La Jolla Munchkin Houses: Truth or Tall Tale?
Stories abound on the Internet of so-called dwarf houses and towns all over America. These venues are supposedly where little people live in buildings customized to their scale, complete with tiny doors, shorter steps, lower windows and the like.
The online accounts almost always turn out to be urban legends. They usually entail “a friend of a friend” encountering such an enclave and being chased off by angry little people protecting their privacy by wielding guns or lobbing bricks, rocks …or even apples! The latter may bring to mind those furious, scary-looking trees that threw their own fruit at Dorothy and her hapless friends in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.”
A La Jolla lollipop guild?
As the legend goes, some of the little people who played Munchkins in the movie made enough money for their acting roles to move to San Diego and build four custom houses to accommodate their smaller stature. Lending credence to the story: The houses were built and the movie was made in the same time period — the 1930s — and L. Frank Baum, author of the book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” wrote part of it while living in San Diego.
Veteran “Straight from the Hip” columnist Matthew Alice of the San Diego Reader has been somewhat wearily fielding questions from readers about these houses for decades. Alice once wrote that the Munchkin Houses legend morphed over the years into tall tales of other types of people who eventually lived in those houses, as well as suspicious happenings — “Chinese smugglers, Barnum & Bailey circus performers, mysterious European millionaires, signal-light flashes and dwarf sightings.”
But none of it is true. The four original houses — only one remains — were built by famed architect Cliff May, whose signature style included accommodating houses to the lay of the land instead of grading the lots flat. Alice also explained some years ago: “They are four normal-sized houses sited on a very steep hill, so the street-side walls are partly below ground.”
What you see is not what you get
The result was that when viewed from the street, the houses looked smaller than normal houses: It’s all an optical illusion. The house that remains today, on Hillside Drive, has an additional neat trick: There’s a short wall in front of the front door, so it appears from the street to be a smaller-sized door, though it’s not.
High school and college kids searched for the houses for years, often unsuccessfully because you had to look at them at just the right angle to see the effect (and you had to stop your car to do that, difficult on a narrow winding road with few spaces wide enough to pull over).
One student who was successful in finding the cottage that still stands was San Diego State student Kenneth Smith, who wrote about his search in 2003 in the university newspaper, The Daily Aztec. He even had the courage to peek in one of the windows (no one was living there at the time). Smith reported that he saw “cobblestone-like tiled floors and a little round fireplace,” adding to its Munchkin charm!
Today, this home has 2 bedrooms and 1 bath in 1,176 square feet. Besides being built by May, who has been called “the father of the ranch house style,” the home has breathtaking whitewater views of the La Jolla shore.
Incidentally, most little people live in normal-sized houses with interior features such as countertops and cupboards adapted for their statures, just like the Roloff family does on TLC’s “Little People, Big World.”