Fans of modern architecture are pushing to make the retro, angular building that has long housed Norms on La Cienega Boulevard a historic and cultural monument, worried that the beloved '50s building could be at risk.
Those fans won an initial victory Thursday when a Los Angeles city commission unanimously voted to begin the process of considering the Googie-style restaurant as a monument — a step that gives it temporary protection from the tear-down that historians and architects had feared.
The zigzagging lines of the 24-hour restaurant are a familiar sight south of where Melrose meets La Cienega, where it has remained open more than half a century.
Less than two weeks ago, a new property owner got a permit to demolish the building, setting off alarms among local preservationists. The Los Angeles Conservancy, a historic-preservation group, petitioned to make it a monument, pointing to "its pioneering Googie design" by modern architects Louis Armet and Eldon Davis.
It extolled the building as an "exuberant and exaggerated" exemplar of Googie — a Southern California postwar style of outlandish shapes meant to grab attention from those on the road. Alan Hess, an architect who wrote a book about Googie architecture, estimated that at least two-thirds of such buildings he listed in a 1985 book had since been destroyed. He said the La Cienega shop had brought modern architecture to ordinary people in their everyday lives.
"This building captures the spirit of Los Angeles at an extremely important time in its transition," Hess said before the Thursday hearing. "We shouldn't lose that."
The effort to save Norms comes at a time when historic preservationists say postwar buildings — especially on a smaller scale — face an increased threat from development pressure. Some vintage examples of this style have been torn down, including the old Googies coffee shop in Los Angeles, for which the style got its nickname. But there have been more preservation successes in recent years. In 2013, the Los Angeles City Council granted historic-cultural landmark status to the Johnie's coffee shop at Wilshire and Fairfax. Burbank, meanwhile, is considering ways to preserve some of the distinctive commercial signs from that era.
The new owner has tried to quell fears about its plans: At a Thursday hearing, an attorney representing the owner tried to reassure an anxious crowd of Googie fans that despite the demolition permit, there were no current plans to tear down the restaurant.
Attorney D.J. Moore said the new owner, Norman Cienega Property Group LLC, had purchased the property in December and gotten a demolition permit "as a matter of course, because there was a thought that there would be redevelopment there at some point."
The owner is "currently considering a variety of options for the property and has always recognized the importance of the architectural components of the building," he added.
His words failed to convince some of the preservationists at the Thursday meeting."This is baloney," said Mitzi March Mogul, a historic-preservation consultant. "There's no other reason to pull a demolition permit except to demolish something."
City staffers recommended that the Cultural Heritage Commission give the building a chance at being dubbed a monument, noting its sharp angles and sweeping curves, custom neon signage and terrazzo floor. The commission voted unanimously Thursday to begin the process of considering it.
That step temporarily prevents the owner from using the demolition permit, said Ken Bernstein, manager of the city's historic resources office. If the city ultimately decides to make it a monument, the building would get some added protection against alteration and demolition. The matter is expected to come back to the commission for a final vote in March.
Norms CEO Jim Balis, whose company leases the building from the property owner, released a written statement later Thursday to make it clear that the property owner — not the Norms company — had sought the demolition permit. He said Norman Cienega Property Group LLC had also assured his company there are no current plans to demolish the structure.
Balis added that Norms is "thrilled" by the Cultural Heritage Commission decision and appreciates "the immense outpouring of support from our loyal customers and communities."
Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.
Follow @LATimesEmily for breaking news from City Hall