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It's Googie a go-go

Architect Eldon Davis marks his 90th birthday with a tour of sites he helped put on the map.

February 05, 2007|August Brown | Times Staff Writer

The only person more intimately acquainted with the nuances of Googie design than architect Eldon Davis might have been comic Lenny Bruce.

"Lenny instigated a fight at the original Googies restaurant on Sunset and Crescent Heights," said Daniel Paul of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee. But the foe outsized Bruce, "and he threw Lenny right through the window."

Bruce might not have appreciated the wall-sized pane of glass at the time, but it was a defining feature of an architectural style that came to epitomize postwar American optimism, particularly in the Southland.

Davis, one of the most innovative and popular designers of the style named for the now-demolished restaurant, turned 90 last week, and to celebrate, members of the Conservancy's committee led an unofficial bus tour and progressive dinner around L.A. On the menu: seven Davis designs still in use.

To kick off the party, 40 or so of Davis' peers and younger Googie enthusiasts met at Norm's restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard for appetizers and to dish about the history of Googie. Davis, who still has the youthful gait of an artist inspired by rocket ships, designed the building in 1957 with many of Googie's hallmarks, including a radically vaulted roof, a room-length dining counter and an outsized, comet-shaped sign to beckon drivers from off the street.

"Oh God, Alan Hess is here," exclaimed ModCom's Chris Nichols, an editor for Los Angeles magazine and organizer of the party. Hess wrote "Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture," a survey of the style that, Nichols said, "completely changed my life."

With that, the crowd hopped the party bus and swung by the Lodge, a Beverly Hills steakhouse and the current incarnation of Davis' design for a long-gone Tiny Naylor's Drive-In.

"The new owners kept the canopy and diamonds outside," said Nichols, to murmurs of approval from the bus. "But they stuccoed over the back panels," a move booed by the party.

Bob's Big Boy, a sprawling, ranch-style diner on Wilshire Boulevard just east of the Miracle Mile, served the group burgers and giant mounds of French fries from its open kitchen, another Davis touch meant to engage diners in the exposed-beam structure around them.

"As long as you can see people working, you don't care if your food is late," said Victor Newlove, a Davis colleague in the firm of Armet Davis Newlove, who helped design the restaurant. "Everybody loves to see somebody cook."

Ironically, Davis doesn't have much nostalgia for the style he helped popularize. With escalating real estate prices, Bob's Big Boy and many other Googie landmarks face the difficult economics of serving low-priced food in large, often well-situated structures.

Should Googie's history necessarily mean that its buildings have a secure future?

"Frankly, I don't think so," Davis said. "The principles of good design aren't a case of one particular style. I don't think too much about the future. You have to use it, not just look at it."

The night's most heated debate took place at Starbucks on Crenshaw Boulevard, site of the former Holiday Bowl complex. The bowling alley and lounge long served as a community hub for Japanese and African Americans in Leimert Park, a rare space where divided ethnic communities commingled easily. The Holiday Bowl closed in 2000, and much of the structure was turned into a strip mall, but the Bowl's coffee shop is operated by the ubiquitous chain.

Largely because of ModCom's work, the coffee shop maintains many of its original features, including the jagged roof and floor tiling.

"We take this as a real responsibility," said committee member Adriene Biondo. "It's fun for us as investigators to prove the significance of these buildings."

"Being here is very emotional for me," said Michael Palumbo, ModCom's outreach chairman. "You hear so much lip service about multiculturalism, but here it happened. During the Watts riots, people stood outside of the building and told the rioters, 'Not here.' "

"Yes. I was there," an African American woman replied from across the room.

"And now it's just another retail experience," Palumbo said.

The building may in fact represent the most pragmatic fate for Googie, albeit a less romantic one for its fans. The former Wich Stand, whose enormous, dart-shaped neon sign inspired a Brian Wilson song of the same name, has similarly become a health-food restaurant, Simply Wholesome. A Stephen Kanner-designed gas station under construction nearby on Slauson Avenue is a Postmodern interpretation of Googie.

The heyday of Googie was in full bloom at the night's final stop, Pann's restaurant. Owned by the Poulos family since it opened in 1958, nearly every detail, the animated neon sign as well as the cork-paneled interior, is original, down to the indentation in the tile floor in front of the cashier's stand.

Outside on the patio (one of the building's few additions), the party donned 3-D glasses to watch vintage slides of Googie structures taken by fellow partygoer Jack Laxer. Inside, patrons agreed that Pann's was worth the fuss.

"Pann's brings back so much mental memorabilia," said Jerome Richardson, a Pann's regular. "No matter how old you are, it brings back the essence of the '50s and '60s."

As Davis cut an enormous, Googie-inspired vaulted birthday cake with Pann's owner Rena Poulos (also 90) for the night's dessert course, passersby on La Tijera Boulevard watched through the glowing windows, drawn to the action inside, just as Googie designers intended. Davis' birthday was a celebration of history, but the crowd at Pann's was watching out for Googie's fate.

"It's hard to see a future-thinking era as historic, but it is," Nichols said. "Interpreting futurism as a historical style? That's far out."

august.brown@latimes.com

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