Claremont’s Cinderella Homes (Part 1)

by John Neiuber

Just south of Arrow Highway and west of Indian Hill lays the Cinderella Homes neighborhood. The Cinderella tract is a unique neighborhood emblematic of the economic and housing boom of southern California after World War II. It is also the story of, in the truest sense, the promise and hope of the American Dream.

The history of the Claremont Cinderella Homes begins outside the city with the designer and builder, Jean Valjean Vandruff. Mr. Vandruff was born in 1922 and raised on a farm in Hominy, Oklahoma. After graduating from high school, he borrowed $250 and, with his older brother Lindsey, set off for California, having heard that there were opportunities in the aviation business. They arrived in Los Angeles, rented an apartment on Figueroa Street near Olympic Boulevard and enrolled in the Anderson Airplane School. After completing courses in sheet metal, they both got jobs at Douglas Aircraft in El Segundo.

Lindsey longed to return to Oklahoma, so Jean accompanied him, but only for a very short time. Jean returned to Los Angeles and hired back on with Douglas Aircraft, but in a better-paying position making installations on a new experimental aircraft. Shortly after returning, Pearl Harbor was bombed and America declared war on Japan, Germany and Italy. Deciding not to be subject to the draft and with a growing love for all things aeronautical, Mr. Vandruff enlisted in the Army Air Corps, training as a pilot to fly B-17 and B-24 bombers.

Mr. Vandruff was assigned to a base on Morotai Island just west of New Guinea. His squadron made strikes in Borneo and the Philippines. After more than 25 bombing missions, his plane was heavily damaged on a bombing run near Hanoi, Vietnam. They piloted the plane to a rendezvous point where the crew bailed out and the plane went down. Three crewmen were rescued by an amphibious aircraft before it was scared off by approaching Japanese warplanes. An American submarine was in the area and rescued Mr. Vandruff and the other three airmen.

After 43 bombing missions, Mr. Vandruff was reassigned to Hamilton Field in San Francisco on July 4, 1945, and after a short leave was honorably discharged from the Army Air Force.

He returned to Los Angeles at the age of 23 and enrolled at USC in the fall of 1945 to study electrical engineering. He later changed his major to architecture. While attending USC, he came upon an idea to install rear speakers for his car radio in his brand-new Chevrolet. It caught on and, while still a student, he started his first business with his oldest brother Shannon—the Vandruff Rear Seat Speakers. The business proved profitable until they were pushed out by American Motors, then Chrysler, then Ford and finally GM, who saw more profit producing their own speakers. 

In 1950, Shannon bought a lot in Downey, California. Jean designed the home and they built it during his summer vacation from USC. He enjoyed the experience so much, he dropped out of college and devoted his time to designing and building homes. He and Shannon built one home and it sold right away. Then they built two at a time and then three.

By 1954, the brothers were building six at a time. It was then that Jean hit upon the idea of “The Cinderella Home” and built the first one in Downey. It was an immediate success, drawing over 35,000 people to see it and only by word-of-mouth advertising. It became their success formula. Shannon, who ran the business side, suggested to Jean that they cease building custom homes and build tract homes instead with the custom features and design of the Cinderella Home that proved so desirable. Jean agreed and developed four floor plans and 20 elevations. The homes would be ranch style in a wide low style with long roof overhangs, rounded rafter-tails and shake shingle roofs. The fronts would use brick for wainscoting and planters. Oversized and wide windows with custom shutters were planned and garage doors were  that complemented the architecture. The interiors featured eight-foot-wide fireplaces, modern kitchens and an open-concept floor plan.

Mr. Vandruff explained, “Every home I have ever designed has incorporated this concept, because I have always believed that communication is one of the primary keys to a successful marriage and a happy family.”

Shannon purchased 40 acres of land in west Anaheim and attempted to secure a construction loan for 168 homes, an unheard-of number at the time. He was turned down by one financial institution after another until finally securing a loan from an officer at Hollywood First Federal Savings and Loan, who liked Jean’s designs, the company’s excellent credit and their past performance. The deal was signed on the final day of the escrow period.

The word-of-mouth about Cinderella Homes continued to spread. During construction, hundreds of potential buyers stopped by the site to inquire about the homes. It was a revolutionary concept; only custom homes costing in excess of $20,000 featured the amenities that would be available in Cinderella Homes that would sell for $14,000. 

When the sub-division went on sale, they were sold out in three days and the company still had a waiting list of over 1,000 buyers. A second development of 701 homes was begun and buyers were notified that a 4 a.m. grand opening would be held. Buyers lined up the night before and, by sunrise, over 200 homes were sold. By 1956, the Vandruffs had the largest home building operation in Orange County and were producing 16 homes per day.


Next month: The development of the Claremont Cinderella Homes.


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