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Short Future for Futuristic Coffee Shop? : Architecture: Although the Wichstand was granted historic landmark status by Los Angeles County, the Googie-style building may still face the wrecking ball.

September 10, 1990|LEON WHITESON

In 1957, Jackie Robinson retired from baseball, Humphrey Bogart died of cancer, Ford launched the Edsel and the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, black students were barred from Little Rock's Central High by the Arkansas National Guard, and the Wichstand coffee shop opened on Slauson Avenue in Windsor Hills.

The Wichstand's sweeping roof design reflected the essential buoyancy of the 1950s, despite the era's mixed signals about the future. Its design matched the boisterous Chrysler Imperials, the Buick LeSabres and the upswept tail fins of contemporary Cadillacs that trumpeted America's post-World War II confidence that the sky was the limit.

"The Wichstand captured the anti-gravity architecture of the Atomic Age," wrote architectural historian Alan Hess in his book "Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture." "Through its tilting roof plunges a large slanting dart . . . (and) only the momentum of the Space Age seems to hold it in place."

In a recent interview Hess stressed his opinion that the Wichstand is "one of the finest designs we have left among the remaining 1950s coffee shops."

Now the Wichstand, a unique example of the 1950s coffee shop style known as "Googie," is threatened with demolition. Closed for two years, it faces the possibility of being replaced by yet another faceless mini-mall, following the fate of other 1950s coffee shops, such as Westwood's beloved Ship's, demolished in 1984.

The county of Los Angeles granted the Wichstand historic landmark status in March, 1989. However, this status can only delay, not prevent, the owners, Shilyco Inc. of Century City, from developing the property as a potential strip shopping center.

Shilyco, which is offering the site for sale, has filed an application for the Wichstand's demolition. Because of the building's historic landmark designation, the county must delay permission for demolition for six months to give any interested parties a chance to find ways to save it. This grace period is already more than half over.

The application for historic status, submitted to the L.A. County Landmarks Commission by a group of concerned individuals before the coffee shop finally closed its doors in late 1988, pleaded for its protection as "the best remaining example of postwar roadside architecture in the unincorporated area of Los Angeles County, and one of the few remaining excellent examples in Southern California."

The Wichstand is unique because it is the only known coffee shop to include a cocktail lounge and carhop service in its parking lot. Designed by Los Angeles architects Armet & Davis, who also created the late, lamented Schwab's Drugstore on Sunset Boulevard, the Wichstand embodies all the unself-conscious verve of its era.

The 35-foot "slanting dart" Hess describes is the Wichstand's illuminated pylon sign. Resembling a rocket ready for launching, the pylon is stayed by guy wires that anchor it precariously to the earth.

The blue roof fascia undulates weightlessly over the glass walls below. Rectangular light boxes stuck to the fascia were once dotted with plastic stars. Posters advertised "Fresh Eggs with Trout Jelly" and other such fast-food delights, and carhops scurried across the parking lot balancing trays.

Inside the coffee shop curving booths and a boomerang-shaped counter made all the surfaces seem fluid. Bright spotlights, lightweight metal tables and chairs and floating circles of painted canvas gave a festive air, as if life were one long outdoor barbecue.

To give some substance to the structure, the architects added stone piers, metal I-beams with circle cutouts, and fragments of solid wall. The cocktail lounge, a dark space in the rear, was a refuge from all this brightness. Yucca plants and palms added a tropical air.

Put all together, the architecture created a large advertisement for the Wichstand.

"The coffee shops of the period had an overriding aim--to capture the eye of passing drivers with as much zooty verve as possible," Hess said. "They were three-dimensional billboards, using powerful design gestures, lighting and color to punch home their message."

Coffee shop design drew its inspiration from many often disparate sources. Its mannerisms mixed the hotly emotional elements of Frank Lloyd Wright's "organic" architecture, which favored the use of natural materials like stone, with Bauhaus Modernism's predilection for cool, smooth surfaces. To this heady style blend was added details from popular U.S. roadside diners and Las Vegas neon extravaganzas, jazzed up by images derived from Space Age rocketry.

The effect was often wonderfully weird. In many a Tiny Naylor's, Norm's, Ship's, Ben Frank's, Coffee Dan's and Googie's futuristic architectures of neon, steel, plastic and glass sprouted in beds of primeval cactus among rough-hewn rockeries.

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