‘Cinderella properties’ introduced storybook whimsy to LA’s postwar suburbs
Sprinkled throughout Southern California—on cul de sacs, suburban streets, and even major boulevards—are homey ranch houses that at first glance might appear straight out of a storybook.
Found in the San Fernando Valley, Orange County, Santa Barbara, and beyond, these “Cinderella homes” were designed in the 1950s by homebuilder Jean Vandruff, who studied architecture at USC in the 1940s.
The houses have shake shining roofs, swooping gables, and friendly brick chimneys. Often they are equipped with diamond-paned windows, whimsically decorated shutters, and cartoonish lances crossed across the garage door.
“They’re very charming,” says Chris Lukather, author of The Cinderella Homes of Jean Vandruff, published earlier this year. “They’re sort of like European cottages, but they’re tract homes. They’re really not like any other homes built at the time.”
Just as modernist home designers like William Crisisl and Joseph Eichler were mass-developing sleek homes of the future on the suburban edges of Los Angeles, Vandruff’s homes appeared on the market—offering cheery nostalgia at the dawn of the Space Age.
Vandruff stands in front of the first Cinderella home in Downey.
“Jean didn’t like modern,” says Lukather. “He didn’t like the glass and steel; he wanted a warm homey environment for families to live in.”
Vandruff’s traditional concept worked. Lukather says 30,000 people came to see the first “Cinderella house,” which still stands in Downey. It was successful enough that the designer soon moved from custom homebuilding to large-scale tract development.
The business was helped along by a blitz of advertising, including glossy brochures and a 200-foot long billboard by the side of the Santa Ana Freeway (it depicted Cinderella herself brandishing a luminous house key).
“The first tract sold out in three days,” Lukather says. “People camped out overnight to buy these homes.”
A blitz of publicity drew buyers to the unusual tract houses.
The residences were popular enough that Vandruff began franchising his design schemes to other builders. That allowed for construction of more than 6,000 Cinderella homes across the United States, with some popping up as far away as Houston.
As recognizable as they may have been at the time, he says many current owners don’t realize they live in a Cinderella home. Though visually distinctive, the houses don’t have the same cachet as those designed by famous modern designers like Crisisl and Cliff May.
But Lukather says the houses have aged well. While writing the book, he toured many of the tracts where the homes were built with Vandruff himself (now 97), and spoke to some of the people who own them. He says the ornamental flourishes and comfortable interior layout are still popular with residents.
Borrowing at least one element from modernism, Vandruff gave his Cinderella homes open living spaces, to encourage conversation between residents.
“They’ve stood the test of time,” says Lukather. “People who live in these homes love these homes.”