Googie fails to wither

May 24, 1996

Tim Cornwell reports on the revival of interest in the vulgar US roadside architecture of the 1950s. John English is a veteran of battles to save monuments. He was on hand to mourn the demolition of a sign for a Bob's Big Boy restaurant. And he once tried to nominate a 1955 Disneyland ride, Mission to the Moon, for protected status as a historic landmark.

There are many ways to see Southern California; most start with Disneyland. But guided tours with English's new business, Googie Tours, begin at a four-level freeway interchange, circa 1949, which he introduces as an early symbol of "auto mobility" in downtown Los Angeles. Next stop: an abandoned drive-through laundry. "Very late moderne," English says. "Restrained Spanish colonial revival Q the kind of thing you don't see now." Then there is Drifty's drive-through dairy Q a "true California structure I note the alternating milk bottle and 'Drifty' cow ceramic tile and the giant plaster mushrooms."

"Is there another state in the nation that even approaches California in the quality, vulgarity and chaos of visual huckstering?" asked the photographer William Bronson in the 1960s. Jutting road signs, neon lights and themed restaurants captured the postwar public's imagination. But in later decades they were denounced as visual blights and planning regulations put in force to stop them.

"Googie", named after a Los Angeles coffee shop frequented by James Dean, became a derogatory term for this roadside architecture whose heyday was in the 1950s. It embraced the tasteless and tacky; from hot dog stands shaped like giant hot dogs to drive-in churches. But now there is renewed interest in Googie. It may never rank alongside the 20th century's heavyweight architectural styles, but it is increasingly considered worthy of academic study and conservation efforts.

Last month 200 members (ranging from urban planners to professors of history) of the Society for Commercial Archaeology met in LA for a conference on "Life in the Past Lane". Robert Post, curator at the Smithsonian Institution, spoke on "Streetcars, image and technology". Two architects delivered a paper on "The LA Carwash: Visions of the Future". And English acted as guide for a day-long bus tour of the sights.

According to architect Alan Hess, author of the leading book on the subject, there are signs Googie is creeping towards the mainstream. Ten years ago "no one looked at this stuff, nothing was being preserved." But now there is a heightened interest in vernacular architecture. Hess cites a recent book by the late Spirou Kostof, the well-known architectural historian at the University of California at Berkeley. It includes a 1930s Los Angeles drive-in designed by Wayne McAllister, considered an early genius of Googie, who designed a string of drive-in restaurants, casinos and night clubs in the Los Angeles area.

Conservationists at the Los Angeles Conservancy and the United States National Trust for Historical Preservation, meanwhile, are working to preserve a boarded-up McDonalds restaurant from 1953 , the oldest in the country and a classic example of Googie style. Others fought Qunsuccessfully Q to save a Missouri motel on the old Route 66.

English's trail leads to the North Woods Inn, described as a "giant Alaskan Lodge with beautifully maintained fake snow". It ends at the Covina Bowl. Open 24 hours, it has man-made marble floors and a pyramid roof. To the untrained eye it might look like a suburban bowling alley. But English speaks in awed tones. "This is the whole experience," he says. "We are on the suburban frontier, an open palette for the designs of the new space age, and here is one of its greatest monuments. This was exciting architecture. This was dramatic architecture I "This is where George Jetson and Fred Flintstone could meet over a cup of coffee. This was the cocktail scene Dustin Hoffman revolted against in The Graduate."

Inside the Egyptian banquet room, long-time employee Darleen Ehrich is setting up the tables. "We just look at it as a place to work," she says. "We just look at it, and think, gee, this is old."

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