by Mark Frauenfelder
Suddenly, the sign for Ship's coffee shop comes into view, towering above the stuccoed strip malls and convenience stores. A colossal lollipop with a tapered yellow chevron piercing its cherry-candy disk, the astro-atomic structure looks ready for liftoff. Once, there was a restaurant under the sign. It was one of three in Los Angeles, built in the late '50s and early '60s. All were exemplars of the Googie school of architecture (named after another dynamically styled LA coffee shop of the same era). Their roofs slanted up like hands of friendly giant robots welcoming patrons in the door. Their bright interiors were decorated with diamonds and boomerangs, chevrons and starbursts, parabolas and teardrops. The waitresses wore pink and white uniforms, serving coffee to customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
No longer. The Ship's on La Cienega was demolished in 1995. Now it's a parking lot for a truck-rental company. The only thing left is the sign, and it's in bad shape. The neon is long gone, and the paint job is sloppy. The other Ship's have vanished too. They were bulldozed.
A half-century ago, the streets of Southern California were filled with flamboyant towers of consumerism spires and obelisks and beacons transmitting neon-fortified messages of optimism to families riding in cars with space-age tailfins. Life was good, and the marvels of modern science were making a world as new as tomorrow. Wallets fat with postwar-economy cash, drivers steered their Plymouth PowerFlites, Ford Skyliners and DeSoto Firedomes into the diners and drive-ins and motels beneath these super-size signs.
Brilliantly illuminated and designed to accommodate car-bound customers, the buildings vibrated with giddy exuberance. By boldly rejecting traditional conventions of architecture, these curved and cantilevered structures seemed to defy gravity, as if they were aching to soar upwards and join the Sputniks and Telstars blinking in the night sky overhead. The swooping, zigzagging and oscillating decors were symbols of new technologies that promised to deliver people to a paradise of mass-produced plentitude. Yet somewhere between then and now, Americans gave up on that dream. A series of grim affairs Vietnam, Watergate, urban blight forced them to take their eyes off the stars, and they lost the sanguinity that had fueled this particular kind of architecture. Most of the establishments the Biff's and the Bob's, the Whataburgers and The Wich Stands, the Herbert's and the Huddles have been demolished, replaced with buildings about as exciting as a stack of tax forms. Today, only a few relics of those hopeful years exist.
But my family and I are taking this road trip not just to grieve over the rusting remains of car culture architecture; we're conducting an experiment. We want to find out if it's possible to travel backwards in time specifically, to the fifth and sixth decades of the 20th century. On our winding journey through LA, Orange County and Palm Springs, we'll search for what's left of mid-century modern diners, supermarkets, bowling alleys, coffee shops and motels. And we'll examine the various fates for these establishments: parking lot, historic landmark, repurposed shell, dusty anachronism, sanitized micro theme park, rediscovered work of art.
