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The History of Solvang, the Heritage of Denmark  

By Ann Dittmer

Author's note: While some buildings have been modified, all structures mentioned here still exist.

In its early years, Solvang never advertised its Danish cultural heritage through public or private architecture. Every building, with the exception of the classically designed Santa Ynez Valley Bank, was constructed as a simple wood frame structure in a western style or adopted Mission/Spanish style facades of white washed stucco and red tile roofs.
Bethania Lutheran (1928) was the first building in Solvang to display the Danish heritage of the town’s settlers. For such an important building, the community chose to construct their Lutheran church in the style of 12-14th century Danish rural churches with corbie-stepped gables.

Bethania Lutheran
With exacting detail, Bethania Lutheran’s church faithfully replicates Danish rural church architecture. The building became a visual beacon for newly arrived Danes. To this day, Bethania Lutheran remains the most authentic Danish architectural replica in Solvang.

A hallmark of Solvang’s Danish look is bindingsværk. This type of construction was popular in Denmark as early as the 16th century. Literally meaning brick and timber, this half-timber construction technique (sometimes using stucco as an alternative to brick) is typical to Danish medieval buildings. Starting in the 1930s, individual building projects in Solvang started to use bindingsværk architectural style. However, most residents could not afford real timbers. Instead, sculpted cement mixed with brown pigment sufficed to create the impression of wood beams.
Alfred Baker Petersen was the first to incorporate Danish bindingsværk into his home (1931). Einer Johnsen’s jewelry and radio shop (1936) became the first Main Street business to adopt a simple bindingsværk design. In 1939 the Hans Knudsen family built their coffee shop and restaurant, Sunny Corner, with a traditional half-timber facade. A trend was developing.

Sunny Corner
The finishing construction touches being given to the Sunny Corner Café, 1939.
Photo credit: Myrna Knudsen Wise.

The next major Danish-style building was the new Solvang Elementary School. Located on Spring Street (today Atterdag Road), it opened in January of 1940. The school’s steep red tiled roof complimented the nearby Bethania Church. A metal stork weather vane was placed over the entrance to bring traditional good luck.

Solvang Grammar School
The newly constructed Solvang grammar school, 1940.
Photo credit: Gladys Rasmussen FitzGerald.

One of Solvang’s boldest Danish architectural statements came from Ferd Sorensen, a local plumber, metalsmith, and woodworker. Starting in 1940, he built what later would be called a Danish Provincial style home. While the design was based on traditional Danish architectural elements, Ferd added a touch of whimsy to his creation. 

Ferd Sorensen house
Ferd Sorensen built his house with an adjacent windmill, the first of Solvang’s windmills. It still stands proud at the east entrance to Solvang.

One of the largest commercial projects to go Danish was Raymond Paaske’s Copenhagen Square.  A collaborative effort, which included Ferd Sorensen’s design, it was completed in 1947. This building was the catalyst for downtown Solvang to invest in widespread Danish-style conversion.

Copenhagen Square
Copenhagen Square incorporated thin-cut wood shingles with rolled edges and cross-pieces along the roof peak, imitating the feel of thatch roofing. The detail required soaking of the shingles overnight and nailing them on wet to prevent the splitting of the shingles. Tedious work, but effective, this technique was often copied for other downtown rooftops.
Photo credit: Gladys Rasmussen FitzGerald

Viggo and Martha Brandt-Erichsen’s home, Elverhoy, also had architectural significance in Solvang. Viggo and his family spent nearly four years (1949-1953) recreating the style of an 18th century Danish farmhouse. Viggo hand-hewed the half-timber beams and laid intricate brick patterns to provide authentic bindingsværk walls — one of the few buildings in town with such detail. 

Elverhoy under construction
Elverhoy: one of the few structures in Solvang that uses real half-timbers and hand-laid bricks to recreate an authentic Danish farmhouse look.

“The fact that Elverhoy used real beams caused a big problem,” recalls son David Brandt-Erichsen, who grew up in the house. “Unbeknownst to my father, the climate in California was much different than Denmark and was not conducive to this style of architecture. When it rained, the beams would swell, and when they dried out, they would shrink. This made the house leak like a sieve and it took many years and lots of work to fix this. The stucco facade ‘beams’ work much better in California!”

From this point forward, the conversion of much of Solvang from non-descript American town to Danish village began in earnest.

Ann Dittmer holds a Masters Degree in geography and teaches at CA State University Northridge and Pierce Community College. An active volunteer at Elverhøj, she has conducted more than 120 interviews documenting Solvang’s history.

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