Particularly popular in southern California, but also found in Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Nevada and Vancouver they are known for their downmarket status and inexpensive rents. They are currently experiencing a minor sentimental renaissance thanks to the mid-century modern design return to vogue. In spite of their serviceability as functional, affordable housing, and the niche appeal of their trappings and trim, dingbats are widely reviled as socially alienating visual blights; California historian Leonard Pitt said of them, "The dingbat typifies Los Angeles apartment architecture at its worst."
The word is sometimes said to reference dingbat in the sense of a "general term of disparagement," referring to either the flawed buildings themselves or the builders or even the residents. For example, one online architecture dictionary says, "They were called dingbat houses because of the quick and shoddy way they were constructed." However, it is generally believed dingbat refers to the stylistic flourishes (à la typographic dingbats) that often garnish the stucco façades.
Geographer Barbara Rubin writes that since the existing housing stock of California bungalows, Mediterranean-style small houses, Spanish Colonial Revival duplexes and aging Victorians was insufficient, "a compromise capable of accommodating a marked increase in density, yet human in scale, and economical to construct, evolved by the early 1950s." This was the dingbat.
Dingbats were appealing to the real-estate trifecta of builders, landlords and renters:
Rubin continues, "Inserted into empty lots or replacing the [existing] residential stock, the dingbat [was] a remarkably successfully transitional solution, the fulminations of architectural critics notwithstanding."
The production of dingbats essentially ceased by the mid-1970s, because they were "zoned out of existence when their signature back-out parking was banned by city ordinance."
Dingbats are primarily located in areas of a city that were (sub)urbanized or redeveloped in the 1950s and 1960s; city centers are generally free of them. They are often located on the cheaper lots found near "locally undesirable land uses" (LULUs) like sewage plants, power stations, jails or major freeways.
Dingbats, designed to maximize land use, invariably stretch their footprints to the lot line and are typically 50 feet (15 m) wide by 100 feet (30 m) deep. Always resolutely cuboid, the stucco boxes usually contain six to eight apartments per building—perhaps 10 if the lot size is generous and zoning regulations permit. Most dingbats are clothed in stucco, sometimes with variant bonus materials like vertical wooden clapboard, concrete blocks or river rock. The stilts that support the cantilevered portion of the building are generally made of metal or stucco-covered wood.
Two standard elements of the dingbat genre are multiple entrances and the illusion of single-family residential density. The front of the building usually has one entrance or no entrances at all, thus presenting a unified front to the street. Typically, each unit is assigned a reserved parking spot; in some cases it is tandem parking. Some dingbats have studios; most are filled with one-or-two bedroom, one-bathroom units.
As for their livability, Gary Indiana writes, "A bad idea run amok, these one- or two- (sometimes three-) story stucco shoeboxes that nearly everyone lives in at one time or another in L.A. have an existential emptiness that can be gussied up and dissembled by track lighting and the right sort of throw pillows and furniture, but the spatial insipidity of the dingbat eventually defeats most efforts to turn a 'unit' into 'home,' even when little sparkle lights enliven the façade."
There is either no yard to speak of or small residual yards surrounding the building, none of which are particularly useful.
The typically cheap construction also means that occupants may have to deal with a disproportionate number of leaky roofs (most dingbats have flat roofs where rainwater pools and can rot the outer roofing), yellowing walls, spotty plumbing or cheap wiring.
The external ornamentation holds most of the aesthetic appeal that is to be found in a stucco box. Their dingbats, if detached, are increasingly collectible among aficionados of the Space Age, Tiki and mid-century American design in general.
Per Mimi Zeiger, "[Stucco boxes] wear their accessories—star-shaped wrought iron, carriage lamps, decorative tile, coats-of-arms—like clip-on jewelry. Baubles and broaches designed to emulate a glamour just beyond reach." (Other popular decorations include electric-light torches, stylized animals and geometric designs that are (very) vaguely reminiscent of Mondrian.)
The buildings were often given names (as a way differentiate one shoebox from another) that were scrawled across the faces of the building in outsize, lavish cursive. Most merely used the name of the street (The Redondo sat on Redondo Avenue, etc.) but many others referenced lifestyles and geographies far removed from the dingbat reality: tropical paradises (the Caribbean, the Riviera, Hawaii) or stately dwellings of rarefied provenance (villas, castles).
A Los Angeles Times reporter writing about a book devoted to the "rediscovery" of the dingbat noted, "Grandiose names—manors, arms, chezs, chateaus—abound. 'How charming is that?' [dingbat fancier] Piercy asks, flipping to a big, numb box with Byron Arms printed above the doorway. 'Nobody in their right mind would think that Lord Byron lived there. It's lovely!' "
Artists have recently taken to photographing the more expressive dingbats, connecting images of their tireless, near-mesmerizing uniformity to the replicative pop art of Andy Warhol and finding that "the little differences between a monstrosity called the Capri and a twin called the Flamingo acquire the cachet of something like concepts."
Writer Gary Indiana says of L.A. dingbats, "[They] are not so much déclassé or redolent of actual poverty as they are an architecture of transience, of three-month leases or month-to-month rentals, in some ways ideal for the dicey professions so many Angelenos follow: illegal hair salons, "therapeutic massage" and a spectrum of feast-or-famine jobs in the entertainment industry, from acting to video editing. One can move from dingbat to dingbat on an income scale that slides up and down, and the very flimsiness of these buildings, which are usually supported on stilts on at least one side to make room for carports, encourages the idea that residing in one is invariably temporary, that the people inside are waiting to bottom out and segue to a Skid Row hotel, hoping for the right Richard Neutra to come on the market or looking for something in between—a guesthouse in the hills, a Silver Lake triplex with a long-term lease, a bungalow in Atwater Village."
One design 'zine states that, "The construction of one dingbat on a street of elegant rowhouses is enough to send property values plummeting," and subsequently calls for more form-based codes, a type of building-design ordinance that distinguishes between the comparative aesthetic (and therefore socio-economic) value of dingbats and rowhouses.
Also, their small size relative to newer buildings means that lower densities result from their construction, which encourages wider roads and more highways, and greater sprawl, further aggravating traffic problems and the expense of utilities. Failure to achieve an acceptable level of density also short-circuits efforts to make public transit more widely accessible.