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Hidden San Diego: The Legend of the Munchkin Homes

So, what's the truth behind this enduring San Diego urban legend?

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Hidden San Diego is a series of articles about cool and unique things we don't generally know about San Diego.
There's nothing like a a good urban legend to fuel the imagination, and San Diego has its own enduring one. It's not an overly known one, it seems, but if you've grown up here or gone to college in town, you've likely hear rumors of "the munchkin houses" or "the midget homes."

Munchkin houses? you say? Ah, yes. And I must say, that I've had experience perpetuating this myth among my own friends in years past. Of which I will establish a backstory:

I first heard of the midget houses (as we called them) back around 1980 from my friend Ian. Now, Ian was known for his hyperbole about things, so when, during one evening of imbibing in beverages of the spirited kind, he asked if I had heard of the midget houses.

"Midget houses? Yeah, right. Get outta here" (or something a bit more profane) was my response. I believe at the time we were somewhere in La Jolla at a Mexican pub (Alfonso's?), and Ian said it's nearby, up on Mount Soledad. Well, of course, I wanted to see if it was true.

So, we head off in his car, driving up Hillside Drive. Now it's pretty dark and foggy up there, and we're a bit buzzed, so it's a bit eerie. To add to the atmosphere, Ian turns on the classical music station for effect. As we're driving, Ian adds, "Keep a lookout for four bridges - if you pass the fourth, something bad will happen." OK, so now I'm getting a bit creeped out.

We reach a point somewhere along the road when Ian says, "There! There they are!" We slow down - it doesn't look very elfin to me. More like a ranch home, although the stature does seem a little...small. But I'm not sure. "Let's go look for the bridges," Ian says. Uhh, OK.

We keep driving, passing under one, then two bridges. Ian turns up the classical music and now we've got this weird vibe going. We find the third bridge and drive on a bit more. We're starting to creep each other out - and decide not to press our luck with the fourth, so we head back down the hill. Whew. Midget houses!

Well, of course, I start telling my other friends about the munchkin homes, they're equally incredulous, and I head the subsequent expeditions to Munchkin Land. I use the same method as Ian: nighttime, fueled a bit of the grape (Reunite Lambrusco) and of course classical music for effect.

One time, one of our cohorts got out of the car to gauge the height of the house - he could actually touch the roofline. It *is* a midget house! Cool.

OK, so you want the truth? There aren't any midget houses. And it has nothing to do with the Wizard of Oz, whose author L. Frank Baum wrote portions of the book while in San Diego, though the movie did come out around the time the homes were constructed.

The homes (there were originally four) are real indeed. In fact, they were built by famed architect Cliff May, who often built homes to accommodate the lay of the land (in this case, a hillside). There apparently is only one remaining home, recently unoccupied. It does have some features that a vivid imagination could construe as "munchkin-inspired", such as cobblestone floors and a round fireplace. A few have posted their findings on the Web (see sidebar).

Which explains...the optical illusion of the short stature! See, the homes are built on the hill slope just below the grade of the road, so from the road, the structures appear shorter than normal, even though the houses are of normal dimensions for the time (late 1930s). Which explains why my friend could touch the roofline.

Of course, through the years, the stories mutated into something more interesting: midgets who made money appearing in the Wizard of Oz film came down to La Jolla and built a colony. According to Matthew Alice of the San Diego Reader, the myths have grown into tales of Chinese smugglers, Barnum & Bailey circus performers, mysterious European millionaires, midnight signal-light flashes, and dwarf sightings. None if it true, by the way.

So, there you have it. Your own bit of San Diego folklore - a genuine urban legend that you can pass on to others. It makes for great conversation, especially when there's a lull at a party or gathering: "Did you know there are midget houses in La Jolla?" "No. Get outta here." "Really, I've seen them myself," you say with a devilish grin. "I can show them to you if you want."

Just make sure you go at night, preferably when it's foggy. Oh, and don't forget to play the classical music for maximumm effect.

To see the "munchkin/midget" house built by Cliff May for yourself, take Hillside Drive to the 7470 block, on the northwest side of Mount Soledad. You can reach Hillside Drive from Torrey Pines Road.

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