Preserver of Yesterday's Tomorrows

Chris Nichols, the new chair of the L.A. Conservancy's Modern Committee, is no stranger to activist theater: At a demonstration to save the Downey McDonald's, the 26-year-old masqueraded as the original McDonald's mascot, Speedee, being chased by a fellow conservancy member dressed like Ronald McDonald; outfitted in his black mourning suit, he's presented Bob's Big Boy cakes on marble slabs to waitresses on a string of Bob's closing nights; and he was kicked out of the Sands Hotel swimming pool in Las Vegas on its eve of destruction.

Q: What's your response to those who say, "Drive-ins, coffee shops . . . who cares?"

A: Why would an Incan family have cared about the simplicity of their lives? Things that seem mundane and common at the time tell you the most about that civilization. To tell the story of the 20th century, you're going to need to see how people lived and ate and drove.

Q: And L.A.'s going to tell them that?

A: For the most part, the Atomic Age stuff exploded here. Nowhere else was it as insanely optimistic.

Q: Would you ever fight to save something built in the '80s?

A: It doesn't stop here, but so much California architecture is now so diluted with bad Mission Revival, it doesn't grab your heart.

Q: Talk about saving the Downey McDonald's.

A: It gave us a lot of respect; we were on the cover of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. It wasn't peppered with "those cuckoo nuts in L.A. are doing it again," but taken seriously.

Q: Why should it be taken seriously?

A: Richard McDonald [co-founder of the original McDonald's] is as important as Sutter in California history. He really did change the world, for better or for worse--well, for worse--but he changed the world, the way we live, the way we eat.

Q: What's the most outrageous act you've committed in the name of preservation?

A: Let's just say it involved Karo syrup and red food coloring.

Q: What buildings are you losing sleep over?

A: The Cinerama Dome comes to mind, or the Burbank Machinists Lodge--that's amazing and about to come down for a Food 4 Less. There's a bulldozer in front of the Studio Drive-In in Culver City.

Q: What's your biggest fear?

A: I know how much goes, how fast it goes and how bad it goes. I spend so much time visually dissecting the layers, peeling back mansard roofs with my eyes and tearing away bad stucco additions to see what's there. They do anything they can to put weight on it and suppress the energy.

Q: Why?

A: Maybe they're embarrassed they were ever so optimistic.

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