Fact or Fiction: Munchkin Homes in La Jolla

What's the truth behind the San Diego urban legend of the Munchkin Homes?

La Jolla: Home to beaches, shopping, fine cuisine...and munchkin homes
••• La Jolla: Home to beaches, shopping, fine cuisine...and munchkin homes. Chiara Salvadori/Moment/Getty Images

There's nothing like 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 heard rumors of the "munchkin 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 munchkin homes back around 1980 from my friend, who said they were up on Mount Soledad. I hadn't heard of them and, of course, I wanted to see if it was true.

So, we headed off in his car, driving up Hillside Drive in La Jolla. It was pretty dark and foggy up and my friend turned on the classical music station for effect. As we're driving, he added, "Keep a lookout for four bridges -- if you pass the fourth, something bad will happen." OK, so now I was getting a bit creeped out.

We reached a point somewhere along the road when my friend said, "There! There they are!" We slowed down. The house I saw didn't look that out of the ordinary -- more like a ranch home, although the stature did seem a little...small. But I wasn't sure. 

I started telling my other friends about the munchkin homes and they were equally incredulous, and I headed the subsequent expeditions to Munchkin Land.

One time, one of our cohorts got out of the car to gauge the height of the house -- he could actually touch the roofline. 

The Truth Behind the Munchkin Homes

OK, so you want the truth? There aren't any munchkin 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, perpetuating the rumors that the little people who played the Munchkins in the movie lived in the houses during filming.

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 is only one remaining home now in La Jolla. It does have some features that a vivid imagination could construe as "munchkin-inspired", such as cobblestone floors and a round fireplace. 

The location explains the optical illusion of the short stature. 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 (the late 1930s). Which explains why my friend could touch the roofline.

Of course, through the years, the stories mutated into something more interesting: little people 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 of 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 munchkin houses in La Jolla?"

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

To see this off-the-beaten-track attraction in San Diego 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.