PICO RIVERA — When Ollie Coward passes the old Mt. Baldy Inn, she swears she can still smell the orange juice--"so sweet and powerfully fresh"--that made the eatery a Southern California landmark during the Depression.
A waitress at the inn during its heyday, she helped serve as many as 5,000 glasses a day of the citrus cooler. Customers, she said, drove from miles around to the Whittier Boulevard drive-in, known as much for its rugged, snow-capped roof line as its juice.
"It was a place where avocado growers and Hollywood producers alike would sit side by side sipping the world's best OJ and eating barbecue sandwiches," Coward recalled of the dozen years she spent serving eight ounces of juice for a dime. "In many ways it will be sad to see the inn come down."
Nostalgia aside, Pico Rivera officials said the Mt. Baldy Inn--named and shaped after the roundish peak that looms over the Southland on clear days--will be razed by early next year.
And nobody, not even the city's historical society, is raising a murmur of protest about plans to demolish the drive-in to make way for a residential and commercial development.
Closed for a number of years, the inn has fallen into disrepair, its white stucco roof chipped and badly streaked with vehicle exhaust.
Structurally, Pico Rivera officials contend the drive-in is not sound anymore, although a tiny upholstery shop now operates in one corner of the building.
Extensive remodeling would be costly, and the leader of the Pico Rivera History and Heritage Assn. said it's not worth mounting a campaign to save the inn.
"At one time the inn brought a bit of fame to Pico Rivera," said Diane Gonzales, chairman of the historical group. "But the building is old and run-down. You can't save everything."
According to a city report, the inn could qualify for the National Register of Historic Places due to "its unique architectural character" and its place in the city's past.
But because no one has rallied to save it, city officials have pushed forward with plans to include the site in a 6.6-acre development, running south from Whittier Boulevard just west of the San Gabriel River flood channel. The project, approved by the City Council in May, includes 34 single-family homes and a 35,000-square-foot shopping center, according to Dave Caretto, assistant city manager. The area is in the city's redevelopment zone.
Attempts to Purchase
Attempts by the city to purchase the Mt. Baldy Inn site from its owners, Eva Bustillos of Anaheim and Rudy Ceniseroz of Montebello, have been unsuccessful.
So Caretto said the city has condemned the property, hoping to take control by next month through eminent domain. If the city succeeds, Caretto said Bustillos and Ceniseroz will be compensated for the land, a figure ultimately determined by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge.
Bustillos and Ceniseroz could not be reached for comment.
Although Coward will miss the drive-in, she said its glory days have long since ended.
She remembers when celebrities such as evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and German opera star Madam Schuman Henk would frequent the inn, which was built and opened in 1927 by Gar McOmber and his wife, Lily.
"They'd come from as far away as Santa Monica or San Diego," recalls Coward, one of McOmber's handpicked waitresses who wore white uniforms trimmed in orange and were paid 25 cents an hour.
Patrons could either eat outside in their cars or go inside, where dining areas were shaped like caves. For a quarter each, McOmber sold barbecue pork, ham and beef sandwiches.
"Those Hollywood producer types liked to come out, get a sandwich and then disappear for hours in the dining room, talking business and deals," said Coward, a Pico Rivera resident for more than a half century. "It was exciting--but hectic."
Sundays were the busiest at the inn, surrounded in those days by citrus and avocado groves.
The drawing card was McOmber's orange juice, a fresh-squeezed concoction with small bits of ice. The recipe for the slushy mixture, Coward said, was a closely guarded secret.
Carried Recipe to Grave
"Even Big Bertha, this stout woman who spent hours and hours every day squeezing oranges, didn't know how Gar made it," Coward said. "He carried that recipe to his grave."
In the early 1940s, McOmber sold the drive-in, and Coward said its popularity quickly waned. Since then it has been a Mexican restaurant, a night club and an ice cream parlor. Now, most of the building is vacant. The front door is chained shut and the Mt. Baldy Inn sign is long gone.
"It was a status thing to work there," Coward said. "To be one of Gar's gals was an honor in those days. You really felt like you were sitting on top of world."
Or at least a mountain top.