Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
“All you can lose is your heart.”
All fairy tales fade. But few ever sparkled as deliberately as the Cinderella Home.
This story starts in 1954 in Downey, California, just outside Los Angeles, where Jean Valjean Vandruff built his first Cinderella Home. These low-slung, ranch-style houses, marked by high-gabled, shake-shingle roofs and decorative gingerbread trim, sold a fantasy. These were storybook homes, designed through and through to appeal to the nuclear family at the dawn of the Atomic Age.
They also sold dreams of Western expansion and middle-class membership—dreams that have faded as much as the homes themselves.
All You Can Lose Is Your Heart (Kehrer Verlag, 2015), a book of photos by KayLynn Deveney, measures the distance between the dream of the Cinderella Home in the 1950s and the truth of today. Deveney has spent the past 6 years photographing Cinderella Homes, which she first came to know in Albuquerque, where she grew up, and where she worked as a staff photographer for The Albuquerque Tribune in the 1990s.
Deveney’s book compiles her pictures from Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Anaheim, and outside Oklahoma City, the places where these princess houses proliferated in the 1950 and 1960s. Her photo collection’s singsong title takes its name from a pitch once used to advertise Cinderella Homes in Albuquerque: “All you can lose is your heart.”
“Until I photographed the houses, I hadn’t photographed many projects that didn’t include people,” Deveney writes in an email. “I think the houses worked for me because I saw people reflected in the things outside and around the houses. I loved driving and looking for little details (like a tiny metal elk) that revealed something about the people living inside, but not too much.”
In Albuquerque, the Cinderella Homes were tied to the story of the atom. Scientists detonated the first atomic bomb just 200 miles south of Albuquerque, at Alamogordo, in 1945. Between 1940 and 1960, the population of Albuquerque exploded, growing from 35,000 to more than 200,000 residents, according to The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever, who contributes an essay to Deveney’s monograph. Tract homes, the Cinderella Homes among them, were built to greet the families of scientists and workers arriving from the East Coast and elsewhere. Specifically, the Cinderella Homes targeted wives and mothers—homemakers.
“The advertisements for the Dale J. Bellamah Corporation’s happily-ever-after lifestyle in the real-estate listings of the Albuquerque evening Tribune and morning Journal were aimed at the lady of the house,” writes Stuever, who once worked as a reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune. “The brochures touted the ‘wife-planned’ design, with floorplans and appliances meant to free her from the ‘drudgery of household chores.’”
Deveney, who teaches photography at the Belfast School of Art at Ulster University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, corresponded with and photographed Vandruff, the builder and tract developer credited with the Cinderella Home concept. “I trademarked the name ‘Cinderella’ in the field of architecture, but like the names Kleenex, Formica, Jacuzzi, and on and on, it was impossible to keep people from calling homes with a somewhat similar architecture ‘Cinderella’ homes also,” Vandruff writes in an essay in Deveney’s book.
Other builders exported the Cinderella Homes plans throughout the Inland Empire, on to Nevada, and as far as Del City, Oklahoma City. More than 6,000 “genuine” Cinderella Homes were built, per Vandruff’s essay. But few genuine articles still stand. The heavy cedar shake-shingle roofs are not permitted under contemporary building codes, for example, and the diamond-pane windows seen in some of the homes fell out of fashion. “A disappointing thing, KayLynn, is that it is impossible to find a Cinderella that looks like it did when it was built 55 years ago,” reads Vandruff’s correspondence with Deveney.
None of these homes sells the same fantasy today. For starters, the role of women in the home and in the economy has changed, as has (one hopes) a designer’s understanding of their interests. The economy has changed, too, with homeownership becoming a more distant dream for younger generations, and entrance into the middle class more elusive, especially in some of the suburbs where tract homes once thrived.
All You Can Lose Is Your Heart is a mesmerizing document that traces that original fantasy without sparing the present reality. Deveney meets the gauzy vision of the Cinderella Home with an unblinking gaze. These houses sold a promise of happily-ever-after. The truth is more complicated.
“After all,” writes Stuever, “what is any real-estate transaction if not the down payment on a fairytale ending?”