Happiest homes on earth
Local photographer documents Chico’s storybook style houses
Driving down Ninth Street in Chico, where the one-way Highway 32 corridor meets Pine Street, you’ve surely noticed a few homes with a distinct character and architectural style. The roofs slope at dramatic swooping angles. A couple have shingles that form waves. Window shapes, stucco and brickwork evoke the feeling of a French country house—maybe even a Disney movie.
Turns out there’s a name for this architecture: storybook style. One of the men who coined the term is a Chicoan, photographer Douglas Keister. He and Arrol Gellner—a Bay Area architect, author and columnist—traced the history of homes like these, which appear in cities nationwide but nowhere in an enclave such as Chico’s.
Their label has become an industry standard. Historical markers, such as the plaque at the Egasse-Braasch House in Los Angeles (where Ben Affleck and Matt Damon wrote Good Will Hunting), include the designator “Storybook Style.”
Keister and Gellner catalogued their findings in Storybook Style: America’s Whimsical Homes of the 1920s, first published in 2001 and revised for a second edition released this year. Since the update, Keister has been giving presentations about book—one of 43 he’s had published, many focused on various aspects of architecture—to groups in Southern California and, twice this month locally, at the Chico Museum and for Chico Rotary.
“Storybook style isn’t an academic style like Arts and Crafts or Victorian—I’m kind of the one who determines,” Keister said with a laugh during a recent interview. “What I usually say is something is a nod to storybook style or has storybook-style elements. … You kind of know it when you see it, once you get used to it.”
What are those elements? A storybook-style house: was typically built in the 1920s (no later than the early ’30s); has signs of artificial aging, such as worn bricks; shows the effects of gravity, such as the distinctly curved “cat-slide roof;” looks “handmade” with masonry or stucco; does not have a front porch; possesses “whimsy.”
“If you look at one and don’t smile, you’re clinically dead,” Keister said.
Not surprisingly, storybook style originated in Hollywood. Walt Disney was among the thousands of World War I veterans who came home having been exposed to European architecture, grand and quaint. He based Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle on Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, but even before then, set designers—most notably Harry Oliver—drew inspiration from Europe.
Oliver created the first storybook-style house in 1921 as the office for Willat Studios in Culver City. Known as the Spadena House, or the Witch’s House, it was moved to Beverly Hills in 1934 and remains intact.
Similar houses, cottages and bungalows popped up across Los Angeles. Coverage in architecture magazines led to construction of homes in Carmel, Oakland, Alameda, San Francisco, Louisville, Milwaukee and, of course, Chico.
Here, a developer named Orville Tracy (founder of Tracy Realty, which is still owned by his family) staked out property near the sawmill bounded by Eastwood Avenue, Pine Street, Eighth Street and Poplar Street. His new neighborhood, Eastwood Park, would have 41 homes in a variety of styles, but predominantly “English cottages” and “Romantic cottages.”
Keister and Gellner included an advertisement for Eastwood Park on the back cover of the book’s new edition.
This cluster of storybook-style homes, Keister said, is the “largest intact enclave” in the country. “That style migrated to other places in Chico,” he added—on a tour, he pointed to examples on blocks north of Eighth Street, on Woodland Avenue and on Arbutus Avenue.
Having the identifier catch on is “my little claim to fame,” Keister said. “It’s kind of cool. So when you see a plaque and it says ‘storybook style,’ you can thank Arrol and I for that.”