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‘Coffee Shop Modern’ Architecture : Googie--History Closing the Menu on a 1950s Style

Times Staff Writer

When a Westside mall proudly displays a sign that says “Since 1985,” it should come as no surprise that an architectural style from a period as ancient as the 1950s is approaching extinction.

That seems to be the fate of Coffee Shop Modern, known somewhat less respectfully as Googie, a kind of chaotic blending of elements of the car culture and the Sputnik era that originated in Southern California.

The latest casualty could be Ship’s (“Never Closes”) of Culver City, which architectural critic Alan Hess terms “a time capsule of the 1950s because its appearance is almost exactly as it was at its opening in 1957, right down to the toaster at each table.”

Ship’s and its distinctive rocket-shaped sign may be torn down as part of a redevelopment project in Culver City, which would leave afloat only one other Ship’s, as well as a handful of healthy examples of Coffee Shop Modern.

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Eateries long since dispatched to the Googie graveyard include Tiny Naylor’s on Sunset Boulevard, with its wing-like canopy (the B-29 look); the various Biff’s, with their narrow steel-and-glass frames planted on vacant corners of gasoline stations; and the Clock cafes, with their triangular windows and giant timepieces (“we figured no one could resist looking at a clock,” founder Forrest Smith said).

“What we have now is the ‘Browning of America,’ ” architecture writer Philip Langdon said, “buildings trying to blend into the environment with bricks and wood and earth tones.”

But Googie isn’t forgotten.

Books on the Subject

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Named for a now-defunct cafe in West Hollywood, often derided by critics during its heyday, the style is treated to serious analysis in two new books, “Googie,” by Hess, and “Orange Roofs, Golden Arches,” by Langdon.

In addition, imperiled Googie-type cafes, such as Ship’s, are attracting more support from individuals and conservation groups than they used to.

Why the sudden interest?

“As often happens, a style becomes rediscovered just when the last examples are being torn down,” Hess said. “It happened with Victorian buildings, too.”

While the reasons for the decline of Coffee Shop Modern are not difficult to trace--increasing real-estate values, changing styles, new design ordinances--the question that isn’t so easy to answer is whether the continued existence of ‘50s eateries is worth worrying about.

“Definitely,” Hess said. “The quality of life in an urban environment depends partly on the variety and richness of buildings that give us a connection with the past. Without them, you develop a kind of cultural amnesia.”

Just Selling Hamburgers

But designer Eldon Davis, the dean of Coffee Shop Modern, while naturally in favor of his creations staying in business, adds that from an artistic standpoint, “I can’t see why they’d try to preserve any of them. We would have liked to have made them more aesthetic, but we were just designing them to sell hamburgers.”

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To sell hamburgers.

That indeed was the main design consideration of post-Depression, coffee-shop founders like Matt and Emmett Shipman (Ship’s), the late Norman Roybark (Norm’s), Robert Wian (Bob’s Big Boy), and the late William (Tiny) Naylor and his son, William (Biff) Naylor.

“In 1948, when my dad was building Biff’s, everyone told us that this town was too cheap to pay 25 cents for a hamburger,” Biff Naylor recalled.

But the entrepreneurs realized there were more potential diners than ever cruising about in Southern California. And they might just shell out a whole quarter, if only their trust could be won.

Eating out was still a rare event--"I don’t think my family ate out once when I was growing up,” recalled Sterling Bogart, the president of Norm’s--partly because prewar hamburger joints were often greasy-spoons.

Biff’s featured “exhibition cooking,” in which the chef and grill were fully visible to the diners. No longer could a squadron of flies or a cook with a dirty smock hide in a back kitchen.

The arrangement had entertainment value for counter diners, too.

Showmen Chefs

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“We had some chefs who were great showmen,” Naylor recalled. “They could really handle the spatulas to flip eggs and pancakes.” He added: “Most of them were great horseplayers, too.”

The new coffee shops utilized sparkling stainless steel and marble terrazzo floors with no carpets. “Rugs, you could have cleaning problems with,” Emmett Shipman said.

But before the eateries could capture the trust of the public, they had to get its attention.

Glass walls (as opposed to single windows) were one eye-catching innovation.

“You’d drive by and you’d see action, customers moving, waitresses in colorful uniforms--the walls were like revolving signs,” said Bogart of Norm’s, who started out as a dishwasher there.

Spotlights--the Hollywood touch--were added.

“Norm had been in the car business, where you’d throw a lot of light on the cars at night so they’d look clean and sparkling,” Bogart said. “He got the idea of a slanted (restaurant) roof with the light playing off the under-ceiling, so as you drove by at night it would look like a beacon.”

Geometric, zig-zag roofs began to pop up, difficult not to notice, Langdon pointed out, because their “planes, angles, juttings, textures and colors . . . couldn’t possibly coincide or blend with anything else about them.”

Breaks for the Sky

The landmark Googie’s, located next to the since-deceased Schwab’s Pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard, “starts off on the level like any other building,” wrote critic Douglas Haskell in 1952. “But suddenly it breaks for the sky. The bright red roof of cellular steel decking suddenly tilts upward . . . and the whole building goes up with it like a rocket ramp.”

Haskell labeled the whole exuberant style “Googie,” a term picked up by author Tom Wolfe and others.

Signs bore punchy names, easy to take in at a 35 m.p.h. glance: Pann’s, Biff’s, Ell’s, Ray’s, Chip’s, Demy’s. Armstrong Schroeder’s on Wilshire didn’t last.

Danny’s became Denny’s (later the chain giant) because the founder was afraid it would be mistaken for Coffee Dan’s; the transformation was relatively easy because only one letter had to be changed in the sign.

Faster service meant lower prices.

Long before Ma Maison bragged about it, Norm’s had stopped listing its phone numbers. “We don’t want our cashiers wasting time talking on the phone,” Bogart said.

Carhops at the Clock drive-ins wore plumed hats, founder Smith explained, “so they wouldn’t stick their heads into the cars and chat.”

Bright lights, bright colors and the fast pace also had the effect of hurrying customers in and out.

Clearing the Chairs

“Norm told me once that he wished each counter seat had a little electric charge so he could make the customers jump out of there when they were through eating,” Davis recalled with a laugh.

Oases in the night, most were open 24 hours.

“Since 1949, we’ve only closed twice, for two hours when (President) John Kennedy died and for two hours when Norm died,” said Bogart of Norm’s. “We closed from 2 until 4 p.m. for Norm. It might seem kind of hardhearted but Norm was a businessman and I’m sure he was looking over my shoulder saying, ‘You’re doing the right thing.’ ”

So well known and profitable did Coffee Shop Modern become that some offshoots sprouted in the Midwest. And the style spread to bowling alleys, car washes and even churches.

“I was shocked to see the same ziggy-zag roofs start showing up on churches here because churches are supposed to be permanent things,” said Davis, whose firm of Armet, Davis, Newlove & Associates has designed about 4,000 coffee shops, including various Tiny’s, Norm’s and Denny’s.

By the early 1960s, the Googie craze had ended, pretty much on schedule. “The usual cycle is that styles change every 15 or 20 years,” Hess pointed out.

Some Googies, such as Ship’s of Westwood, were eventually fed to bulldozers while others, including many in the Norm’s, Bob’s and Denny’s chains, were remodeled. Some just plain wore out.

Disintegrates in Rain

“I saw Hoot Hoot I Scream (in Long Beach) disintegrate in one winter in the rain,” Hess remembered sadly.

Surviving examples of Coffee Shop Modern include a downtown Googie’s (Davis’ firm managed the feat of giving it a separate, overlapping roof, though it’s on the first floor of a six-floor building), the Wich Stand on Slauson Avenue near Inglewood (one critic said that its plunging dart of a sign keeps it from spinning off into space) and Pann’s in Inglewood (featuring a sort of palm tree of a sign and multicolored roof gravel that lights up at night).

And, of course, the two Ship’s (the other is on La Cienega Boulevard). The Shipmans’ operation is unique not only for stubbornly living in the ‘50s--"we haven’t even changed the Formica,” Emmett said--but for refusing to expand after the first three became successful.

“Any more than three and I wouldn’t have been able to keep a personal hand in them,” Shipman explained.

The Culver City Redevelopment Agency is scheduled to meet June 30 to decide whether to level that Ship’s to make room for a wider street and a parking lot.

Shipman, who said business is fine, hopes the local outpouring of support he has received in petitions, in letters to the editor and at public hearings will persuade the city to adopt an alternate plan whereby Ship’s would survive and the parking lot would be scrapped.

Until then, it’s business as usual for Ship’s waitresses like Lee Riling, a veteran of the graveyard shift who wears a whistle around her neck to rouse sleeping drunks.

“What I like about working here,” she said, “is you see something different every night. Last week, we had a guy at the counter who was so out of it that I couldn’t even wake him up with the whistle. So I slid a plate with horseradish on it under his nose and that did the trick. I’d really miss all this.”


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