Monterey Peninsula: The fairytale houses of Carmel-by-the-Sea

Road Journals Blog—My sister’s in-laws have a lovely summer cabin in Charlevoix, Michigan. The first time I visited, I was delighted to discover dozens of fanciful houses in town, dubbed “mushroom houses,” designed by local architect Earl A. Young in the 1920s. The houses resemble fairy-tale cottages, with undulating roof lines, turrets that look like witches’ hats, and quaint casement windows.

Some really do look like stone mushrooms.

Carmel, California
, I discovered to my surprise on my first visit, has its own fanciful storybook cottages, built around the same time as Charlevoix’s, and in very similar spirit.

Carmel’s cottages were designed by Hugh Comstock, who came to town in 1924 and met and married Mayotta Browne, a woman who had a successful business making and selling rag-and-felt dolls, called “Otsy-Totsys.” Although Comstock was neither a builder nor an architect, he set out to create a showroom where his wife could showcase her dolls.

The little cottage, on Carmel’s main street, was straight out of a children’s book. (Comstock made a point of never using a level or straight edge in designing his homes.) Indeed, his creation was inspired by the drawings of Arthur Rackham, a British children’s book illustrator.

Comstock’s cottage was so popular that residents asked him to build more. He went on to design the Pine Inn, which still welcomes guests on Carmel’s main street. Twenty-one of his original buildings in town still remain.

An easy walking tour will take you past half of dozen of Comstock’s charming cottages and commercial buildings. One now houses a small lunch spot. Another, appropriately enough, is a candy shop.

Why did a craze for fairy tale cottages sweep Charlevoix, Michigan and Carmel, California at roughly the same time? I have no idea. If there are any architectural historians out there who do, I’m anxious to hear from them. Perhaps there are other examples in other towns around the country. I’d be anxious to hear about them, as well.

Peter Jaret wrote about Carmel, Monterey, and Pebble Beach for VIAmagazine in February, 2011.


This blog post was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.