Cheese DanishSolvang, CA

Solvang sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I think you know by now that I’m a fan of roadside attractions—anything cheesy, hokey, corny and kitschy has a special place in my heart. But I need to clarify something: I’m pretty snobbish about my kitsch. It’s got to be either bizarre but well-executed, or so bad it’s good, or of epic scale—or else just so wonderfully earnest that no matter how lame it is, it melts my heart.

Solvang, California is none of the above, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Despite having a Spanish mission on site for a hundred years already, the hamlet of Solvang was founded and settled in 1911 by Danish immigrants coming from the American Midwest. Its famous half-timbered mock-Danish architecture, however, didn’t start appearing until after World War II. Some of the buildings—like the 1991 scale replica of Copenhagen’s Rundetårn, of which you can just see a snippet at the top of the above sketch—are very recent additions.

Solvang sketch by Chandler O'Leary

But the thing about Solvang is that all that ersatz European architecture is pretty darn well done: the craftsmanship is all reasonably solid and the theme is consistent throughout town. And that kind of irritates me!

There’s something else, too: Wall Drug, and the Corn Palace, and Lucy the Elephant, and all the other roadside greats might be oddball anomalies and hokey destinations—but weird as they are, each is the genuine article. Solvang is a replica—worse, an approximation—of something that already exists. If I had the choice, I’d rather just buy a ticket to Denmark, and sketch the real thing.

And here’s the hardest part for me to swallow: Solvang is fake, sure, but it’s professional fakery—the kind you find at a theme park (incidentally, I loathe theme parks). The faux-Danish veneer is carefully considered and well-crafted enough to be attractive. I mean, I liked it well enough to take the time to sketch it, right? Yet the town doesn’t quite have the endearing charm of a place like Wall Drug: the overwhelming effect of an amateur with perhaps more skill than taste, more business savvy than artistry. It’s no Disneyland, thankfully (though the town’s copy of the Little Mermaid sculpture comes close), but it’ll never make my list of favorites.

I know, I know. What kind of nut case writes critical essays on the relative artistic merits of ersatz period architecture and oversized folk art? Well, my kind of nut case, apparently. I guess this is what happens when you send a chronic road-tripper to art school. Sigh.

So okay: Solvang gets a pass for being pretty—and for giving me access to fresh-baked æbleskivers. But I’d really like it if it also had a few lumpy concrete sculptures and clumsy ho-made signs to its name.

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Comments (7)

  1. Kate B

    Ah, yes. Solvang. When I lived in SoCal, I did like to visit there. It was something visually different than the usual. I agree about fresh baked goods. The other thing we went for was Viking knotwork cast pewter buttons and woven trims. Before the commercialization of the internet, that was the only place outside of Europe we could get them for our costumes!

  2. Allan

    I am Danish and I visited Solvang a decade or so ago. The place is more Danish than the queen in a remembered-or-imagined sort of way. I left Denmark 20 years ago and even then it was difficult to find a pan for æbleskiver. I tried two years ago to buy one in Denmark so I could pass the tradition on to my son, but my sister, who lives in Denmark, explained that everyone buys the frozen æbleskiver and it is almost impossible to find the pan. I should go back to Solvang to get one.

    Your drawings are wonderful. Looking back at the 3000 pictures I took on that month-long trip up all of Highway 1 and on to Vancouver, there are relatively few from Solvang. I just didn’t find it that visually interesting. But worth visiting at least once.

    If you go consider visiting Anderson’s in nearby Buellton for some Swedish split pea soup.

    1. Chandler O'Leary Post author

      Thanks, Allan! It’s funny you mention Pea Soup Andersen’s—it’s the subject of the next post!

      As for æbleskivers, my husband and I have a cast-iron pan (he’s makes a mean æbleskiver), but it’s not new. We found it at an antique store in Minnesota years ago, and it’s a beauty. I still come across them occasionally at antique shops; I think outside of Denmark that might be the best place to find a good-quality one.

    1. Chandler O'Leary Post author

      I love *old* Vegas, the old neon signs and motels and midcentury houses. The newer, polished, glitzy Vegas is a big turnoff for me, but I love the old-school stuff. When I was 16 my dad and I stayed a night there in a cowboy-themed motel, where you could still get steak buffet at 3 am for $2.99—I think those days are long gone, but at the time I thought it was fabulous!

  3. GrampaCharlie

    I am wondering what you would think of Leavenworth, Washington? I really like your creations. Do you use pencil, or paint?

    1. Chandler O'Leary Post author

      I’m afraid I take an even dimmer view of Leavenworth than I do of Solvang—after all, at least Solvang actually has Danish heritage. Leavenworth is completely arbitrary—which normally I would find hilarious, but there’s something about all those plasticky Christmas shops and schnitzel-themed pizza restaurants that I just find depressing. I do have a few sketches, though, which I’m sure I’ll post here eventually.

      I use primarily ink pen and paint in my drawings; you can read more about my process here.

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