And They All Lived Whimsically Ever After
Hansel and Gretel architecture may be a public menace in some quarters, but in this town it’s a cultural treasure. We speak here of the Petersen Studio Court, a.k.a. Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 552.
This sweetly wacky 1921 enclave of storybook cottages wedged between a thrift shop and a Korean restaurant on Beverly Boulevard is no mere representative sample. It’s an early forerunner of the 1920s fairy tale buildings scattered throughout L.A. that came to be known as “storybook” or “fantasy revival” style, according to architect Arrol Gellner, co-author of “Storybook Style” (Viking Studio, 2001). “Everybody was building Renaissance Revival and Craftsman style, so to make something all shaggy looking was a new idea at the time,” Gellner says.
The Studio Court is downright understated compared to later, no-holds-barred storybook buildings with over-the-top medieval flourishes such as turrets, front-gabled dormers and lopsided, undulating walls and roofs. Examples include the Tam O’Shanter restaurant in Los Feliz, the Spadena House in Beverly Hills and the Hollywoodland subdivision below the Hollywood sign. Gellner theorizes that the Petersen Studio Court’s creator, Danish artist Einar C. Petersen, pioneered storybook architecture in Los Angeles unintentionally. “It’s a bit of an anomaly,” Gellner says. “The really famous buildings of that style were influenced by the film industry and Hollywood, but Petersen predates all of that by a couple of years. He was the only guy that I came across who was from another country and actually based his design on his hometown” of Abletoft in Denmark. “Many of the other guys were set designers or contractors who were from here and perhaps copied something that they had seen in France or another country during World War I.”
But the place is far from whimsy-free. The court’s thatch-like wood-shingle roofs, half-timbering, batten doors and red window trims recall an old Scandinavian fishing village. Today an electric gate opens on a stone driveway and six dwellings, some with sky-blue framed windows or wood doors with decorative hardware.
Petersen lived and worked in one of the cottages until he died in 1986 at the age of 101. “It was really like an artists’ colony,” says Amy Inouye, a graphic designer who moved in a decade ago and lives in Petersen’s old quarters.
Petersen supplied the handcrafted details that became hallmarks of storybook style, painting his front door’s interior side with birds surrounded by scrolled leaves. Two nymphs were painted on the bathroom cabinets. “They’re the highlights of this whole place,” Inouye says. She also found several decorative wood panels in the closets and placed them around windows and above doorways.
Similar detailing graces a small office near the entrance of the complex, which Inouye rents as a storefront for her Chicken Boy novelty item business and the Little Angels Pug Rescue group. A mahogany wood ceiling and built-in shelves painted in a floral and geometric pattern accent the space.
Petersen studied art in Switzerland, then in the early 1910s immigrated to the U.S., where he worked primarily as a muralist. Most of his L.A. work has vanished, including murals for the original Clifton’s Cafeteria, razed in 1960. The Studio Court, still owned by his family, is his only architectural achievement.
In true storybook tradition, the Studio Court tale has a happy ending. Though Gellner estimates that the majority of L.A.'s storybook architecture has been demolished, the Petersen Studio Court is protected by its designation as a cultural monument. “Petersen may have just been pining for his hometown, but he ended up creating this great building that has managed to last through the years.”