From the Archives: Curiosity for rent: Snow White cottages in Los Feliz

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When Sylvia Helfert considered buying eight storybook cottages in 1976, her friends said she was crazy to spend so much money on old pieces of junk. Newly divorced in her 50s and pressed for cash, Helfert gambled and offered $140,000 for the 1931 Los Feliz property that Roque & Mark Real Estate had listed for $160,000.

“In five minutes they accepted,” said Helfert, 91, a longtime Marina del Rey resident. “It was the first thing I ever owned by myself.”

Turn the historic pages of Los Angeles’ storybook style architecture and you’ll discover -- appropriately enough -- stories. Here are a few behind Helfert’s property in the 2900 block of Griffith Park Boulevard, designed by Ben Sherwood and called the Snow White cottages or the Seven Dwarfs cottages by locals:


1. Storybook roofs can be insured (sometimes).

True to the storybook style, which weaves a fairy tale spell over Tudor and French Normandy architecture, the roofs of Helfert’s buildings looked like they were built by drunken elves. “I couldn’t get anyone to insure the buildings because the roofs looked like they’re falling apart,” said Helfert, the property’s third owner. “Safeco refused me, but then I got a call from their president. He apologized.” The executive explained that as a boy living nearby, he watched workers break the shingles, singe the edges and place them in a random pattern, Helfert said. The insurance executive said the roofs were in excellent condition, so Helfert could get a policy after all.

2. Once upon a time, a fire destroyed a cottage.

The buildings are 700-square-foot, one-bedroom homes. The units near the street have wood-burning fireplaces. The back six buildings have faux fireplaces with gas burners, which were not vented in the late 1970s.


“I got a call the morning of December 4, 1978 -- that date I can’t forget,” Helfert said. A couple in one of the houses bought a fake log and wanted to uncap the gas. “I said, ‘Don’t you dare do that.’ By 9 p.m. the house was gone.” Helfert said that hundreds of people lined the street, horrified as they watched the cottage turn to ash. Helfert rebuilt it, replicating the dwarf-size kitchen and coved ceiling lined with wood beams.

3. The Los Angeles Housing Department doesn’t believe in magical attics.

Musician Elliott Smith rented the rebuilt cottage and later lived in another cottage, 2906 Griffith Park Blvd., now occupied by Simon Bennett, right. Helfert cut a hole in Smith’s living room in the 1990s, installed circular stairs and finished the attic, replete with toilet, huge pedestal sink and monstrous, clawfoot bathtub.

“Smith wrote a lot of songs in that attic,” said Bennett, who works in music licensing.

Regarding the renovation, Helfert said: “I never do anything according to the rules. Anything you can do wrong, I’ve done. And I revel in that.” The Housing Department (“the bane of the Western world,” Helfert said) did not join in her reveling. Around 2000, the department asked Helfert if she had a permit for the renovation. Helfert told the department, “It’s always been like this.” (She paused, then added, “You know, I lied.”)

Although storybook architecture’s whimsically skewed lines are designed to blur the border between reality and fantasy, the Housing Department did not exactly swoon under Helfert’s charm. Smith hung a “no trespassing” sign on his door to keep inspectors out, but another tenant pushed Helfert to obtain historic status for the property and expressed concern about the unpermitted renovation. Eventually Helfert removed the stairs and patched the hole. Bennett said the clawfoot tub, however, is still in the attic.


A few other fairy tales about the enchanted cottages:

Helfert obtained entitlement to convert all of the cottages to condos in the late 1970s. She priced the eight residences at $69,000 each and planned to make $200,000 to $300,000, but none sold. She eventually let the entitlement expire. “I fell in love with the place,” Helfert said, “which was a mistake.”

What is the property valued at today? Helfert said she gets a call from prospective buyers “every few days.” She tells them the price is $10 million or $12 million.

When Helfert bought the cottages in 1976, they were painted pink. “The wood, the walls -- all pink,” she said. “The first thing I did was restore it to the original. If you look closely, you can still see some of the pink.”

The cottages may have been used by creators of the 1937 film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Disney had animation studios around the corner, site of a Gelson’s market today. The cottages may have been inspiration for the dwellings inhabited by the dwarfs in the film. Helfert said she spoke to a former Disney employee who said she used one of the cottages as an office.


The property served as the Sierra Bonita apartment complex in David Lynch’s 2001 film, “Mulholland Drive.”

Nori Muster rented the cottage at 2910 Griffith Park Blvd. for two years, paying $1,800 a month. Muster described her landlord as “a really interesting character. She drove a big old Cadillac or something similar, wore high boots, dressed like a movie star and saw herself as that. And she was a real sweetheart.”