The Conrads' Hansel-and-Gretel home (now also known among devotees as a "hobbit house"), with its mock thatched roof and heavy rolled eaves, half-timbering and leaded glass windows, is a classic example of Storybook style, a whimsical type of architecture that emerged in Los Angeles with the burgeoning movie industry in the 1920s.
"Storybook houses are an outgrowth of the blurred line of fantasy and reality that is particular to Los Angeles," says Trudi Sandmeier, a preservationist at the Los Angeles Conservancy. The style pops up across the country, she notes, but it never attained the popularity it enjoyed in L.A. (and to some degree in Northern California). But the trend was short-lived; construction of Storybook-style houses all but stopped by the late 1930s.
Though many fine Storybook structures, which include places that appear to be hobbit houses, witch's dens, fairy-tale castles and village courts, have been destroyed (just three are designated landmarks in Los Angeles), others still sprinkle the town.
At a time when midcentury Modern is the pinnacle of hip living, when Neutra and Schindler are considered gods by architecture buffs, and when light and space are in high demand, the Storybook style has never seemed more out of fashion. A house with tiny windows, dark and cozy little rooms, and an inherent sense of humor is the opposite of cool. But it's close to heaven to some.
The Conrads drove by their distinctive cottage for five years, looking at it longingly and always telling each other, "Now, I could live there." When the house eventually came on the market, a tour of the inside — with its heavy exposed beams, charming nooks and crannies and stone fireplace — convinced them to make an offer. "We were bowled over," says Jack, a laid-back, rosy-cheeked songwriter and musician who also has a company that creates music applications for computers. They bought the house in 1974 and plan on leaving, Jack says, "feet first."
Before buying this modest 1,500-square-foot cottage, the Conrads lived in a huge two-story house without a lot of charm. "Big places remind us of hotel lobbies," Jack says. "It's just the two of us, and we don't need anything bigger than this," says Michelle. Since giving away their large-scale furniture, the couple has filled the tiny rooms of their cozy space with a haphazard assortment of comfortable pieces and antiques collected along the way. The couple didn't set out to furnish their house "hobbit style" (whatever that might have entailed), but they ended up with a décor that anyone would find inviting.
The house posed another decorating challenge apart from its quaint scale. "There are seven doors, a bank of windows and a fireplace in the living room," Michelle notes. "The traffic patterns here can be challenging."
Whoever built the house in 1934 (and its twin just up the street) used quality materials and solid techniques. "We've replaced all the electrical and the plumbing since we've been here, but after 30 years, that's just regular maintenance," Michelle says. The kitchen was dark when they bought it, so the Conrads tore out a bank of cabinets and had a friend replace it with leaded windows to match the existing windows. As he worked, he taught Jack how to do it. "After about 60 years, leaded windows get worn out," Jack explains. "The lead oxidizes and becomes thin, and the glass gets funky as well." Room by room, he has since replaced every window in the house.
The roof required more expertise. On a friend's recommendation, the Conrads hired carpenter Bob Coleman to replace the original bent-and-burned cedar-shake roof with the requisite composite shingles. Working closely with the Conrads, he re-created the wavelike pattern of the original by using three or four times the number of shingles needed for a regular roof. "We kept going down to get more and more shingles," Jack remembers. "We're lucky they didn't run out."
Since they've been there, the couple have maintained the lush garden — a terraced fairy-tale landscape complete with a waterfall, a pond and a misshapen brick pathway that curves up and away to imagined hinterlands. Friends, who have dubbed the place "Conrad Springs," say coming to the house is like going on vacation. "It's a comfortable hang," Jack agrees.
As parking lots started replacing homes on her Culver City street, Martha Joseph scrambled to save her home and her late husband's legacy from being razed. The eye-catching Storybook complex, one of the best-known examples of Storybook style, was designed and built by Lawrence Joseph starting in 1946. It is remarkable, says the conservancy's Sandmeier, in that it is "the expression of one man's creativity come to life."
Martha Joseph obtained landmark status for the property, then donated an easement on the complex to the Los Angeles Conservancy. She died last year knowing that it would never be torn down.
When people are passionate about the Storybook style, they'll pay a premium for it, says Beverly Hills Realtor Michael Libow. "Given the paucity of availability, that could be an additional 5% or 10%" on top of market value, he says. But if the person isn't particularly interested in the style, "they'll want to pay according to the square footage of the house and of the lot." It's these homes that are often razed to make room for more contemporary abodes. Unless, that is, somebody swoops in to save them.
Libow knows this all too well. In 1997, the fabled Spadena House in Beverly Hills, the most famous Storybook house in Los Angeles, came on the market, and Libow started showing it to clients. "All anyone wanted to do was to tear it down," he laments.
The Witch's House, as it's known locally, with its pointy, lopsided roof, tiny windows with shutters that seemed to cling on for dear life, and stucco with a distressed paint job, all surrounded by an overgrown English-style garden and a moat-like pond, wasn't the home most people dreamed about owning. It didn't just look old, it looked entirely dilapidated. And since it sat on a prime corner lot in the flats of Beverly Hills, it wasn't cheap. A tear-down was almost inevitable.
But Libow couldn't let that happen. "I grew up in Beverly Hills," he says, "and I always loved the structure." So, against his better professional judgment, he bought it (at lot value) and is now in the long process of restoring it to its former ramshackle glory. Though nobody wanted to buy — and keep — the house when it was on the market, a lot of people were furious when the black fencing went up around the property. "I got some hate mail from people who thought I was going to tear it down," Libow says. "The house holds a special place in people's hearts."
Like many proud owners, Libow researched the history of his Storybook house. But unlike the others, he was actually able to find a lot of background: It was built in 1921 by Harry Oliver — a studio art director and premier builder of Storybook-style homes — to house the offices and dressing rooms of the Willat movie studio. The house was moved from its original Culver City location to Beverly Hills in 1934. Just two families had lived in it since, first the Spadenas, then the Greens, who gave the interiors a 1960s makeover. It needed revamping inside — and out. By the time Libow bought the house, it didn't just look as if it was falling apart; it truly was.
He planned on making the place livable by remodeling the kitchen and bathroom, installing heating and repairing some leaks. Then he met Nelson Coates, who, like the original builder, works in the movie industry. Coates, a studio production designer (whose credits include Stephen King's "The Stand"), talked with Libow about the home's fantastic possibilities, and the plans changed. Now, almost five years later, the house is nearing the end of a complete peak-to-moat restoration.