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Sam Hall Kaplan

Tuneup for an Auto Showroom Classic

February 27, 1988|Sam Hall Kaplan

Since we covet cars not only for their utility and convenience but also as objects of pride and affection, selecting them is often an emotional affair.

While asking the salesperson about how many miles per gallon the vehicle gets and how often it needs servicing, we gaze critically at, among other things, the turn of a fender, the shape of the headlights and taillights, and the detailing of the chrome radiator grille.

Questions of aerodynamics, engines, brakes, transmissions, ignition systems and performance take the back seat when we sit and grip the wheel of a new car, handle the wood-knob gearshift, turn on the sound system, smell the fresh upholstery, glance at the digital readouts on the dashboard and generally wallow in a wealth of refined accessories.

Given the bald fact that styling is a critical consideration in the sale of cars, I am often surprised that the showrooms where they are displayed are not better designed, if designed at all.

Most auto showrooms remind me of badly recycled bowling alleys, discount supermarkets or the lobbies of raw motels, in need of, among other things, paint, decent lighting and attractive and comfortable furnishings. What also would help is a little of that sense of style that so distinguishes the products they house.

There are exceptions, such as the W. I. Simonson Mercedes-Benz showroom at 1626 Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica. While I have never owned a Mercedes, nor as the father of three children and another on the way do I expect I ever will, the showroom there has always been one of my favorites.

A gracious two-story Spanish Colonial Revival-styled structure replete with ornate grille work and a proud arched entry, the red-tile-roofed building was originally designed in 1922 by architect A. Gladmans very much in the spirit of the romantic movie palaces that were then being built. After all, like the movie palaces, the showrooms were viewed as stages of sorts for works of art.

With hand-painted ceiling beams, wrought-iron chandeliers and decorative grilles, and a tiled stairway leading up to a second floor of rooms, the showroom appeared like a grand hall in some far-away Iberian castle. A touch of class was added above the entry by the name of the original dealership, Packard, lettered--appearing to be carved--above the entry .

It was a sad day nearly two years ago when, on April 17, 1986, the showroom was ravaged by a fire.

But with respect for the building as a landmark and the 50 years it served as a symbol of the dealership, the Rehwald family that descended from the Simonson family has rebuilt the structure with love and pride.

Orchestrated by a determined Mary Rehwald, architect James Mount, interior designer Barbara Armani and the restorationist firm of A. T. Heinsbergen, have reconstructed and decorated the showroom to look and feel very much like the original, right down to the tile work and the stenciled archways.

And while one might take exception to the new neon Mercedes-Benz sign replacing the elegant old Packard lettering, and the placement of other signs demanded by inflexible philistines in the local building department, the restoration is a joy.

To be sure, the offices upstairs and the service areas are in a stylish late modernistic mold, including some attractive and engaging artwork. The total adds up to a building reflective of what it sells and services.

In the same spirit, but in quite a different style, is the design of the new Longo Toyota complex, north of the San Bernardino Freeway at Peck Road in El Monte. The dealership is one of the biggest and busiest in the nation.

Here, form very much follows function in a sprawling one-story structure, with the exterior marked by large easy-to-read signs, and a simple stucco facade accented by yellow, orange and red tiles, and an interior by an informal, open plan.

According to John Clark, the dealership's general manager, the emphasis in the design was on service and making the customer feel relaxed.

"We didn't want anything fancy, or off-putting," he said. And nothing is. All appears modest, subdued backdrop for the business at hand, be it buying or servicing a car.

If the Simonson Mercedes structure can be likened to a 1920s movie palace, then the Longo Toyota complex is similar to a present-day cineplex. Both seem appropriate to their product, and certainly more attractive than the typical automobile showroom.

The public is invited to the celebration of the reopening of the Simonson Mercedes showroom today and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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