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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Once Upon a Time

Zipping around in a two-seater sports car always is fun. It is more fun if it is with your first grade teacher — even more fun if she’s taking you around to see some of her favorite storybook homes in Evansville.

“If it looks like it could go in an Arthur Rackham fairy-tale book, then it might be a storybook home,” says Deborah Wagemann, local storybook style enthusiast. “To a certain extent, it is a Tudor with some extra flair.”

Some call it Disneyesque. Some call it Hansel and Gretel. Some call it a fairy tale.

▲ Fairy-tale Home Philip Hooper and local storybook architecture enthusiast Deborah Wagemann took a drive around Evansville to find the most interesting examples of whimsical houses.

Wagemann remembers falling in love with the style as a kid, visiting the home of a local artist who lived in the 1936 A.R. Thomas House along Brookside Drive. This home features steeply pitched gabled roofs with bell-cast eaves protruding from a central mass, with multiple towers at the entrance and the right side of the home, all clad in cobblestone. It resembles a castle. The Vanderburgh County survey lists it as a French Eclectic Cottage.
When Wagemann showed it to her husband years later, “he just stopped. And then he said, ‘Don’t you just expect to see Disney’s seven dwarves coming around the corner any minute?’” she says.

Local architect Mike Shoulders echoes this sentiment.

“It’s all about the detailing, like a gingerbread house. It’s not an official separate style, but it’s a mix. People started styling homes in this new way from children’s books, and for a while it started to stick,” he says.

It is this evocation of fairy tales and children’s books that sits at the root of the style, but like most of the home styles today it is at its core a revival of an even older architectural pattern. Arrol Gellner’s and Douglas Keister’s 2017 book, “Storybook Style: America’s Whimsical Homes of the 1920s,” covers this subject in detail and in depth. The storybook style is, like the Tudor style that umbrellas over it, yet another interpretation of medieval Europe — a throwback of throwbacks — but one with more whimsy and flair. Queen Marie Antoinette’s 1782 Petit Hameau cottage at the northeast corner of Versailles was itself a throwback to earlier architecture from her youth and family roots. Starting in the 1920s with the spark of the growing film industry in California and the fuel of the Roaring Twenties, the style spread eastward, before dying off by the end of the 1930s, aided by the Great Depression.
The pinnacle example of the style is the 1921 Witch’s House, designed by Harry Oliver, art director for the Willat Studio. It served in silent films in the 1920s before being moved to Beverly Hills in 1926. The home features a steep pitched, asymmetrical wood-shingled roof with rolling curvature.
“With its serpentine fascia boards and cartoonishly lopsided walls and roofs, the entire design is a cleverly wrought caricature of dilapidated antiquity.” (Gellner & Douglas, 2017)

At its simplest form, it may be a steeply pitched roof with a catslide wall that flares off the gable and over to a driveway, entry, or other decorative feature. As the trend evolved, a simpler focus on craftsmanship became a theme, and designers and architects used the whimsical tolerance of the style to showcase their talents, skills, and creativity.

Locally, you may see a Tudor looking home, made up of two gables, with a floor plan forming an upside down V shape as it faces the street, with a tower in the middle. We can call this a storybook style, and look no further than the 1200 block of Ravenswood Drive for a perfect simple towered example.

Or look to South St. James Boulevard. This home boasts a front-facing, steeply pitched gable roof with a prominent chimney and contains the classic catslide walls, a smaller one off the entry and a longer one featuring an open portal through the brick. What child — or adult — isn’t driven to a storybook-worthy imagination by looking through a portal?
“Things like the catslide and the lattice (in the portal) — those little details are interesting,” says Berkshire Hathaway Real Estate agent John Pickens, who is listing the property with his wife Susan.

Benjamin and Rose Trockman built this storybook home in 1935, raising two daughters and living in the home until they both passed away. The floor plan has not seen many changes since its original construction, according to the Pickens. Details inside include a wide staircase with wrought iron railings and many windows running through a front room and side dining area. Arch doorways and a fireplace lend to the storybook feel, as well as the front door.
“Storybook homes have more of an architectural feel to them than just an ordinary house,” says Susan. “This home has neat details, and that’s what drew us to it.”

One interesting part of the St. James Boulevard home may not be storybook related, but is an interesting tale. The basement was built out by Mr. Trockman to host games with his friends and even includes a built-in couch for seating.

Another stunning local example of the features of the storybook architecture is the Looris G. Julian House along Southeast Boulevard. Listed as a 1929 Tudor Revival in the Vanderburgh County architectural survey, the brick detailing in the front-facing steep gable, the bell caste eaves, and the exquisitely matching detached garage all play to the storybook look.

Perhaps the pinnacle local example of the style, however, is the home located on South Roosevelt Drive, commonly referred to as the Hansel and Gretel House. A massive, ancient oak tree, with twisted burly limbs, looks like it was taken from an Arthur Rackham story, and fittingly towers over the large home. While recently visiting the home with Wagemann, a squirrel played in the tree and a bunny hopped through the yard. Were seven dwarves about to hop whistling around the corner as well? If they did, they could each claim one of the home’s seven little dormers that face the courtyard and greet the front door.

While it is more nuanced than a Tudor with a tower, when you see a home from the 1920s or 1930s in Evansville featuring details that give you the feeling of being in a children’s fairy tale, boasts styling that befits the moniker of a modest mansion, or looks like it is a tiny castle, you may very well indeed be looking at the storybook style.

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