pilgrimage to Oak Park, Illinois, I was prepared to be swept away by the Prairie style – and was wholly unprepared for the vision that caught my eye as we roamed the neighborhood. Designed by architect Leon Stanhope in 1924 for publisher Frank E. Long, this example of the Storybook Style is impossible to miss – the wavy “Hobbit” roof is unique and unmistakable. Other features of the facade include narrow mullioned windows (an element of the Tudor Revival style as well) – but the faux thatched roof is what catapults this house from an example of early 20th century revival styles into the realm of Storybook style. The Frank Long House is certainly singular in Oak Park.

The Tam O'Shanter Inn in Los Angeles, California.

The Tam O’Shanter Inn in Los Angeles, California was also designed by Harry Oliver.

Magazines, including The Home Designer and Garden Beautiful (published by architect W.W. Dixon, 1922-19226), helped popularize the Storybook Style and spread its influence west. I was intrigued by a 2001 publication, Storybook Style: America’s Whimsical Homes of the Twenties by Arroll Gellner and Douglas Keister, but although the author provides a context for the style and the book teems with gorgeous photographs, it lacks an index or any exploration of the geographic distribution of the style. But if you want to lose yourself for an hour or so in sumptuous images (both exterior and interior) of selected Storybook Style homes, then it is a treat of a book!

Sadly, the Storybook Style faded from popularity (even a niche popularity) by the 1930s…and I have no idea if there any modest examples of the style close at hand in Kentucky. But hunting down Storybook homes is yet another excellent excuse for detours and photo ops…

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  1. Susan Stopher says:

    On Trevillian Way in Louisville (west of Dundee on the right), is a possible storybook house. The roof was styled to look like thatch. The house was probably built in the 20s. I’ll try to get a picture and address today.

    It’s wonderful to hear that this is a specific style.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Oh cool! Please share a photo and the address if you are able to get by there. Thanks!

  2. Susan Stopher says:

    I’ve found 3houses and have addresses and pictures, but can’t get the photos to download to this comment spot. I’m quite excited about this finding and ordering the book you recommended. I’ll try just replying to the email with notices of your blog.

  3. Greg Wolski says:

    Greatly enjoyed your post – but especially on our home in Oak Park! Ring the bell when you visit Oak Park next time and we’ll try to share more of its history.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      You have a beautiful home – it was such a treat to see it (even if just from the sidewalk…). When I make it back to Oak Park, I will definitely ring the bell!

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