Storybook stories

Posted: February 9th, 2018 | Columns, Feature, PastMatters, Top Story | No Comments

By Katherine Hon

Whimsical style has Hollywood roots

Although Craftsman and Spanish Revival bungalows dominate San Diego’s streetcar suburbs, the steep roofs, turrets, and half-timbering of Tudor Revival and French Norman styles also appear. These Period Revival styles gained popularity after World War I, as the general public became familiar with European structures, and builders developed inexpensive methods for adding a veneer of brick or stone to a wood frame building.

During the 1920s, castles, chateaus, and cottages inspired designers of apartments, single-family homes, and commercial buildings to abandon historical accuracy and follow the example of the growing film industry by cramming as many architectural details into one structure as possible.

The Wonder House of Stone, which dominates the intersection of Adams Avenue and North Talmadge Drive, was initially used as a sales office for the Talmadge Park subdivision from 1926 to 1929. (Photo by Katherine Hon)

It is here, at the intersection of design and fantasy, where the story of Storybook architectural style begins. Appropriately enough, Storybook style is rooted in a 1920s Los Angeles development named Hollywoodland. According to the 2016 Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey, Hollywoodland started in 1923 as a picturesque community with winding streets and quaint houses in the French Norman, English Tudor, Mediterranean and Spanish styles (or fanciful combinations of all of the above). The Great Depression of the 1930s halted the development. But the 50-foot-tall, 500-foot-long sign proclaiming “HOLLYWOODLAND” to advertise the community has lived on as a famous landmark without its last four letters, which were removed in the 1940s.

How can a home in classic Period Revival style be distinguished from Storybook? The Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey notes that Storybook buildings “are distinguished by exaggerated and playful interpretations of medieval forms … The roof is often designed to appear thatched with undulating and uneven shingles applied in waving patterns.” Other features include turrets, arched windows and doors, rubble stone or clinker brick, and multiple gables. The design is intended to evoke “quaintness, whimsy and an association with popular fairytales.” In other words, if Hansel and Gretel or Cinderella could live there, the style could qualify as Storybook.

This fanciful Tudor Revival/Storybook home at 4044 Hamilton St. is historically designated, as is its neighbor at 4050 Hamilton St. (Photo by Katherine Hon)

Storybook style is found throughout Los Angeles. But are there any homes in San Diego where Hansel and Gretel or Cinderella might live? Indeed, there are.

Hansel and Gretel would feel right at home in North Park at 3576 Villa Terrace, known by neighbors as the “Gingerbread House.” Ann Patterson and Allex Nellias have owned the house since 1997. The Storybook English cottage was designed by Home Builders Service Bureau in 1929, and the blueprints that Patterson and Nellias found rolled up in a cabinet drawer clearly call out for a “thatch roof effect.” The charming roof, asymmetrical frontage, brickwork and multiple gables are all distinguishing Storybook features.

The first owner of 3576 Villa Terrace was Earl Robinson. He owned a trucking business — Case and Robinson — with William Case, his father-in-law. Robinson sold the house and moved his family to Ocean Beach in 1943 after he was severely fined for sugar hoarding in violation of World War II rationing laws. (Perhaps he was unduly influenced by the spirits of Hansel and Gretel.)

The current owners of 3576 Villa Terrace are dedicated to preserving the home’s charming Storybook character. (Photo by Katherine Hon)

Cinderella might enjoy the “Wonder House of Stone” as a summer home. This house at 4386 Adams Ave. was designed by Ralph Hurlburt in the style of a French chateau and built in 1926. Though more grand than whimsical, it nevertheless holds strong Hollywood movie industry connections. The home served as the architectural focal point for the Talmadge Park subdivision, which was an expansion of the Kensington neighborhood undertaken by developer Roy C. Lichty and investors who included Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive Louis B. Mayer and theater owner Sid Grauman. Furthering the associations with Hollywood, the subdivision was named after three sisters — Norma, Constance and Natalie Talmadge — who were silent film stars of the day; Natalie was the wife of silent film star Buster Keaton.

The development of Kensington is documented with more than 200 vintage photographs in “San Diego’s Kensington” from Arcadia Publishing. Written by local authors Alexandra and Kiley Wallace of Legacy 106, an archaeology and historic preservation consulting firm, and Margaret McCann, a neighborhood historian, the book can be found in shops along Adams Avenue, including Kensington Brewing Company and the BENCH Home fine decorating store.

Based on her historic preservation consulting experience in various San Diego neighborhoods, Alexandra Wallace identified additional homes that bring fairy tales to mind. These include 4044 and 4050 Hamilton St. in University Heights, 4552 East Talmadge Drive in Kensington, 2150 Sunset Blvd. in Mission Hills, 3268 Brant St. near Bankers Hill, and 3557 3rd Ave. in Hillcrest. Each one is a treasure with its own unique story.

—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at or 619-294-8990.

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