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You Can Still Get a Cup of Nostalgia at L.A.'s . . . : Coffee Shops Modern

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was never a better place to sip a cup of joe.

All boomerang angles, glass walls and sunshine colors, the California coffee shop first sprang up in Los Angeles in the optimistic, postwar 1950s. A burger went for 35 cents. A cup of fresh-brewed java cost just a nickel.

But you got more than a meal at Norm’s, Pann’s or Ship’s. When you strolled through the Herculite doors, settled into a Naugahyde booth and plopped your elbows down on the Formica, you got a taste of the future.

Tonight, several of the men and women who created this Coffee Shop Modern style of architecture will gather to remember those days, four decades ago, when plastic was in vogue, environmental impact reports were unheard of and good design seemed as simple as ABC: “Always Beckon Customers.”

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The free panel discussion and slide show, sponsored by the Los Angeles Conservancy, will reunite designers who worked with Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, whose Los Angeles-based commercial architecture firm was among the most prolific, innovative and influential of the 1950s. Their secret: They were willing to try almost anything to catch the eye of speeding motorists.

It was the age of Sputnik, and many Armet & Davis’ coffee shops appeared poised for liftoff. Slanted roofs, dotted with spotlights, jutted skyward. Huge, look-at-me signs floated overhead. Interiors were sleek and inviting, with terrazzo floors, driftstone walls and exposed stainless steel kitchens all bathed in golden light.

These were places, wrote one critic, where Fred Flintstone and George Jetson might meet for a bite. Exuberant, uninhibited, these restaurants were impossible to ignore.

“We just did the best we could with the problem at hand,” said Davis, 76, who was responsible for many structural innovations that made Armet & Davis buildings appear to defy gravity. And what was that problem? “You’ve got to get the customers in, make them happy after they’re there--but don’t make it too bright, too brilliant, or they won’t come back for dinner.”

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Indeed, pursuit of the mighty dollar helped shape the whimsical and bold ideas that jumped off Armet & Davis drawing boards. So did the Southern California car culture. Clients wanted buildings that lured customers off the road and allowed them to be fed quickly to make way for others. The architects found many ways to deliver on that goal.

Exposed kitchens--or exhibition-style cooking--allowed speedy delivery of food and kept patrons entertained. To ensure that customers had a clear view of the chef’s handiwork, Stan Abrams, an equipment designer who worked closely with Armet & Davis, created a downdraft ventilation system that sucked unsightly smoke and steam into a vent that ran along the floor.

Abrams, 70, also devised ways to keep the restaurants cleaner, such as the cantilevered stool. Instead of being bolted to the floor, the stool’s base angled out from the counter. The floating seat didn’t attract dirt and could be swept under while it was occupied by a customer.

“It’s fun to create something new,” Abrams said, reflecting on what prompted such innovation. “After World War II, when all of us came out of the service, we came out with a lot of enthusiasm. It probably precipitated some creativity.”

Davis agrees. He, his late partner and their many collaborators were motivated by a simple desire, he said: “We didn’t want to do what had been done.”

It was a good time for such an attitude. Suddenly, in the wake of the war, there were new materials to work with, new inventions to install.

“Biff’s,” Abrams recalls, “was the first to use lowerators"--the spring-loaded storage system that kept dishes warm and within reach. Ship’s introduced the Filtromatic High Volume Coffee Urn--one of the first automatic coffee makers.

Helen Fong helped craft many of the coffee shops’ interiors. Fong, 66, paid attention to aesthetic details, making sure customers would feel welcome when they walked into the restaurant.

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“It needed to be inviting--that’s why the glass doors were important. Because when you approached, you were outside, but you were almost in,” she said.

That inside-outside feeling also made customers feel connected to the street. To make them feel less exposed and more at home, Fong made landscaping a part of the design. Many coffee shops, such as the recently renovated Pann’s at the intersection of La Cienega and La Tijera boulevards, were marked by their tropical gardens.

Then there was color. Blue and green were taboo--they were cold colors. If they didn’t scare people away, Davis recalls thinking, they would probably make them chew slower. (“You’ve been in places where they had powder-blue booths, right?” asked Fong with a grimace. “Need I say more?”)

No, the right hues for a coffee shop were yellow, red and orange. Designers used those colors everywhere, from the tabletops to the lampshades.

Fong felt so strongly about the power of color that she added a touch herself to Pann’s just before it opened in 1956. Behind the counter, the back wall was covered with one-inch tiles, all of them white. “At the last minute,” Davis recalled, “Helen got in there and colored some of them in with red fingernail polish.” Those highlights lasted more than three decades, until the recent renovation.

Not all Armet & Davis work has aged so well. Some of the standouts have fallen on hard times. The Wichstand, on Slauson Avenue at Overhill Drive, is closed. The Penguin in Santa Monica is a dentist’s office. In mid-Wilshire, Romeo’s Times Square--now named Johnie’s--is said to be slated for demolition. And memories are all that remain of Clock’s triangular windows and Carolina Pines Jr.'s undulating roof.

But for all the shops that have disappeared--Dimy’s, Huddle’s and Tiny Naylor’s, to name a few--Norm’s, Pann’s and Ship’s still carry on the proud Southern California tradition. Denny’s and Bob’s Big Boy, meanwhile, started here and then exported Armet & Davis designs across the nation. According to critic Philip Langdon, Armet & Davis designs came to define “coffee shop” for much of America.

In his book “Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture,” architectural critic Alan Hess writes that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Armet & Davis coffee shops “told us about ourselves by showing us in full scale and three dimensions what we once thought our future would look like.”

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More than remnants of an aging consumer culture, he says, the remaining coffee shops help make Los Angeles what it is today.

“Some people believe roadside stuff is just a bad version of high art. I would challenge that,” architectural critic Alan Hess said. “To look at this stuff is not slumming. We need to drop the pejoratives about these buildings being kitsch.

“The Catholic Church shaped Rome. Commerce shaped Manhattan. It is popular culture that has shaped L.A.,” he continued. “We should see these buildings in that context and take them seriously.”

The panel discussion begins at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Unocal Building Auditorium, 1201 W. 5th Street near Beaudry Avenue. Free parking is available in the 5th Street lot.


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