Zany Shapes on the Urban Landscape


One of the most arresting and telling images in "California Crazy & Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture" by Jim Heimann (Chronicle Books, $18.95, 180 pages) appears on the title page of the book. A grinning carpenter stands in front of a half-finished restaurant under construction on Whittier Boulevard on a sunny day in 1932, and behind him we can see the 2-by-4s and tar paper and chicken wire that will give the structure its fanciful shape--the restaurant is called the Chili Bowl, and that's exactly what it will look like.

"California Crazy & Beyond" is a celebration of architecture that is designed and built to look like something else--ships and planes, trolleys and zeppelins, flower pots and fireplaces, oranges and lemons, toads and toadstools. With more than 350 evocative examples of what Heimann calls the "anything-goes attitude" in California architecture, the book can be enjoyed as a charming exercise in whimsy and nostalgia. At the same time, however, it offers some intriguing insights into how and why Southern California came to be "the crazy-building capital of the world."

The sheer zaniness for which California has always been famous, as the title of the book suggests, offers one explanation for our heritage of architectural oddities. Just as newcomers to California were at liberty to pick and choose among whole new ways of life, they were free to live and work in castles and pagodas and ziggurats, wigwams and witches' houses. "Given the free-wheeling nature of California," writes Heimann, "it's easy to see why the state and climate were perfect for embracing these buildings."

But Heimann allows us to see that something far more calculating was also at work here. The very idea of Southern California as an exotic and alluring place "was long promoted by the region's real estate agents," he explains, and phantasmagoric architecture was a part of the pitch. Thus, for example, the promoters of a housing development near Westwood erected a soaring and highly stylized observation tower on an otherwise empty site at Wilshire and Beverly Glen boulevards in 1922, and invited prospective home buyers to pick out their lots from on high.

The motion picture industry provided both the inspiration for architectural fantasies and a ready supply of designers and builders whose movie-making experience prepared them for the task of turning the fantasies into reality.

The trademark windmill design of the Van de Kamp bakery chain, for example, was the handiwork of Harry Oliver, a designer who also worked as an art director for various Hollywood studios. And when a gas station called Bob's Airmail Service opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1934--a structure in the shape of a highly realistic seaplane--the event was celebrated with a Hollywood-style premiere featuring Wallace Beery as its master of ceremonies.

Some of the most outlandish examples of "roadside vernacular architecture," as Heimann dubs it, were specifically designed to catch the eye of passing motorists in what was already a car culture by the 1920s. An ice-cream parlor shaped like a behemoth ice-cream cone, for example, or a drive-in restaurant with a gargantuan coffee pot on its roof, functioned both as a traffic-stopping curiosity and an advertisement for itself

Heimann is revisiting some of the same terrain that he covered in an earlier work, "California Crazy." Published more than two decades ago, his first book was "a modest effort to shed light on an obscure footnote to architectural history," as the author himself puts it. Today, by contrast, the same phenomenon is admired and aped by a new generation of architects.

"In the '90s, a certain legitimacy descended on architectural aberrations when established architects began to adopt a formalized version of roadside architecture," writes Heimann, who points out that the building designed by post-modernist architect Frank Gehry for the Chiat/Day advertising agency in Venice in 1992 features a gigantic pair of binoculars.

Nowadays, of course, the latest and purest expression of the "California Crazy" school of architecture can be found across the state line in Nevada, where the Las Vegas strip is decorated with hotels that look like pyramids and castles and much else besides. But Heimann allows us to see that Las Vegas owes a debt to the humbler but no less daring originals that we find in the book--the Garden of Eden Date Shop in Indio was already doing business inside a stylized pyramid in 1932, for example, and a family residence in the shape of a castle was the pride of Alhambra as far back as 1916.

The first Englishman to set foot in California was Sir Francis Drake, the adventurer who dropped anchor along the north coast in 1579 and claimed the whole place in the name of Queen Elizabeth I. If things had worked out the way he intended, California would be called New Albion, and we would all be British subjects.

Eva Shaw invokes the incident, rather wistfully, at the very outset of "The Sun Never Sets: The Influence of the British on Early Southern California" (Dickens Press, $22.95, 178 pages), an agreeable and engaging scrapbook of people and places with roots in the Old Sod. As Shaw uses the term, "British" includes people of English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Canadian origins, and her undisguised motive is to spend a few moments waving the Union Jack.

Many of the Brits in Shaw's book are famous, although not for being British--James Irvine, founder of the Irvine Ranch, was born in Belfast and arrived in California during the Gold Rush; Aimee Semple McPherson came to California from Canada to reinvent herself as a tent revivalist; and Bob Hope, when he was knighted in 1998, described himself as "a boy born in England, raised in Cleveland, and schooled in vaudeville."

Others are less celebrated but far more romantic. Joseph Snook, for example, was a sea captain from Dorset who first landed in California in 1832, and converted to Catholicism to win Mexican citizenship, a land grant and the hand of a beautiful young senorita in marriage. Significantly, Snook bequeathed his rancho to his British relatives, but the principles of Spanish law that prevailed in California ensured that the land remained with his native-born wife.


West Words looks at books related to California and the West. Jonathan Kirsch can be reached at

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