How better to celebrate Valentine’s Day from a historic Hollywood architectural standpoint than a remembrance of Wallace Neff’s noble failure, the “Honeymoon Cottage?”
Although architects and city planners had wrestled with it from time immemorial, the quest to provide affordable housing for all became an urgent priority during the Great Depression with many joining in and offering their solutions to this age-old problem. Wallace Neff, at least on the surface, seemed like the last candidate likely to provide an answer, being renowned as an architect of mansions for the very rich. Yet, the brilliant Mr. Neff held very strong feelings on this subject and during his memorable career he made several notable attempts to bring quality housing to low-income buyers through mass production. As Neff was to declare, “For some time I was possessed by the thought that there should be a demand for small homes of real charm within reach of people of limited means.”
Neff’s first attempt was with his famous “Honeymoon Cottage”of the early 1930’s, a pre-fabricated factory-built house the name of which, by the way, was provided by none other than Mary Pickford who had engaged Neff during the period to do a dramatic makeover for Pickfair, converting it from rustic hunting lodge to elegant French Regency mansion.
Neff’s groundbreaking Honeymoon Cottage was declared in more than one publication to be the very first factory-built house ever created. While this may not exactly be true, the Honeymoon Cottage was assuredly at least among the very first. For three years before the cottage’s 1934 debut, Neff had invested considerable time and a good chunk of his own money in the planning and creation of a house that could be manufactured and purchased in the same way one could purchase a car. In Neff’s vision, a person could pick out the house they wanted, say at 10AM, even selecting certain customizations like color choices, and within a few hours that house would be delivered complete to their lot and by 6PM they would be enjoying dinner in it. Need an extra bedroom or two or three? No problem. Just pick up the phone and these appendages would be rushed right over, provisions for future expansion built right into to Neff’s design. With the current explosion of manufactured houses today that does not seem like such a far-fetched idea, but in the early 1930’s it was akin to nothing short of science fiction and it created a great deal of excitement in both the press and the building community.
Wallace Neff never did anything by half and his little cottage venture proved that. Even in what was supposed to be the most modest kind of “starter” home, Neff added an impressive array of high quality touches not the least of which being six-inch thick tongue and groove redwood walls and a full wood-burning fireplace surrounded by Delft tiles. A wood-burning brick fireplace in a manufactured house was bizarre enough, but Neff couldn’t resist adding a long graceful steel-reinforced brick chimney as well that was as beautiful as it was expensive. Although these and other additions were aesthetically pleasing, they added greatly to the home’s cost, which served to defeat the very purpose of the venture. But Neff simply couldn’t help himself. First and foremost, he was an artist and his designs, no matter how modest, must possess beauty, which his Honeymoon Cottage most certainly did.
This cute little charmer was painted a snowy white, pleasingly set off by light blue trim and a rich cobalt blue recessed entrance door framed by louvered shutters and a graceful lunette. On one side a handsome bay window brought sunshine inside and a feeling of added dimension to the exterior. Inside, the quaint interior made up in charm what it lacked in space with ruddy redwood ceilings in both the combination living/dining room and in the bedroom with the living/dining room walls paneled in knotty pine painted a creamy off-white. Not unexpectedly, Neff’s one-bedroom Honeymoon Cottage was a marvel to behold from without and within and was in many ways a lilliputian version of one of the famous architect’s elegant mansions in both style and materials. In spite of the grand additions, the price tag for this compact cutie came in at an amazing $2,750 including delivery. This was well below the national average for a house at the time and was competitive with the Sears Kit house prices, which came in (depending on the model) from under $1,000 to over $3,000 and these all had to be assembled to boot. It sounded like Neff had a winner with the Honeymoon Cottage.
