The Storybook Houses of Belvedere
The storybook houses of Belvedere are little known outside of this wealthy island enclave at the southern tip of Marin County, California. There is very little information available on them but I was fortunate to have once been provided a tour by the owner of one of these charming cottages. I live only a few miles away, in San Francisco, so these magical places are there to see anytime I choose to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge—I feel very lucky indeed!
The Story Behind the Storybook Houses
The story goes that the storybook houses were built sometime in the 30s by a business executive by the name of Heidelberg, who tired of his humdrum office job and would often escape to work on his labor of love, the storybook cottages of Beach Road. In all, there are three cottages on the steep slope above the bay, one of which was used as a location for an obscure film noir called, “Sudden Fear,” starring the notorious Joan Crawford with Jack Palance playing her mysterious suitor. Of course, a murder plot is in the works as Mr. Palance woos Ms. Crawford in the hopes of making away with her fortune. What would film noir be without intrigue?
Another notable resident was said to be Vivian Vance, who played Lucy Ricardo’s sidekick Ethel Mertz in the “I Love Lucy” television show. Ms. Vance used to come up to enjoy the cool summers of the San Francisco Bay Area and to visit her sister who lived in Belvedere, and she would stay in one of the Beach Road storybook cottages, eventually retiring from Hollywood to a home on Beach Road. Vivian Vance lived in Belvedere until her death in 1979.
Storybook cottages came into favor in the early Hollywood era of the teens and 20s of the 20th century. One of the most well-known examples of the time is the Spadena House of Beverly Hills, designed by art director and set director, Harry Oliver. This house is popularly known as “The Witches’ House” because of the resemblance to the gingerbread house in the Hansel and Gretel tale. Others who became known for the storybook cottage architectural style were: Carr Jones, W.W. Dixon, and William Yelland of the San Francisco Bay Area; and Ben Sherman. Ben Sherman is most known for his “Snow White house” in Hollywood.
The chief characteristic of storybook architectural design is a whimsical style derived from fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel: crooked chimneys, odd elements such as round doors and circular windows, heavy timber, and use of natural elements such as stone and wood, all combined to look like a dilapidated cabin in the woods. Looking at these, I almost expect to see gumdrops embedded in the brick walls!
In the Belvedere storybook cottages, which seem to teeter on the brink of falling over the cliff and down into the bay, you will find winding staircases, and the timbers which jut out from the exterior walls with carved rustic figures and faces at their ends. Colored glass plates of varying sizes have been inserted in place of windows at different levels of the walls. The brickwork curves and slopes in a dizzying fashion, as do the oddly overlapped wooden shingles of the rooftop. All in all, delightful and quaint—I wouldn’t be surprised to see a wizard or a gnome emerging at any time!
Photos by author except where noted