When a Westside mall proudly displays a sign that says "Since 1985," it should come as no surprise that an architectural style from a period as ancient as the 1950s is approaching extinction.
That seems to be the fate of Coffee Shop Modern, known somewhat less respectfully as Googie, a kind of chaotic blending of elements of the car culture and the Sputnik era that originated in Southern California.
The latest casualty could be Ship's ("Never Closes") of Culver City, which architectural critic Alan Hess terms "a time capsule of the 1950s because its appearance is almost exactly as it was at its opening in 1957, right down to the toaster at each table."
Ship's and its distinctive rocket-shaped sign may be torn down as part of a redevelopment project in Culver City, which would leave afloat only one other Ship's, as well as a handful of healthy examples of Coffee Shop Modern.
Eateries long since dispatched to the Googie graveyard include Tiny Naylor's on Sunset Boulevard, with its wing-like canopy (the B-29 look); the various Biff's, with their narrow steel-and-glass frames planted on vacant corners of gasoline stations; and the Clock cafes, with their triangular windows and giant timepieces ("we figured no one could resist looking at a clock," founder Forrest Smith said).
"What we have now is the 'Browning of America,' " architecture writer Philip Langdon said, "buildings trying to blend into the environment with bricks and wood and earth tones."
But Googie isn't forgotten.
Books on the Subject
Named for a now-defunct cafe in West Hollywood, often derided by critics during its heyday, the style is treated to serious analysis in two new books, "Googie," by Hess, and "Orange Roofs, Golden Arches," by Langdon.
In addition, imperiled Googie-type cafes, such as Ship's, are attracting more support from individuals and conservation groups than they used to.
Why the sudden interest?
"As often happens, a style becomes rediscovered just when the last examples are being torn down," Hess said. "It happened with Victorian buildings, too."
While the reasons for the decline of Coffee Shop Modern are not difficult to trace--increasing real-estate values, changing styles, new design ordinances--the question that isn't so easy to answer is whether the continued existence of '50s eateries is worth worrying about.
"Definitely," Hess said. "The quality of life in an urban environment depends partly on the variety and richness of buildings that give us a connection with the past. Without them, you develop a kind of cultural amnesia."
Just Selling Hamburgers
But designer Eldon Davis, the dean of Coffee Shop Modern, while naturally in favor of his creations staying in business, adds that from an artistic standpoint, "I can't see why they'd try to preserve any of them. We would have liked to have made them more aesthetic, but we were just designing them to sell hamburgers."
To sell hamburgers.
That indeed was the main design consideration of post-Depression, coffee-shop founders like Matt and Emmett Shipman (Ship's), the late Norman Roybark (Norm's), Robert Wian (Bob's Big Boy), and the late William (Tiny) Naylor and his son, William (Biff) Naylor.
"In 1948, when my dad was building Biff's, everyone told us that this town was too cheap to pay 25 cents for a hamburger," Biff Naylor recalled.
But the entrepreneurs realized there were more potential diners than ever cruising about in Southern California. And they might just shell out a whole quarter, if only their trust could be won.
Eating out was still a rare event--"I don't think my family ate out once when I was growing up," recalled Sterling Bogart, the president of Norm's--partly because prewar hamburger joints were often greasy-spoons.
Biff's featured "exhibition cooking," in which the chef and grill were fully visible to the diners. No longer could a squadron of flies or a cook with a dirty smock hide in a back kitchen.
The arrangement had entertainment value for counter diners, too.
"We had some chefs who were great showmen," Naylor recalled. "They could really handle the spatulas to flip eggs and pancakes." He added: "Most of them were great horseplayers, too."
The new coffee shops utilized sparkling stainless steel and marble terrazzo floors with no carpets. "Rugs, you could have cleaning problems with," Emmett Shipman said.
But before the eateries could capture the trust of the public, they had to get its attention.
Glass walls (as opposed to single windows) were one eye-catching innovation.
"You'd drive by and you'd see action, customers moving, waitresses in colorful uniforms--the walls were like revolving signs," said Bogart of Norm's, who started out as a dishwasher there.
Spotlights--the Hollywood touch--were added.