In 1957, Jackie Robinson retired from baseball, Humphrey Bogart died of cancer, Ford launched the Edsel and the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, black students were barred from Little Rock's Central High by the Arkansas National Guard, and the Wichstand coffee shop opened on Slauson Avenue in Windsor Hills.
The Wichstand's sweeping roof design reflected the essential buoyancy of the 1950s, despite the era's mixed signals about the future. Its design matched the boisterous Chrysler Imperials, the Buick LeSabres and the upswept tail fins of contemporary Cadillacs that trumpeted America's post-World War II confidence that the sky was the limit.
"The Wichstand captured the anti-gravity architecture of the Atomic Age," wrote architectural historian Alan Hess in his book "Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture." "Through its tilting roof plunges a large slanting dart . . . (and) only the momentum of the Space Age seems to hold it in place."
In a recent interview Hess stressed his opinion that the Wichstand is "one of the finest designs we have left among the remaining 1950s coffee shops."
Now the Wichstand, a unique example of the 1950s coffee shop style known as "Googie," is threatened with demolition. Closed for two years, it faces the possibility of being replaced by yet another faceless mini-mall, following the fate of other 1950s coffee shops, such as Westwood's beloved Ship's, demolished in 1984.
The county of Los Angeles granted the Wichstand historic landmark status in March, 1989. However, this status can only delay, not prevent, the owners, Shilyco Inc. of Century City, from developing the property as a potential strip shopping center.
Shilyco, which is offering the site for sale, has filed an application for the Wichstand's demolition. Because of the building's historic landmark designation, the county must delay permission for demolition for six months to give any interested parties a chance to find ways to save it. This grace period is already more than half over.
The application for historic status, submitted to the L.A. County Landmarks Commission by a group of concerned individuals before the coffee shop finally closed its doors in late 1988, pleaded for its protection as "the best remaining example of postwar roadside architecture in the unincorporated area of Los Angeles County, and one of the few remaining excellent examples in Southern California."
The Wichstand is unique because it is the only known coffee shop to include a cocktail lounge and carhop service in its parking lot. Designed by Los Angeles architects Armet & Davis, who also created the late, lamented Schwab's Drugstore on Sunset Boulevard, the Wichstand embodies all the unself-conscious verve of its era.
The 35-foot "slanting dart" Hess describes is the Wichstand's illuminated pylon sign. Resembling a rocket ready for launching, the pylon is stayed by guy wires that anchor it precariously to the earth.
The blue roof fascia undulates weightlessly over the glass walls below. Rectangular light boxes stuck to the fascia were once dotted with plastic stars. Posters advertised "Fresh Eggs with Trout Jelly" and other such fast-food delights, and carhops scurried across the parking lot balancing trays.
Inside the coffee shop curving booths and a boomerang-shaped counter made all the surfaces seem fluid. Bright spotlights, lightweight metal tables and chairs and floating circles of painted canvas gave a festive air, as if life were one long outdoor barbecue.
To give some substance to the structure, the architects added stone piers, metal I-beams with circle cutouts, and fragments of solid wall. The cocktail lounge, a dark space in the rear, was a refuge from all this brightness. Yucca plants and palms added a tropical air.
Put all together, the architecture created a large advertisement for the Wichstand.
"The coffee shops of the period had an overriding aim--to capture the eye of passing drivers with as much zooty verve as possible," Hess said. "They were three-dimensional billboards, using powerful design gestures, lighting and color to punch home their message."
Coffee shop design drew its inspiration from many often disparate sources. Its mannerisms mixed the hotly emotional elements of Frank Lloyd Wright's "organic" architecture, which favored the use of natural materials like stone, with Bauhaus Modernism's predilection for cool, smooth surfaces. To this heady style blend was added details from popular U.S. roadside diners and Las Vegas neon extravaganzas, jazzed up by images derived from Space Age rocketry.
The effect was often wonderfully weird. In many a Tiny Naylor's, Norm's, Ship's, Ben Frank's, Coffee Dan's and Googie's futuristic architectures of neon, steel, plastic and glass sprouted in beds of primeval cactus among rough-hewn rockeries.
Coffee shop designers were clearly gifted. Armet and Davis, Stanley Mestim, Wayne McAllister and Martin Stern, among others, created a popular architecture that was purely American in its confidence in a techno future unencumbered by history or elite (read European) notions of taste.
The connection of this "low art" style with the "high art" architecture of the period, which was also the heyday of the Case Study House program sponsored by Art & Architecture magazine, was both direct and tenuous.
While coffee shop designers were clearly inspired by such Case Study Houses as the famous high-tech home designed by Charles and Ray Eames in the Pacific Palisades, few of the 1950s leading avant-garde architects in Los Angeles condescended to create coffee shops.
John Lautner was a notable exception. The architect of the dramatic Chemosphere House in the Hollywood Hills also designed the first Googie's in 1949 alongside Schwab's Drugstore on Sunset Boulevard. Both designs reveal Lautner's fascination with both Frank Lloyd Wright and Space Age technology.
The theme linking "low" and "high" architecture of the period was an urge to a direct kind of design Expressionism--a sense that the building's shape and style should directly and dramatically express its structure and its function.
Such dramatic Expressionism was as much a motivation for the Eames House design as for Googie's. It also made a strong showing in airport architecture, including Los Angeles International Airport's futuristic Theme Restaurant and Eero Saarinen's concrete "launching eagle" design for the TWA terminal and New York's Kennedy International.
Historian Hess traces the genesis of this architectural Expressionism to several sources, including post-World War I German designer Erich Mendelsohn and 1920s Russian Constructivism. He also looks to the radically streamlined transcontinental trains of the 1930s and '40s designed by Americans Norman Bel Geddes, Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy.
Despite is highly eclectic origins, coffee shop architecture is very much its own style, Hess said. "Googie design defies gravity. Walls vanish, planes curve and wrap around one another with a sense of weightlessness. The coffee shop manner is all flyaway energy, free of the Earth's inertia."
Meanwhile, Googie aficionados hope that the Wichstand will not fly away into oblivion.
"We can't afford to lose this unique example of the style, that recalls an L.A. past more innocent and likable than the present," said Eugene Polk, a member of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Fifties Task Force, which campaigns for the preservation of period architecture.
"Surely an imaginative developer could find a way of recycling the Wichstand to appeal to our rapidly reviving interest in everything to do with the 1950s?"