Googie Architecture Captured the Spirit of the ‘50s

Union 76 Gas Station, 1965, was originally designed for the entry to Los Angeles International Airport as a counterpoint to the Theme Building. This is an accepted landmark of Googie

By LIBBY MOTIKA

Circling the News Contributor

Photos: Steve Loeper

Googie, the futuristic commercial architecture seen on everything from coffee shops to gas stations across mid-century Los Angeles, perfectly captured the city as it evolved into a car-oriented, decentralized metropolis.

Named after a popular coffee shop that epitomized the style, Googie architecture’s garish, outsized signage — typically attached to cantilevers, parabolas or boomerangs — beckoned travelers and suburbanites alike during the 1950s and ’60s.

A late modern commercial architecture, Googie proved to be the perfect, comfortable, joyful style suitable for roadside and main-street businesses — cafes, movie theaters, bowling alleys, service stations and car washes.

Googie design gave the city an optimistic face of the sleek, futuristic technology sparked by the astonishing forms of the planes and ships that emerged after World War II.

Many architects, even mid-century stars John Lautner and Richard Neutra, were inspired by this new face of design and contributed their own interpretations.

Norm’s Diner, 1957, on La Cienega Boulevard, designed by architects Louis Armet and Eldon Davis in the Googie style,
is a designated Los Angeles City historic and cultural monument.

 

Perhaps the most recognizable Googie application is what has been called the California coffee shop, different from the 1930’s East Coast diner.

The team of Louis Armet and Elden Davis are the Googie duo most recognized, having designed over 4,000 buildings, including Norm’s, Bob’s Big Boy, and Mels Drive-In in Santa Monica, which anchors the corner of Lincoln and Highway 1 — the official termination point for Route 66.

 

This end-of-the-road beacon opened in 1959 as the Penguin coffee shop, serving burgers and malts for 30 years until the building became a dentist’s office in 1991.

Twenty-five years later the shuttered dentist’s office was transformed once again into a diner.

Steven Weiss, the owner of multiple Mels Drive-In locations across California (the company began in San Francisco), was the inspiration behind bringing back the Googie-style building.

The Mels Drive-In building is the main attraction. It has all the accouterments of Googie architecture, from the wide, slanting roof, to the kooky lettering on the sign outside.

Alas, most Googie buildings are long gone, including the Bay Theatre in Pacific Palisades, which was the only movie theater north of Montana.

“The original Bay Theatre was definitely an excellent example of Googie architecture,” architect Alan Hess told Circling the News.

Designed by the prolific movie theater designer S. Charles Lee (Los Angeles Theatre downtown, the Bruin in Westwood, Alex in Glendale), the Bay opened in 1949 on Sunset Boulevard in the middle of the town’s business district.

“It was entirely Modern in style (without references to historical styles), oriented to the automobile with the scale of its sign and the grand entry and lobby through glass, and of course the sign integrated with the architecture,” said Hess, author of “Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture.”

Lee fashioned his theatres as striking advertisements, not only to garner attention from passing automobile traffic but also to draw in pedestrians by using the sidewalk itself as part of the design. “The show starts on the sidewalk,” he famously said.

After providing memories of daytime movies for families and countless date-nights, the Bay had its final run almost 30 years after it opened, closing in September 1978.

The theatre was gutted and the building was used as retail space by Norris Hardware until July 2018 (the owners converted the projection room into their second-floor office). Anawalt Lumber now occupies the space.

Promising homage to the Bay Theatre, developer Rick Caruso’s five-screen theatre in Palisades Village incorporates the Bay Theatre’s big marquee, offering a nostalgic look back to the Palisades’ beloved movie house.

Bay Theatre, 1959, Pacific Palisades: ‘Ben Hur’
Photo: Courtesy Marc Wanamaker/Bison Archives

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2 Responses to Googie Architecture Captured the Spirit of the ‘50s

  1. Mike Sternfeld says:

    Hello Sue,
    Obviously there are so many other Googie buildings. One that still stands out and is still there is Johnnie’s Coffee Shop at Wilshire and Fairfax. It has been closed for many years and is available for movie/TV shoots. And in such an expensive piece of property! Maybe with the opening next year of the Academy Museum across the street, someone might consider reopening it for a real retro experience.
    Also, I remember that gas station as I believe it was on Santa Monica Blvd. in Beverly Hills.
    Lastly, Norms is expanding out to other SoCal areas as well as out of state even though they have closed some of the old restaurants. The new owners are really trying to grow the business!

  2. Denise Melas says:

    Bravo Libby, for a delightful, insightful article.
    It’s good to read something again from you!

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