Culver City Wants to Widen Street : Agency Postpones Vote on Condemnation of Ship's Diner

Times Staff Writer

"Just put your foot right here and move it back and forth," urged Emmett Shipman, as he slid his toe across the floor at the Ship's coffee shop he founded 29 years ago in Culver City. "Can you feel it?"

And, sure enough, you can. There, in front of the cash register, lies a smooth valley in the terrazzo floor, worn down by nearly three decades of paying customers.

"I don't know how many million people have been through here," said Shipman, his eyes shining with pride.

Just minutes earlier, however, his blue stare had hardened at the thought of the possible closing of the Culver City Ship's.

The Culver City Redevelopment Agency is considering condemning the diner in order to widen congested Overland Avenue--a project that has been planned for more than 20 years. The agency last week indefinitely postponed a vote on a resolution to acquire the Ship's property by eminent domain in order to proceed with the widening.

Lost Westwood Location

"I'd hate to lose it," Shipman said of the diner, which was the first of three. "Especially the way things have been going lately."

A little more than a year ago a developer evicted Ship's from its landmark Westwood location to make room for a 20-story office building. Hundreds of faithful customers, some with tears in their eyes, poured in on closing day to pay their last respects.

If the Culver City diner closes, only the Ship's at the corner of Olympic and La Cienega boulevards will remain.

Shipman, who opened the three restaurants with his father afterreturning from the Korean War, is proud that they still use pure cream and USDA prime beef. He said he visits the two remaining Ship's, which bear his Navy nickname, up to four times a week and orders various items to make sure that quality remains high.

"We're not fancy or anything," he said. "But you get your money's worth. And we are open 24 hours." None of the three Ship's had closed for a moment until the Westwood diner shut down for good on Sept. 20 last year.

Culver City officials have tried and failed to get Howard T. Ryan, who owns the land and rents it to Shipman, to sell. Ryan said he dedicated a 15-foot strip of land along Overland to the city in the 1950s and was told then that he would not be asked to give up additional property for widening.

Verbal Agreement

Ryan, a close friend of Shipman, said he had only a verbal agreement with the council and is trying to locate former council members who recall the agreement. Planning officials could not be reached for comment.

More than 20 feet of asphalt lies between the roadway and Ship's sidewalk, according to Ryan, who said, "It's our contention that that is more than enough for the widening that they want to do."

Paul Jacobs, who serves on the redevelopment agency and City Council, said the city is still not sure whether it will add one or two lanes to Overland. He said this decision, along with the width of the lanes and sidewalk and the exact location of the property lines will affect the agency's decision on whether to attempt to acquire the Ship's property.

The Culver City Ship's is frequented by studio executives, delivery men, students and a group of older regulars who have made it a second home.

"We baby them. We know exactly what they want without them even telling us," said Violette Ness, a waitress for 23 1/2 years. Ness, 61, moved steadily on sturdy white shoes as she greeted regulars by name.

Customers said that at Ship's they do not have to suffer through false friendliness that they find at other restaurants.

Opening-Day Lunch

Samuel Taylor, 89, said he ate at Ship's with his wife Alice the day it opened in Culver City in 1956. "We had lunch here almost every day for many years," he said. Taylor used to walk from the liquor store he owned on Washington Boulevard, but since retiring rides the bus all the way from Santa Monica.

"They are so friendly. They have wonderful people and a wonderful manager here," he said pointing to Robert Stefferud, the slick-haired man behind the counter.

Taylor had not heard that Ship's may have to close.

"I don't know where I'd go," he said. "I haven't ever gone anywhere else."

Architect and historian Alan Hess said Ship's is an example of a 1950s coffee shop architecture style called "Googie," after an old Hollywood coffee shop.

He said last week that the style was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. Architects "were trying to get the attention of people driving by," he said. "So they were big, bright and bold. And they were trying to appeal to people of that particular era, so the Space Age was big. They wanted to make people feel like they were at the very edge of an advancing age . . . sort of like entering a rocket port and not a restaurant."

Hoping for Compromise

Ship's arrow-shaped signs reveal that influence, Hess said.

"The sad thing is that a style is only recognized after all the major buildings in the style are torn down," he said. "Preservationists are not as well organized as developers and cities are. It's too bad."

But Shipman said he hopes that a compromise can we arranged.

"I think this will work itself out," he said. "I think the city will be reasonable."

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