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Car Culture All Mapped Out

From 20-Foot Doughnuts to the First Motel

March 21, 2001|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's hard to miss a 20-foot doughnut, even at 60 miles an hour.

And ignoring a Space Age carwash whose facade is pierced by a dozen or more giant turquoise-and-purple fins reaching high into the sky is just about impossible, even if you already had your car cleaned that morning.

The genius of these odd buildings from strange schools of design--Googie, Big Object--that were built throughout Los Angeles from the 1920s through the '60s becomes clear once you start looking for them.

The L.A. Basin once was dotted with hundreds of edifices built to serve a newly mobile populace or to grab the attention of passing motorists in hopes of getting them to turn off the road and into their parking lots--another concept spawned by the car.

Development, redevelopment, urban decay and disasters natural and man-made have taken their toll, though, and these days few prime examples remain.

Still, finding these bits of delightfully quirky architecture has become a snap, thanks to a new map published by the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Researched by club historian Matt Roth--who designed the Petersen Automotive Museum's exhibit of the car's impact on L.A.'s development--the plastic-coated "Southern California Car Culture Landmarks" is the first of a series of "Greatest Hits Maps."

The second in the series, a map of Southern California attractions (can you say Disneyland?), is due out soon. And coming this summer, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the opening of "the Mother Road" that stretched from Santa Monica to Chicago, is a Route 66 map.

On the Car Culture map, color-coded icons pinpoint 68 locations, the most far-flung being the four-story Cabazon Dinosaur on Interstate 10 near Palm Springs and the Mo-Tel Inn in San Luis Obispo, the first place ever to do business as a motel (a contraction of "motor-hotel").

Everything else is contained in a roughly 25-mile by 60-mile rectangle, which stretches from the Space Age-styled National Car Wash in the San Fernando Valley south to its sibling Rosecrans Car Wash in Gardena, and from a 1927 Spanish Colonial-style automobile showroom in Santa Monica east to the Wigwam Motel, with its semicircle of tepee-shaped stucco rooms, in San Bernardino.

In between are buildings like the Tamale and Hattem's shopping center.

The Tamale, a 1928 stucco tamale stand in East L.A., is an object building--shaped like its namesake--and is remarkably intact and still in use today, although now it serves as a beauty parlor.

Hattem's, once a Moorish-styled palace with blue-tiled walls topped by a soaring tower, is now surrounded by construction barriers on the corner of 81st Street and South Vermont Avenue in South Los Angeles. It was built in 1931 as one of the first of the giant supermarkets catering to shoppers who could haul their purchases home in a car.

Roth, who did field research for the map last summer, said the intent is to give people a convenient guide to these unique structures and, at the same time, help us understand why they were developed in the first place.

"We wanted to look at what it has meant to have the auto as the predominant form of transportation in this area," he said. "Our buildings and street-scapes reflect how business owners responded to the presence of the automobile" and an auto-using public, he said.

Before the car, for instance, there was no need for giant signs like the 20-foot stucco doughnuts topping the Big Donut Drive-Ins in the 1950s (two survivors are on Roth's map). Nobody sped by a store so fast that they couldn't tell what it was. Odors, window displays and small window signs were sufficient.

The car also gave rise to the supermarket.

Before autos, most stores were individual specialty shops. People could carry only so much while walking or riding in a small personal carriage, so they shopped for things a day at a time. The butcher sold meat, the produce store sold fruits and vegetables and, quite likely, there was a dry goods shop or drugstore in between.

But the car made it possible to cart home several days' worth of goods. To attract drivers, store owners started relocating to what were called drive-in markets, like Hollywood's still-existing El Adobe Market.

They were L-shaped buildings, usually containing a number of small stores, and were wrapped around rectangular parking lots situated on busy street corners.

Today we call them strip malls and drive to them for our doughnuts, cell phones and videotapes.

Roth says the car was not alone in shaping Southern California. "The auto interacted, and interacts, with other cultural, social and political sources, and it is that interaction that produces our landscape," he says.

Indeed, Southern California's is a landscape determined by many factors: the location and availability of land and water; the preference of the moneyed classes to congregate near the ocean and up into the hills; the economic decisions of developers looking for places to locate stores, restaurants and offices; political decisions.

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