‘Cinderella properties’ introduced storybook whimsy to LA’s postwar suburbs

All over Southern California – on cul-de-sacs, suburban streets, and even grand boulevards – cozy ranch houses are dotted around that at first glance might appear straight out of a picture book.

These “Cinderella Homes” were found in the San Fernando Valley, Orange County, Santa Barbara and beyond and designed in the 1950s by builder Jean Vandruff, who studied architecture at USC in the 1940s.

The houses have shingle roofs, lintel gables and friendly brick chimneys. Often they are outfitted with diamond-coated windows, whimsically decorated shutters and caricature lances that are crossed over the garage door.

“You’re very charming,” says Chris Lukather, author of Jean Vandruff’s Cinderella Homes, published earlier this year. “They are like European huts, but they are tract houses. They really are not like any other house built at the time. “

Just as modernist home designers like William Krisel and Joseph Eichler mass-produced elegant homes of the future on the outskirts of Guelph suburbs, so Vandruff’s homes appeared on the market and offered cheerful nostalgia at the start of the space age.

Vandruff stands in front of the first Cinderella house in Downey.

“Jean didn’t like modern,” says Lukather. “He didn’t like glass and steel. He wanted a warm, homely environment for families. “

Vandruff’s traditional approach worked. According to Lukather, 30,000 people came to see the first “Cinderella House” that is still in Downey. It was successful enough that the designer soon switched from custom housing to large-scale wing development.

The business was supported by an advertising flash that featured shiny brochures and a 200-foot long billboard next to the Santa Ana Freeway (on which Cinderella herself brandished a glowing house key).

“The first wing was sold out within three days,” says Lukather. “People camped overnight to buy these houses.”

A drawing of a woman in a fancy pink dress holding up a house key;  next to her is a yellow house

A flash of advertising drew buyers to the unusual tract houses.

The residences were so popular that Vandruff began subcontracting his design plans to other builders. This enabled the construction of more than 6,000 Cinderella homes in the United States, some of which surfaced as far as Houston.

As recognizable as they were back then, he says many current owners don’t know they live in a Cinderella house. Although visually distinctive, the houses do not have the same stamp of approval as those designed by famous modern designers such as Krisel and Cliff May.

But Lukather says the houses have aged well. As he was writing the book, he toured many of the areas where the houses were built with Vandruff himself (now 97) and spoke to some of the people who own them. He says the decorative flourishes and comfortable interiors are still popular with residents.

Borrowing at least one element of modernity, Vandruff gave open plan living spaces to his Cinderella houses to encourage conversation among residents.

“They have stood the test of time,” says Lukather. “People who live in these houses love these houses.”

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