Building Early Solvang

Peder Madsen’s confectionery and pool hall (January 1914) embodied the romance of the Old West and the archetypal image that a “saloon” should portray. This building is still here today, although greatly modified, on the southeast corner of First and Copenhagen.

The first decade of Danish-American settlement in Solvang resulted in an unusual blend of architecture.

Unlike the Danish bindingsværk (half-timber) and steep, copper roofs seen in the town today, early Solvang architecture had no outward appearance of Danish style.
Within the privacy of the community, Solvang represented a haven for the preservation of Danish culture, language, arts, and education. Publicly, however, Solvang was dressed in purely American clothing. If anything, early craftsmen were determined to certify Solvang’s loyalty to America by building in styles uniquely Western and Californian. The only visual cues to the town’s multinational allegiance were the two flags flying outside the folk school: the Dannebrog and the Stars and Stripes.
In the commercial district (limited to a mere 12 businesses in 1914), the Danes paid homage to the romantic idealism of the American Old West with several false-front buildings. Even in the second decade of the 20th century, immigrant Danes could not resist the lure of the fabled American frontier. The original design principle was to make simple, single-story buildings with board-and-batten sides look more permanent and stylish with the addition of two-story front facades and implied flat roofs.
Functional and practical, Solvang was a town on a budget—and the Danes knew thrifty perhaps better than anyone. Frills were not deemed necessary in early Solvang, nor could they be afforded. Dania Hall is the perfect example of sturdy but plain construction, typical of several businesses in town. Although it was the town’s traditional Danish forsamlingshus (gathering house) for social events, it was constructed with cinder blocks and a false front.
The haste to erect the earliest buildings has caused some speculation about the quality of construction. However, the hotel, the first major public building built in Solvang (June 1911), was constructed with a hipped roof—a considerably more complex and sturdier construction technique than a gable roof, testament to the level of skill of the town’s first contractor, Hans C. D. Skytt.
The second town contractor, Anton B. Ibsen, was equally matched to Skytt’s talents. He introduced the first classical building to Solvang’s commercial core: the Santa Ynez Valley Bank building (1913). In a heavily pared-down Beaux Arts style (a typical choice for financial institutions of the time), the bank proclaimed that it was sound, stable, and solvent in both architectural image and fiscal reality.
The rounded arcade on Main Street—today’s Copenhagen Drive—was not added until 1926 with the tile roof accents that were being incorporated in the downtown district as a nod to neighboring Mission Santa Inés, reflecting both Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival styles.
Solvang’s residential architecture took a different direction from the start. The other towns in the Valley were founded in the late 19th century and were influenced by the then-fashionable Victorian style. However, Solvang’s later beginning in 1911 coincided with the sweeping Arts and Crafts movement, which was a revolt against the machined perfectionism and gingerbread of the Victorian period. Southern California was the heart of this new Craftsman philosophy in building that emphasized the simpler life and, in particular, affordability for budget-conscious families. The California bungalow integrated garden and home together as much as possible; large porches were a hallmark of the style. This ideal was warmly embraced by the Danes when building their residences. Having come from the cold and cloudy climates characteristic of Denmark, the Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest where many of Solvang’s settlers hailed from, the Danes responded to the “sunny fields” of Solvang and took every opportunity to revel in the out-of-doors. Their architecture embodies this love of warmth and sunshine.
In the 1940s, Solvang made its first tentative foray into “Danish style” architecture to produce the look that predominates in today’s business district. But earlier, when the town was young and tourism not yet thought of, conventional American architectural patterns prevailed.