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The Eye by Barbara King

So goofy, so giddy, so Googie

Still brimming with personality, these Los Angeles coffee shops stand as icons of an era.

October 20, 2005|Barbara King

I WASN'T ABOUT TO MISS out on this. The Los Angeles Conservancy had reopened Johnie's to the public for the afternoon, and at last I would get to see the interior of the snappy little red, white and blue building on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue that gave me a lift every time I drove past.

I knew nothing of its history, or why it had sat closed and forlorn ever since I moved to L.A. four years ago, or that it was one of the last remaining Googie coffee shops in the city. I didn't even know what Googie meant. What I did know is that Johnie's lightened up the block, its uninhibited swoop of a roofline looking as if it were about to take flight and take you along for the ride.

The whole place was abuzz with communal spirit -- just like 50 years ago when it began life as Romeo's Times Square, I imagine -- every stool at the counter taken by people who ate slices of fresh-baked pie, drank coffee from thick-brimmed cups and energized the room with loud conversation and great salvos of laughter.

In a booth beneath a plate glass window, Eldon Davis, the architect who designed it, signed posters for a long line of fans alongside architecture critic Alan Hess, signing copies of the 2004 updated version of his book "Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture." I joined them for a chat and an education.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 21, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Googie architecture -- A photo caption with an article about Googie architecture in Thursday's Home section should have said that the photo of Ship's restaurant in Westwood was a historical photo. The restaurant no longer exists.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 27, 2005 Home Edition Home Part F Page 5 Features Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Googie architecture -- A photo caption with an article on Googie architecture in last week's Home section did not explain that the photo of Ship's restaurant in Westwood is historical. The restaurant no longer exists.

I found out from Davis that he is known as "the father of the California coffee shop," having designed with partner Louis Armet more than 400 Denny's, 650 Bob's Big Boys and the still-operating Norm's on La Cienega Boulevard and Pann's in Ladera Heights.

And I found out from Hess, who also wrote the 2004 book "The Ranch House," that Googies and ranch tracts created a "unified urban fabric" in the 1950s, dominating the public and private landscape.

Googie wasn't just a clever kick of a word that suited a far-out, exuberant coffee shop style: It was a generic label assigned to all roadside architecture by Douglas Haskell, the editor of House and Home. He was driving on Crescent Heights Boulevard with architectural photographer Julius Shulman when he caught sight of a restaurant at the corner of Sunset Boulevard called Googies, with a red steel roof that suddenly jutted upward in a daring leap toward Schwab's Pharmacy next door. "This is Googie architecture," he told Shulman, and in early 1952 he told readers in print. Haskell failed to mention the name of the architect: John Lautner.

Lautner? You're kidding. Oh, no, Hess says. Name architects designed structures for the mass culture from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, the seminal period when L.A. was becoming a new kind of city, a car-oriented, decentralized metropolis, modern and suburban. But historians and critics neglected these buildings because they were considered corruptions of high-art Modernism.

Richard Neutra designed a motel, a gas station and drive-in markets. R.M. Schindler designed motels and gas stations -- although none were built -- and a Lindy's restaurant. Lloyd Wright designed a drive-in market. A. Quincy Jones designed a couple of car dealerships.

And Davis and Armet "could googify even the most mundane buildings," says Chris Nichols, an associate editor of Los Angeles Magazine and a member of the Conservancy's Modern Committee, sponsor of the Johnie's event. "They had an incredible touch."

Nichols, who has recently finished writing a book about prolific Googie architect Wayne McAllister, has had a passion for Googies since he was a teenager and walked past an abandoned, early-'50s, Stanley Meston-designed McDonald's in his hometown of Azusa. He now has a passion for saving them and for trying to revive Johnie's, which is next door to a 99 Cents Only store and was purchased in 2000 by the owner of the discount empire, Dave Gold. At least the undulating neon signs are kept, jazzing up the night.

"If more people thought of architecture as art," says Nichols, "we'd be a lot better off. Whole bodies of architects' work have been demolished."

Laid out in thin ribbons along commercial strips, these were buildings expressing the technology and optimism of the Modern age -- buildings that people could use every day. Googie style, rooted in the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, represents a populist facet of midcentury Modernism: It was not just a style for the wealthy but for anyone with 10 cents for a cup of coffee.

In the 1950s, Coffee Shop Modern, as Hess refers to the style in "Googie Redux," became a significant form of social architecture in a city now dispersed into suburbia. Hundreds of them fronted neighborhoods of ranch houses and became central gathering places for socializing.

"You repeat that over and over and over in coffee shops all over the city, and you have an architecture that is supporting not only business life but also the social life of the city," says Hess. "That urban form continues today. It's just that the architecture is much more boring."

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