A few nights earlier, I attended a meeting of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee, a group founded in 1984 in an effort to halt the destruction of postwar architecture. Leading the evening's program was 26-year-old ModCom chairman emeritus Chris Nichols, in Dixieland musician's garb (complete with straw hat and garters on his sleeves). Once the meeting began, it became clear that while everyone in ModCom was in love with modern architecture, they were long past their initial infatuation and had grown serious about preservation. The three-hour meeting consisted of updates from the heads of various ModCom departments, who reported on historic landmark research, petitions, campaigns, lobbying efforts and other not-so-fun matters of business. Goateed ModCom president Michael Columbo, outfitted in a snazzy suit, discussed the planned "rehabilitation" of Mann's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, which would restore the famed movie house to its original 1928 splendor. Seemed great, but there was a dilemma: what to do with the current marquee, a beautiful example of 1950s signage, which would have to make way for the 1928 replica replacing it? ModCom heavyweight John English, an architectural historian who spends evenings and weekends conducting his popular Googie Tours, said the owners may re-install it in front of the adjacent shopping area; but judging by the sighs and crossed arms, not everyone was in favor of that possibility. The meeting left me hungering to take a new look at the buildings I had previously admired merely for their audacious charm. But at the moment, Sarina is merely hungry. "I want pancakes," she announces from the back seat. Fortunately the sign for Pann's is in sight. And what a sign it is! Each letter is set at a wacky angle on a huge, bent rectangle mounted on a leaning I-beam signpost thrust through a zigzag roof, which in turn seemingly floats over sparkling glass walls. Set smack-dab in the middle of a gritty sprawl of ugly buildings that have accreted around Los Angeles International Airport, Pann's seems cheerfully ignorant of its drab neighborhood. Built in 1956, and designed by the LA architectural firm of Armét and Davis a veritable factory of Southern California Googie-style buildings in the fifties it is in pristine condition, and has all the characteristics of a classic Googie coffee shop. Inside, a hostess wearing a crisp white shirt, red capri pants and bobby socks greets us with a smile and leads us to a circular red vinyl booth. Our waitress, in the same red-and-white uniform, seems to be smirking at our enthusiasm. But we can't help it. The floors are made of a cut pebble tile, and jagged flagstone juts out of the walls. The lamps above the booths are made of pre-psychedelic multicolored resin. Every window offers a view of the garden of exotic palms that look like they could have been teleported from the age of dinosaurs.
Pann's has set our hopes high for the trip ahead. Our next stop is a grocery store/cafe a mile away called Simply Wholesome. The building it occupies, another Armét and Davis tribute to the Atomic Age, was once called The Wich Stand, and it closed in 1987. There's a 1957 photograph of the place in Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture, a book by architectural historian Alan Hess that's become a bible for mid-century aficionados and preservationists. In the picture, The Wich Stand's pylon sign, like Pann's, pierces the overhanging roof to touch the sky. The outdoor patio is covered by disk-like umbrellas and illuminated by seven backlit boxes decorated with starbursts.
When we drive up, The Wich Stand's only identifiable component is the angled pylon. The building has been heavily remodeled, and the interior has been divided in two, blocking most of the natural light. An oppressive black-wire grate hangs from the ceiling. It feels dead in here. It's difficult to imagine that this place once had the same buzzing energy as Pann's. As my wife points out, the fate of The Wich Stand is even worse than Ship's. "They should have torn the whole thing down," Carla says. Or never changed it in the first place, I think. But change is inevitable, now, as it was in the '50s. Back then, nostalgic parents surely lamented the death of cowboy culture as a principal theme for children's toys when it was scorched into nonexistence by the white-hot blast of the space program. Suddenly six-guns lost out to laser guns, and spring-mounted horses in playgrounds across the country were torn up and replaced with miniature rocking rockets. Moon Park, 40 miles south of LA in Costa Mesa, once featured outer-space-themed playground toys, but they've since been removed and replaced by new slides and jungle gyms. The park's namesake, however, a simulated lunar surface, is still here. It's a 30-foot dome of cratered gray concrete, surrounded by a tiny red fence that Sarina handily hops over. At 11:30 in the morning, we're the only ones in the tiny park, and even though an endless stream of cars whizzes by on Interstate 405 a few yards away, I feel as far from the real world as John Glenn must have aboard the Friendship 7.
We're brought back to reality 20 minutes later at Anaheim's La Palma Chicken Pie Shop. With a charmingly whimsical sign topped by a friendly-looking giant chicken, this old roadside restaurant appears to have retained most of its original structure and decor simply because the owners haven't bothered to update it for the last 50 years. We enter through the bakery, which sells their hot chicken pies to go, and take a counter in the back, next to a brick wall painted the color of salmon mousse. The ceiling, covered with cottage-cheese plaster and painted chestnut brown, doesn't do much to cheer up the place. A brusque waitress in a spotted outfit appears and runs through the menu choices like an automaton. In a minute she returns with small salads drowning in puddles of dressing. Carla won't touch hers. "The pies will be good," I promise her. "That's what the place is famous for." The pies come. They're steaming hot, covered in viscous, gooey gravy that looks more suitable for lubricating a tractor transmission than for eating. Carla and I poke at them halfheartedly. Sarina acts like we gave her a live toad to eat. "Let's go to Baskin-Robbins," I suggest. We pay a cashier who is keeping his shirt collars open with paper clips (I didn't ask, he didn't tell), and head down the street to one of the last mid-century ice-cream parlors in Anaheim.
