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Now Serving Elation to Fans

Irv's Burgers' cultural resource designation caps its supporters' yearlong campaign to save the threatened West Hollywood stand.

October 08, 2005|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Forget butylated hydroxytoluene, potassium sorbate or sodium benzoate.

The important preservative at Los Angeles' most celebrated hamburger stand may turn out to be CRD 2005-1.

That's the cultural resource designation granted Irv's Burgers by West Hollywood after thousands of hamburger fans rallied to block the business from being bulldozed for a coffee chain outlet.

Recognition of the 58-year-old sandwich counter caps a yearlong campaign by a group called the Burger Brigade that focused worldwide attention on the disappearance of Los Angeles' once-ubiquitous walk-up type of eatery.

The burger stand, on the northeast corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Sweetzer Avenue, is one of the few remaining examples of the tiny lunch stand that proliferated in mild-weathered Los Angeles in the late 1940s.

GIs returning from World War II looking for ways to cheaply and easily go into business for themselves built hundreds of sandwich counters -- using war surplus steel and aluminum -- next to sidewalks all over town.

"The stand stands!" cheered John Tripp, an Irv's Burgers regular since 1984 and a leader of the brigade.

West Hollywood officials said the City Council's "cultural resource" label would effectively block demolition unless an expensive, time-consuming environmental impact report for a new development proved that the stand was not culturally significant.

"There would have to be an overriding need for it to be replaced," said John Keho, planning manager for the city. "Nothing's permanent. But the designation sets the stage so a development can come in that will preserve the stand."

The city's action, made final last month, provoked applause on both sides of the serving counter at the 10-foot-wide steel-paneled burger stand.

"I can breathe easier now, and sleep better too," said Sonia Hong. She operates the business with brother Sean Hong and mother "Mamma Soon."

"I have a new landlord now. So far I think he's a nice guy. He plans to remodel the old garage in back of us and build a little restaurant there. Then he'll open a dining area between the two places."

The new leaseholder could not be reached for comment Friday.

Until two months ago, real estate investor Gregg Seltzer leased the corner, which includes a small vacant lot as well as the empty garage structure and the burger stand.

Seltzer paid property owner Irv Gendis $5,000 a month. But Hong's monthly rent was $2,000, a figure that Seltzer said forced him to try to develop the rest of the property.

Gendis could not be reached for comment. But Seltzer said the city's cultural designation is suspect.

"Is that structure a true, legitimate cultural resource? It has been changed and modified many times over the years. Their action was purely political. It's a case where the more people who showed up, they went along with," Seltzer said.

A historic resource assessment of the burger stand that he commissioned earlier this year suggested that the stand "does not appear to be associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history."

Burger Brigade members, however, argued that Irv's, which opened in 1947 as an accessory to a gas station, was representative of the automotive culture associated with old Route 66. That famed highway stretched from Chicago to Santa Monica and played a major part in the 20th century's westward migration. Its final leg along Santa Monica Boulevard passed in front of the burger stand.

The stand has been a favorite with celebrities. Jim Morrison of the Doors and Janis Joplin hung out there. Linda Ronstadt's "Living in the U.S.A." album art was shot at the stand.

Prior to Gendis owning and operating the lunch counter and naming it after himself, it was known as Joe's Burgers and Queenie's Burgers.

The Hongs, of Northridge, acquired the stand in 2000 for about $100,000.

Popular with customers, Sonia Hong greets people by singing personalized songs to them and serving food on paper plates decorated with patrons' names and individualized felt-pen sketches.

"The Hongs are like an extended family to us," Tripp said. "Sonia literally has 2,000 names in her head that she never forgets."

That could make her hamburger's best helper.

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