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Windmills and Pastry: A Sweet Old Family Recipe

Van de Kamp's Bakery mixed marketing moxie and culinary skills to become a pioneer in the city's breadbasket.

July 17, 2005|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

When Van de Kamp's outgrew its downtown plant, it built new headquarters in Glassell Park. The company and its competitors -- including Frisco Baking Co., Dolly Madison, Foix French Baking and Four-S Bakery -- employed thousands of workers, making bakeries one of the biggest industries on the city's northeast side.

The building was a prime example of a corporation conveying its image through architecture. Designed by architect J. Edwin Hopkins, it sported a red tile roof, three Flemish gables and brick arches in the Dutch Renaissance Revival style. Its main entrance included beveled-glass doors with pictures of windmills along a country road.

In June 1931, delivery trucks with the trademark windmill logo began rolling out of the bakery. The blue-and-white boxes inside were filled with chocolate and powdered-sugar doughnuts, chewy macaroons, lemon meringue pies, spongy jellyrolls and heavenly angel food and milk-chocolate cakes.

In the 1930s and '40s, Van de Kamp and Frank family entrepreneurs blazed the way to a new industry: convenience foods. They shifted from free-standing bakeries to coffee shops and bakeries within supermarkets.

At the peak, Richard Frank said, there were 320 bakeries and outlets and three coffee shops, plus the drive-in next to headquarters, which opened in 1939. Carhops were dressed as Dutch boys and girls.

The recipe for sweet success worked until 1956, when Theodore Van de Kamp died at age 65. That year, poor health and injuries from a near-fatal car accident caused Lawrence Frank to retire.

With both founders out of the picture, the families sold their interest in the company.

Over the next three decades, Van de Kamp's changed ownership several times but kept its name. But in 1990, the company went belly up, done in by antiquated equipment and high labor costs.

Two years later, the industrial plant was named a historic-cultural monument. The dilapidated hulk sat vacant for 15 years, its walls covered with graffiti instead of flour. Then, last month, all but two small buildings and the facade were bulldozed.

The facade will become the entrance to the City College Northeast Campus, slated to open in 2007.

Saving the facade, Richard Frank said, is "sentimentally nice"; keeping the building wouldn't have made sense. "It was not structurally sound and could not be used for any practical purpose."

Just one of the familiar windmills survives. Now stationary and green rather than blue, it adorns a Denny's in Arcadia.

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