We’re all familiar with the name Cinderella. For some, the mention conjures imagery of an enslaved stepdaughter, a glass slipper, a pumpkin carriage, two mice, and one Prince Charming. For others of a more architectural ilk, the word Cinderella may evoke the image of a high-gabled, shake-shingled gingerbread house designed by LA builder Jean Valjean Vandruff. While the fairytale’s narrative is no doubt enchanting, this is a column about housing and real estate.
Originally from a small town outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Vandruff journeyed westward to California in 1941. After an enlisted stint as a World War II bomber pilot in the Army Air Force, Vandruff returned home to study architecture at USC. Bored with the desk life of an architect-in-training, Vandruff left USC to pursue a career in home construction. In 1954, Vandruff built his first Cinderella Home for his brother, Shannon, in the town of Downey, a sleepy community outside of Los Angeles.
In the mid ‘50s, ranch-style homes were all the rage in California, with their single-story, low-slung architecture. Vandruff’s version, however, had a few unusual twists that set his design apart, including steep gables, shake-shingle roofs, and decorative gingerbread trim. Why the fairytale look? Vandruff was out to sell a fantasy. Through their fabled design, these storybook homes appealed to the nuclear family—and specifically, the housewife—at the dawn of the Atomic Age.
Touting easy-to-navigate floor plans and user-friendly appliances, the Cinderella Home was meant to help free the Atomic-Age housewife from “the drudgery of household chores”. Kitchens had cut-out windows so mothers could keep a close eye on children playing outside, and bathrooms were designed to be both colorful and inviting, some even accessorized with carriage and slipper-themed tiles.
Brochures from the era advertised that buyers of the higher-end Royal Cinderella House would be bestowed the luxuries of a $40,000 home at a selling point of only $27,000. Features of the Royal Cinderella included a single-story floor plan for privacy, durable cast-iron kitchen sinks, wall-to-wall carpeting, and “dramatic and artistic tropical planting areas” to help bring the outdoors in.
As the suburban sprawl unrolled far and wide after World War II, many families were looking for big style on a small budget. After several large-scale build outs, Vandruff’s business licensed the Cinderella House design to other developments as far away as Wichita and Houston. Vandruff estimated contractors built nearly 6,000 Cinderella Houses during that era.
“Nobody would put in the effort that I put into designing house plans,” Vandruff said in an earlier interview. “I’m a perfectionist. They had to be just, just, just right,” he said, not unlike the slipper that fit Cinderella’s foot on the night of the ball.
Even though Vandruff trademarked the name “Cinderella”, it was impossible to prevent competitors from using the term in their own marketing efforts. “There were a lot of imitators,” said Chris Lukather, a Cinderella-Home enthusiast and manager of the site TheCinderellaHome.com. “But they’re not all Cinderella Homes.”
This mimicry is likely the case with the Cinderella Homes sprinkled throughout Boulder. Here, tract home builders of the Atomic Age drew inspiration from various architectural styles, and were undoubtedly influenced by the fantasy presented in Vandruff’s design. So as you make your way through town, keep your eyes peeled for steeply sloping gables, shake-shingle roofs, and wavy gingerbread trim, the trademarks of a Cinderella-inspired house.