But we're too late. Judging by the gutted interior and trash surrounding the A-frame cottage, we're about two months too late. I'm beginning to think that the current world of Googie ends and begins at Pann's. Thankfully, I'm wrong. Anaheim's Linbrook Bowl has managed to survive the unkind fate most bowling alleys have had to endure. The marquee alone makes the trip worth it: a gargantuan bowling pin that rotates on a slanted pole attached to a tall corrugated rectangle spelling out the lighted word "BOWL." The interior is just as awe-inspiring, and probably looks just as it did when it opened on Saturday, August 16, 1958 (except for the computerized scoring system, introduced in the early nineties). We skip the vaguely Polynesian cocktail lounge, where a gaggle of seniors are knocking back early-afternoon Mai Tais and crooning to Tony Bennett on the karaoke machine, and head for the coffee shop next to it that's so well-preserved it looks as though it might have been pulled from a time capsule. Even the prices are nostalgic: Two bowls of chocolate and vanilla ice cream set us back a buck-fifty.
With renewed hope, we get back on the highway for an uneventful 90-mile drive to Palm Springs, the classic desert playground where Bob, Frank, Dino, Sammy, Desi and Lucy used to come to swing clubs, soak up sun and toss back cocktails in homes designed by the likes of John Lautner and Richard Neutra. The mid-century architecture of Palm Springs has a distinctly different feel from the roadside Googie of LA and Anaheim. Instead of cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes, this mecca of modernism is about mud baths and martinis. Like a sun-warmed incubator isolated from the influence of Los Angeles by an expanse of barren desert, Palm Springs gave birth to some of the most eclectic, experimental and sophisticated mid-century architecture on earth.
The first indication that Palm Springs has rediscovered its modernist roots appears a few miles from town. A man-made mirage rising out of the desert, the Montana St. Martin Gallery is as astonishing as a hotel on the moon. The cantilevered steel roof extends 95 feet past the front of the building, which is made out of rose-tinged concrete blocks. The seemingly impossible structure is so sleek and elegant it's hard to imagine that a few years ago it was a decrepit eyesore: a 40-year-old abandoned gas station that functioned only as an embarrassment to the city. Designed by the late Albert Frey, the former Tramway Gas Station is a perfect example of how Palm Springs has come to realize the value of its long-forgotten architectural treasures. Born in Switzerland in 1903, Frey studied under Le Corbusier in Paris and moved to Palm Springs in 1934, designing more than 250 buildings here. Because the architect rarely strayed from his outpost in the desert, he remained largely unrecognized until his nineties, when Joseph Rosa, the chief curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., wrote a book about his work, exposing his tech-meets-nature style to the rest of the world. The gas station was saved from the wrecking ball by Colombian-born artist Montana St. Martin and fellow San Francisco expatriate Clayton Carlson. They purchased the boarded-up structure in 1997, spending the next 18 months rehabilitating it in consultation with Frey before his death in 1998. The gallery is open by appointment only, but St. Martin is expecting us, so he's waiting as I pull into the gravel parking lot and step out of the car into a steady wind that rolls down from Mount San Jacinto over the desert. After the two-hour drive, the wind is refreshing and carries a pleasing sage fragrance from the blue-gray shrubs dotting the surrounding desert. St. Martin greets me warmly, taking me past the enormous clay wine urns and ancient Korean mill wheels arranged like gigantic stones in a Zen garden behind the building. The sun is starting to drop, and the play of light and shadow across the building creates beautiful geometric patterns on the walls. "Look there!" he says, pointing to one of the gas station's stone-block support columns. The blocks are stacked in alternating angles; half are in shadow, while the other half glow with a rosy tinge from the rays of the late afternoon sun. "The colors change throughout the day." St. Martin then points to the bottom of the roof, which is painted ice blue, one of Frey's favorite colors. "At certain times of the day," he says, "it matches the color of the sky." He tells me that Frey's design was inspired by the stonework patterns of Mayan pyramids. For a gas station! That clinches it for me Frey has just become one of my personal heroes.