The press sure thought so. As American Home gushed in November 1934, “When one of the country’s finest architects designs a perfect little cottage that is portable, factory-built and incorporates A-1 materials, and costs $2,750 delivered to your lot – that’s NEWS!” And the public thought so too, at least so it seemed. To let everybody have a peek at this little marvel, Neff rented out a vacant lot at the corner of Wilshire and Lucerne Boulevards and set the cottage up for inspection. To complete the home’s “finished” look, Neff contracted with the famed and venerable firm of Barker Bros. to decorate the house in what the L.A. Times declared to be “in such a manner as to enhance the natural charm of the house.” To complete the picture Neff surrounded the Honeymoon Cottage with landscaping (in pots of course). Did the people come? Yes, they did. More than 50,000 oohed and ahhed their way in and around the Honeymoon Cottage during its first week alone in July 1934 and as California Arts & Architecture noted, “It has captured the fancy of many people whose requirements are met by a compact one or two bedroom home.” But did they buy…?
After getting a lot of attention in its first spot, the Honeymoon Cottage was hoisted back up on a flatbed truck for another journey, this one to the grounds of the newly completed Pan Pacific Auditorium a short distance to the west in the Fairfax district. This time furnished by the Broadway Department Store, the Honeymoon Cottage was destined to be part of the inaugural exhibition at the Pan Pacific, the sixteen-day National Housing Exposition, which opened with gala fanfare at 6:00PM on May 18, 1935. The Honeymoon Cottage joined four other demonstration houses arranged on lots in front of the auditorium including the Los Angeles Times “House of Tomorrow.” Inside were other houses including a 2-story “House of Progress” and a rather novel “All Glass House” occupied by Miss Edna Kirby who, along with her maid, attended to their, one assumes G-rated, household business while being gawked at by thousands of onlookers.
Both the Honeymoon Cottage and the Times‘ House of Tomorrow were to be given away as grand prizes in contests held accompanying the exhibition. It was far less complicated to win the Honeymoon Cottage. All you needed was your ticket stub. The Times, however, wanted you to work for their house. To qualify, you were not only required to purchase a three-month subscription to the paper they also made candidates solve a silly story puzzle called “Aunt Sunway’s Dinner Party,” serialized every day over the course of the Exhibition where you have to figure out how Aunt Sunway solves the problem of where to seat her eight guests, each of whom could be potentially obnoxious to all if not seated next to exactly the right person. Oy! (BTW The Times House of Tomorrow deserves and will be getting its own post coming up).
The Honeymoon Cottage saw a great deal of action during its time on display at the National Housing Exhibition including a wedding held on its steps on the evening of May 20th before a crowd of a thousand “well wishers.” The bride, 22 year-old Betty Ursula Young, however, had kept the groom Joseph Edward Donkin, cooling his heels for more than an hour before finally showing up for the ceremony, giving him plenty of time to admire the Honeymoon Cottage’s many charms. But while admiring it, he struck an omonious note, “I guess it will be a few years before we can have anything like this.” And therein lay the problem. As cheap as it was, the Honeymoon Cottage was still just too expensive for potential buyers like Donkin, the very type of buyer Neff had had in mind when he first envisioned his novel little cottage. While there don’t appear to be any solid records available of sales for the Cottage, it was clearly a spectacular flop. Everyone seemed to really like the Honeymoon Cottage, but no one appears to have actually bought one, a real tragedy when you consider just how wonderful these little houses were and what an opportunity was lost.
At the end of the exhibition, the Honeymoon Cottage was claimed by a lucky prize winner and moved yet again, this time to its apparently final destination at 1330 Rimpau Boulevard. Over the years, it has suffered from numerous non-Neff related additions and changes, but if you look closely (and you’ll have to) you can still make out the ghost of Wallace Neff’s brilliant but doomed effort to bring a little luxury to the masses. It remains today the only extant example of the Honeymoon Cottage…or is it?
Stay tuned for another post coming up where we attempt to solve the mystery of Honeymoon Cottage Number 2. I assure you it can’t be any worse than Aunt Sunway’s Dinner Party!
And Happy Valentine’s Day from Paradise Leased!