Landing a Landmark : LAX Monument to ‘60s Optimism Granted Historical Status


When Fawn Peck first saw the spidery Los Angeles International Airport Theme Building arching across the horizon in 1961, “I fell in love with it right away. It seemed modern, up-to-date.”

The 93-year-old Peck, who worked at the airport for 52 years, remembers when the facility had a dirt runway and “looked like a cow pasture, with tall sunflowers all around.” When the new building came, it seemed to symbolize Los Angeles’ transformation into a city of the future.

On Friday, the City Council voted to enshrine as a cultural-historical monument this symbol of the unbridled optimism of Los Angeles at the dawn of the Jet Age. A piece of an imagined future that never quite arrived, the structure has parabolic arches that still conjure up visions of the Jetsons, monorails, better living through plastics and endless hopes for a better tomorrow. The building, which houses a restaurant and is often mistaken for a control tower, may seem young to be historical, but its fans say the era it represents--which also includes the glories of the “California Coffee Shop Modern” style--should be remembered.

The building inspires nostalgia for Councilman Joel Wachs, who nominated it for designation. He was president of the UCLA student body the year it was completed. “It was a boom time, everyone was coming to Los Angeles for a better tomorrow; people wanted growth, expansion, daring. The strawberry fields went and the buildings went up and at that time that’s what people wanted. Everyone was very optimistic about the future.”


The Space Age lines evoke other design treats of the period. “The other day I went to Schaber’s Cafeteria in North Hollywood and I looked at the chairs and said: ‘Look at those legs!’ ” Wachs said. “Then there was Ship’s coffee shop in Westwood, with a futuristic sign and toasters on every table. You made your own toast,” he sighed.

Ships went the way of the nickel cup of coffee, wiped out by a Wilshire skyscraper, but a committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy devoted to the postwar era is fighting to make sure a historical Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank is saved.

To some, the oddly angled roofs, cartoonish rocket ship themes and flouting of previous architectural good taste of the Coffee Shop Modern style represents the worst of Los Angeles’ ticky-tacky boulevards. But Peter Moruzzi of the conservancy is indignant at such complaints. He said the building, designed by a team led by architect William Pereira, is a local treasure. “It represents the best of Los Angeles,” he said, “this complete freedom from the past.”

Peck, who until last year was a receptionist in the building’s lobby, said the structure still seems modern three decades later. “It’s kept right along with the years,” he said.


Even for new generations, the Theme Building has a strong appeal. Axel Nitter, a 21-year-old German, was standing with binoculars on the wind-swept observation deck Friday, one of many international pilgrims to the site. He clutched a small, inch-thick notebook in which were noted hundreds of neatly penned numbers. “I am a spy,” he said, and smiled.

Actually, Nitter is one of hundreds of international hobbyists who travel the world recording aircraft they see. That makes him a bit of an expert on airports, and he said Los Angeles International is his favorite, largely because of this building.

“The view is perfect. Most airports, like Chicago, you can’t see the planes,” he said.

Indeed, although the view is partly obscured by the multilevel roadways and parking lots added in the 1980s, just about every plane in the U-shaped airport can be seen from the observation deck.


And gazing through the arches at jets soaring upward can be pretty inspiring, even to travelers who find that getting on a 747 is about as exciting as getting on a Greyhound bus.

“I don’t think they would build something like this anywhere else,” Nitter said.

To Hope Leto, 70, who has worked in the restaurant for 20 years, coming to work and looking out at Los Angeles through the steeply slanted glass windows is a daily joy. Even though the flower fields of her youth are gone, the skyscrapers of downtown look beautiful in front of the snowcapped mountains, Century City glistens, and Palos Verdes swells like a dream. The Theme Building no longer dominates the landscape because it has become hidden by tall buildings, but it still delights.

“People love this place. They call and say: ‘What’s the name of that spaceship, that spider, that thing?’ ” Leto said.


“People were extremely optimistic about the future at the time of this building,” preservationist Moruzzi said. “We still have to cherish that vision.”

Wachs said: “Though some of the dream has gone bad, the building is still good-looking. Maybe it can rekindle some hope.”