But now, the sky is turning a dark shade of blue, and we have to leave in order to dock at the Orbit In before the front desk closes at 7 p.m. Located off a side street near the middle of Palm Springs' alternately tony-tacky main drag, the Orbit In is one of a spate of small, stylish motels that fell out of favor until a few years ago. The motel was purchased by a pair of retro-connoisseurs and lovingly restored to its original swank and swingin' splendor.
One look at the quirky space-age marquee, and I get the feeling that I'm in a miniature modernist theme park. The incredibly friendly manager, Bruce Abney, leads us past a poolside bar with three glowing lava lamps, each of which sports a high-speed Internet cable (for people who like to mix laptops and liquor, I suppose). Over the roof of the motel, Bruce points to Albert Frey's tiny second house, in the rocky foothills of Mount San Jacinto. As Sarina pulls my arm toward the pool she's ready to jump in fully clothed Bruce brings us to our unit, the aptly named Martini Room. Like the other nine rooms (the Rat Pack Suite, Atomic Paradise, BossaNovaVille, etc.), it's decorated with a uniquely appropriate blend of old and new furniture. There's a freestanding bar, a Lawrence Lasky Toothpick table, an adorable pink-tile bathroom and a 1950s kitchenette with a Formica table already set with colorful Melmac dinnerware. The kitchen wall also has a socket with a high-speed Internet cable. I can hardly wait to jack in and email my friends about this place. After a couple of days spent window-shopping at the half-dozen retro-furniture stores on North Palm Canyon Drive, we head back to LA, taking a detour to Burbank to visit one of Googiedom's most celebrated landmarks: Bob's Big Boy. Built in 1949 from architect Wayne McAllister's design, and saved from demolition by the ModCommers in 1993, this swooping restaurant marks a transition between the streamlined moderne look of '40s diners and the freestyle liveliness of the Atomic Age. Its populist appeal stands out in marked contrast to the rarefied glamour of the Palm Springs architecture we saw just hours earlier. The 70-foot-tall mustard-colored sign lures in a diverse crowd from impeccably attired 90-year-olds to pompadoured hot-rodders and the place is packed at 2:30 p.m. on a Saturday. As I feast on my burger and fries and admire McAllister's sublime asymmetrical design, I feel as close to the retro-future as I have on the whole trip. Seeing the smiles and hearing the chatter of families, young couples and seniors enjoying their artery-clogging lunches, I sense that the happiness here is more a result of good architecture than delicious food. Really, the burgers are no better than McDonald's. But unlike McDonald's (designed to make you want to chow down quickly and get out), Bob's imbues a feeling of wonder that makes you want to linger, to soak up its cheerful message: Life is good, and people are capable of achieving whatever fantastic goals they set for themselves.
I decide I need to make a habit out of eating at existing Googie diners. Sure, the food contains more fat than a dumpster behind a liposuction clinic, but the psychological benefits more than make up for any health hazards. A few days after our return, I tell Carla and Sarina to get in the car; we're heading to Johnie's, a 1955 marvel from the firm of Armét and Davis that has served as the setting for a number of movies and music videos, located on the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax. The crazily angled, perforated roof hints at the fun we'll have inside. But alas, while Johnie's butterfly-shaped roof still soars, the place is empty. We can see the sign from the curb: closed. First Ship's, then The Wich Stand and Baskin-Robbins. Now this. It's as if the stars in the sky were going out, one by one.
Later, ModCom chairman Michael Columbo tells me that it's been shut down since last May, and is now owned by the 99-Cent Store chain. The ModCommers have been trying to locate a modernism-loving restaurateur to take over the place, but so far, they haven't been able to find anyone. The clock is ticking. Palm Springs: