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

Times Staff Writers

It was 1962, and the Space Race had commandeered world consciousness. The Soviet satellite Sputnik had been launched and two men had already been catapulted into the heavens. In Anaheim, businessman Al Stovall decided to launch his own space program with Stovall’s Space Age Lodge, the first in a celestial chain of motels clustered around Disneyland like planets around the sun.

The lodge’s poolside cabana was a silver geodesic dome called “the Moon House.” Sculptures of atoms graced the roof, concentric protons and electrons played out in colorful tubing. Rocket ships hung in the lobby of the blue and green motel; plastic was everywhere.

It was built with an eye to the future, but when the future arrived two decades later, it didn’t look much like the Space Age Lodge. The aging hotel on Katella Avenue has since been transformed as much as is architecturally possible, although the space capsule-shaped swimming pool and the Moon House remain.


“Now we don’t think it’s that appealing,” said Bill O’Connell, general manager of Stovall’s Hotels, which include the Apollo Inn, the Cosmic Age Lodge, the Galaxy and the Inn of Tomorrow. “It’s old hat, and people are tired of it. . . . So we’re playing it down. . . . The only reason we get away with this now is because we’re at Disneyland.”

While struggling to join the present, the Space Age Lodge remains one of a dwindling number of examples of “Googie” architecture--named after a now-defunct West Hollywood cafe--which originated in Southern California as a chaotic blend of elements from the car culture and the Sputnik era.

In 1986, much of this architectural genre--also termed “Coffee Shop Modern"--is slowly succumbing to remodeling or has been relegated to the Googie graveyard, like 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; and the Clock cafes with their triangular windows and giant timepieces.

And Ship’s of Culver City, with its distinctive, rocket-shaped sign, could be the next casualty. If it is razed as part of a proposed redevelopment project, only one other Ship’s would be left afloat in the handful of examples of Coffee Shop Modern that were built mostly in Los Angeles and Orange counties in the late 50s and early 60s.

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

Trying to Save Ship’s

Still, Googie has not been forgotten. Although Ship’s Westwood was destroyed in 1984, preservationists are coming to the aid of the two remaining Ship’s. And the flamboyant style has been given serious analysis in two new books: “Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture,” by Alan Hess and “Orange Roofs, Golden Arches,” by Langdon.

Selling hamburgers 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,” recalls Sterling Bogart, the president of Norm’s--partly because pre-war hamburger joints were often greasy spoons.

Before the eateries could capture the trust of the public, though, they had to get its attention. Glass walls (as opposed to single windows) were one eye-catching innovation in automobile-crazed Los Angeles. Spotlights--the Hollywood touch--were added.

Stood Alone

Geometric, zigzag 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.”

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.

And it wasn’t long after Googie caught on in restaurant design that it began surfacing in churches, civic buildings, business and professional offices, sports centers, cars and furniture. It was this second-generation Googie that populated most of Orange County.

Walt Disney and the Rev. Robert Schuller were two early Googie aficionados, helping to give a peculiarly Orange County slant to the already outrageous designs to the north.

On March 27, 1955, Schuller stepped onto the tar-paper roof of the concession stand at the Orange Drive-in Theater in Garden Grove to preach to his drive-in congregation, proclaimed: “Worship in the shadow of the rising mountains, surrounded by colorful orange groves and tall eucalyptus trees. Worship as you are . . . in the family car.”

Soaring to Heavens

By 1959, Schuller’s Garden Grove Community Church was built--a drive-in house of worship designed by Richard Neutra, with carillon pylons soaring into the heavens in an unerring Coffee Shop Modern thrust. That church, now used as a visitor’s center, literally stands in the shadow of its replacement, the Crystal Cathedral.

Built in the late 1950s, Disneyland’s House of the Future was a Googie study: It was formed of four large modular shapes of molded plastic placed on a pedestal that was painted so the white house would appear to float above its Japanese garden. It was complemented by push-button phones and microwave ovens capable of cooking three foods at once.

Like many other Googies, it has since been destroyed.

“It was included because Tomorrowland was supposed to offer a glimpse into the future and showcase how things might be in the future,” said Disneyland spokesman Bob Roth. “It was replaced when we started updating Tomorrowland, and a lot of the things we had featured were becoming reality or outdated. A lot of times people projected the future as being plastic. In reality, people didn’t like that.”

When the Brutocao brothers--Louis, Leonard and Angelo--decided to build a small string of bowling alleys with restaurants attached, they hired architect Pat DeRosa, took him to see Ship’s Westwood and told him to build them something similar. DeRosa came through with the Covina Bowl in 1955 and the Anaheim Bowl in 1959.

A three-story white sculpture of interlocking parabolas forms the entrance for the Anaheim Bowl. The towering structure is bisected by an overhang shaped like a sine curve that seems to float above the sidewalk. A small coffee shop with tall glass walls juts out of the main building like an airplane about to take off.

‘Just Floating There’

“The forms were free-form . . . the more startling the better,” DeRosa said of the style that he mastered in the 1950s. “The more forms you used the better, especially if (the building) looked like it was just floating there, if you couldn’t see how it could stand up. That was the trick of it.”

Regardless of the renewed interest in Googie, not all architecture mavens today consider it worth saving. Author Hess contends that such buildings are “time capsules that help us avoid cultural amnesia,” but they weren’t entirely appreciated by construction critics even during their heyday. In the book “Googie,” Hess relates some of the criticism:

- “It is depressing to contemplate the raucous ugliness which is taking over our land,” wrote Mary Mix Foley in 1957.

- “Every new highway built across our land seems to be an invitation to string out more honky-tonk developments,” wrote Peter Blake in the late 1950s. “Too often, new space opened in the cities seems to invite further vulgarity.”

- “It’s atrocious design--phony, dated, child-oriented trash,” wrote William Bronson in 1968.

And in a recent interview, designer Eldon David, a dean of Coffee Shop Modern said, “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.”

‘Blessing and Curse’

On a more practical level, some inheritors of these wild commercial structures say they’re not great for business.

In his 11 years in bowling, Terry Brutocao, general manager of Anaheim Bowl, has found that “it’s a blessing and a curse” for a building to look like something from the space-age cartoon, “The Jetsons.”

“It works as well as possible now,” he said, sighing, “but it sure dates you.”

Still, some of his customers like the wacky alley.

“I’ve been bowling here about 15 years,” said Faye Johnson, 61, of Anaheim. “I think it (the architecture) helps a lot in the building, the appearance of it. People coming through notice it. I like it.

“Besides, I’ve had some good games here,” she said smiling. “Even bowled a 278.”