The Cinderella Homes of Jean Vandruff: Fairy Tale Tracts in the Suburbs
By Chris Lukather
“Men are forever guests in the home no matter how much happiness they may find there,” famously stated Elsie de Wolfe, the American interior decorator often credited with founding interior design as a profession. In the early 20th century, de Wolfe’s thoughts on the importance of decoration established a framework that empowered women to consider how domestic interiors shaped and reflected feminine identity, both socially and psychologically. She believed that while men may build and decorate the house, it’s the woman’s personality that will always shine through—it’s the woman who makes a house a home.
A new book by California-based writer and publisher Chris Lukather, The Cinderella Homes of Jean Vandruff: Fairy Tale Tracts in the Suburbs, explores this complex relationship between women and domestic architecture. It tells the story of how one man, Jean Vandruff, dedicated his life to designing homes conceived around atomic age fantasies about housewives, who the homes’ advertisements called “modern Cinderellas.” The book echoes de Wolfe’s sentiment while painting a picture of the dramatic changes women began to face, both in the home and out, as the country progressed through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the growth of the American middle class, and, most importantly, the mass migration to the suburbs.
In 1954, seven years after the first Levittown, and many before Disneyland came to Southern California, Vandruff started designing and building communities of “storybook” tract homes in the image of a midcentury modern fairy tale. While typical tract developments were filling out landscapes across the country, they just as quickly entered the popular imagination, as, in the words of Malvina Reynolds’s 1962 song, “little boxes made of ticky tacky…little boxes all the same.”
In a catalog for the 2001–2002 exhibition held at the Brooklyn Museum, Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, the postwar single-family home was romanticized as, “a fairy-tale castle hidden away under a magic spell in a wilderness of identical streets curving past a series of identical, partially prefabricated wooden boxes.” Vandruff’s Cinderella Homes embraced this idealized notion of fairy-tale living but offered an alternative to the ubiquitous box housing that was popping up all over California. He designed ranch-style homes that didn’t shy away from color, ornamentation, or custom craftsmanship, all for a competitive price, and people camped out overnight to secure a model.
Lukather’s book is the first to take a look at these homes through an in-depth collection of oral histories with the Vandruff family, Cinderella homeowners and realtors, as well as interviews and essays by Vandruff, who, at 96, is still thriving and telling tales by going door-to-door preaching the history of the 6,000 homes he created across California, Kansas, and Texas between 1950 and 1962.
The book is richly illustrated with original photographs, floorplans, and advertisements exhibiting the many variations of the ranch homes, which set Cinderellas apart from prefab war housing and other experiments of the time (Arts & Architecture magazine’s Case Study House Program ran contemporaneously from 1945 to 1966). “I detested modern architecture in homes…so cold, rigid, simplistic, blah!” Vandruff wrote in a manifestolike list of key Cinderella features. “Architects hated Cinderellas,” he said.
Cinderellas featured high gabled entryways, large overhangs, Victorian gingerbread trim, and diamond-shaped windows with cartoonish, scalloped frames. Perhaps the most striking features of the original homes were their shake-shingle roofs and custom stone and brickwork, which flowed into the interior where a massive fireplace “anchored” the home. Vandruff cites traditional Swedish and Austrian homes as sources of ornamental inspiration.
The story of the Cinderella Home illuminates an era of U.S. history characterized by abundant self-indulgence and escapist material culture, an era when the home entered the consumer sphere as a mass-market commodity just like the automobile or the television set (which soon began to dictate the organization of a living room more so than the home builder themselves). It’s fitting that the first home opened in 1954 in Downey, California, where the first McDonald’s franchise opened a year prior.
The book displays a list of 50 architectural features originally printed in the Downey development’s brochures. Number 32 reads: “TV viewing directly from kitchens!” While the houses didn’t have completely open plans, each Cinderella kitchen had a large window that looked out into the living quarters. The design feature was also heavily advertised for its other purpose: to maximize visual and verbal communication between wives and their husbands and children. For Vandruff, this was the most important design issue of all.
“This was key to a happy home. A kitchen-isolated wife is an unhappy wife…likely producing an unhappy family,” he wrote. “My constant thought was for the woman, the home-maker. Everything must be done to make her a fulfilled success.” It was, in fact, his wife Eleanor Vandruff, a former beauty queen, singer, and popular radio personality, who came up with the name Cinderella after she saw one of the first drawings and thought it to be fit for a princess.
Vandruff believed that setting women up for success (and, in turn, setting up the husband for success) meant creating spaces that appeared open and light-filled. In some models, you could stand in the front entryway and see all the way through to the back of the house. Vandruff wrote, “Wall mirrors and big clean windows added ‘space’ to any room, making it the opposite of a jail cell or dungeon,” a sentiment that anticipated the attitudes and feelings toward the home that would be put into words a few years later in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique from 1963, which dissected the psychology of the suburban housewife and ushered in the age of second-wave feminism.
Perhaps before Friedan’s book, women’s unhappiness with household drudgery was rarely discussed—it was “the problem that had no name.” But no one wants an unhappy wife. As Vandruff explained in his interview with the author, “I wanted to make a home for the woman of the household, since she spent the most time there…if she is happy, the home is probably happy…then you’re probably going to be happy too.”
We now know that personal fulfillment for women involves far more than being able to watch TV while cleaning the kitchen. It is hard to theorize what life was actually like for the housewife in a Cinderella Home, as the book failed to include a single account of a female homemaker who occupied one of the tracts in such fraught times or even an account of a female homeowner today. While informative and aesthetically pleasing, the book, like the homes, was crafted entirely from a male perspective with the wife in mind—but how much was she involved?
That’s not to discredit Lukather’s important addition to the history of the rise of suburban life and the fantasy of the American Dream. Cinderella Homes, just as much as Levittown, embody postwar U.S. culture in all of its complexities—of course, the book wouldn’t be complete without a chapter dedicated to Jean Vandruff’s years in the Air Force.
But just like the era itself, it’s hard not to think about something darker going on beneath the surface. Marshall Vandruff, Jean Vandruff’s son, fondly recalled memories of growing up in a Cinderella tract neighborhood and becoming “dangerously nostalgic” upon revisiting it for the book. In a way, the entire book is dangerously nostalgic. Lukather wants to tell the story of playful design, happy families, material abundance, and optimism, but only through the insight of the men who built and continue to surround themselves with the homes.
What’s given less importance in the book is the atmosphere outside the home: the threat of nuclear danger, the ideological dynamic of the cold war, the uneven distribution of wealth, and rampant racism and sexism. The Cinderella Home lives magically outside of such realities. There is simply no room for those very real anxieties in the story’s fantastical fairy tale.
Leilah Stone is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.