The name “Elverhøj” is pronounced “Elverhoy” (as spelled in its English version). It was taken from Denmark’s most famous folk play, Elverhøj, which was written in 1828 and is still performed today. Translated as “Elves’ Hill,” the story involves a king’s visit to the world of dancing female wood-spirits and their forest friends. Elverhøj was first performed in Solvang in 1914. The builders took the name of this much-beloved play as the name for their new family home.
Located in Solvang, California, Elverhøj Museum of History & Art is a community museum devoted to the history of Solvang, the Danish-American pioneer spirit, the colorful heritage of Denmark, and the arts.
The historic hand-crafted structure was the dream home of artists Viggo Brandt-Erichsen and his wife, Martha “Patt” Mott Brandt-Erichsen. He was an internationally recognized painter and sculptor, and she was an accomplished painter and art instructor.
In 1949 the Brandt-Erichsens began building their home in the style derived from the large farmhouses of 18th century Jutland in northern Denmark. They incorporated many elements of Scandinavian architecture. Ornamental wrought ironwork, a carved redwood main entry door, and hand-painted panels are a few of the permanent imprints of this remarkable family.
Elverhøj remained the Brandt-Erichsen family home until Patt’s death in 1983 when the building was donated to the community to be used as a museum and art gallery. After extensive renovation in 1987, Elverhøj Museum of History & Art opened to the public in May of 1988. Today Elverhøj is one of the few museums outside of Denmark devoted to Danish culture and the Danish-American experience.
Solvang is one of several colonies founded by Danish immigrants in rural areas of the United States during the late 19th century and into the 20th century. Between 1820 and 1990, approximately 375,000 Danes had immigrated to the United States. The immigrants were drawn to the United States by the promise of a better life; more freedom in trade, occupation, and religious equality; more economic opportunities; and greater social equality. The Homestead Act of 1862 enabled almost anyone to own and farm their land. Letters from immigrants already in the United States painted a glowing picture of the possibilities, as did advertising by immigration agents, steamship lines, railroads, and land companies.
Founded in 1911, Solvang began as a dream of three Danish immigrants who were educators and pastors. Benedict Nordentoft, Jens Møller Gregersen, and Peder Pedersen Hornsyld planned to raise money to buy a large tract of land on the West Coast and subdivide it into plots for farms, homes, and a town. Profits from the sale of land would be used for building a folk school and a Lutheran church. In January, 1911 the Danish-American Colony Corporation bought almost 9,000 acres of prime land in the Santa Ynez Valley. The new colony was named “Solvang” (sunny field) and glowing advertisements were placed in Danish-language publications. Early buyers, almost all Danish, came from California, the Midwest, and Denmark.
Most of the early settlers were farmers. They quickly built barns for their livestock and farming equipment, then houses for their families. Dairy farming, a tradition in Denmark, flourished. Other settlers began establishing necessary businesses. The Solvang Hotel opened in June 1911. A general merchandise store soon followed as did a creamery, bakery, bank, and butcher store.
True to its founders’ plan, Solvang built a folk school in 1911. Designed for young adults as a “school for life,” it offered a broad range of courses. These included Danish arts and crafts, singing, folk dancing, gymnastics, bookkeeping, history, English, and Danish language classes, and more. In 1914, the folk school moved to its new home and was renamed Atterdag College. For years, Atterdag was the heart and soul of Solvang. It was used as a folk school, a community meeting hall, a performing arts venue, a gymnastics center, a summer school, and a boarding house.
When the college finally closed its doors in 1952, its site and some of its facilities were used by the Solvang Lutheran Home (later renamed Atterdag Village). The Atterdag College building fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1970.
The Danes of Solvang rapidly became acculturated. They learned English, followed American ways, and sent their children to the local grammar school. But they also kept Danish traditions. They spoke Danish amongst themselves and formed Danish fraternal organizations.
In 1936, the 25th anniversary of Solvang’s founding, residents decided to throw a Danish party. The three-day celebration was a huge success. The next year Solvang put on another celebration and the tradition of Danish Days was born.
After World War II, Solvang decided it wanted embrace Danish Provincial architecture. New buildings were constructed and old buildings were remodeled in this design. Danish-style windmills were built. In 1947, the Saturday Evening Post published a feature article about the “spotless Danish village that blooms like a rose in California’s charming Santa Ynez Valley.” The article and its stunning photographs started a stream of visitors to Solvang, which became known as the “Danish Capital of America.”
Today, Solvang is a charming town of 6,100 residents. Despite tourism, it has kept its small-town atmosphere. Although approximately only 10% of the residents now claim Danish ancestry, the Danish heritage remains part of the texture of everyday life that gives Solvang its unique look and atmosphere.