In its heyday, the sign atop Johnie’s Broiler shone neon red, beckoning drivers cruising Firestone Boulevard in Downey to come in to down a shake or savor the signature chicken croquettes. Today, the sign isn’t plugged in and sits above what remains of the half-demolished drive-in diner.
It sits, too, in the middle of an imbroglio that pits conservationists and nostalgic residents against those who think it’s time to move on and clean up the mess left in the bulldozer’s wake.
Johnie’s Broiler opened as Harvey’s Broiler in 1958 and evoked post-World War II car culture and the Space Age craze. Built in the Googie architectural style of the time -- characterized by strong lines, glass walls, hulking signage and brightly lighted interiors and exteriors -- it looked as if it had been plucked out of “The Jetsons.”
On Jan. 7, the diner was in the process of being razed when residents called on police to halt the demolition because required permits had not been obtained from the city. The tenant at the time, Ardas Yanik, pleaded no contest to three misdemeanor charges stemming from the demolition and had his lease forfeited.
George Manzanilla, 28, a lifelong Downey resident and film producer, created a website where people could submit photographs and memories of good times at Johnie’s.
“This place means something to people here, and it’s a great piece of architecture,” he said. “There was a lot of architectural history here in Downey, but it’s quickly becoming the land of strip malls and McMansions, and people are becoming really interested in preserving what’s left.”
Although Manzanilla never saw the diner at its peak, he numbers among residents who say that Johnie’s is one of the few landmarks of historical significance left in Downey -- precarious as that existence may be.
According to the state’s Office of Historic Preservation, Johnie’s is one of only five buildings in the city that is either listed or eligible to be listed on the state’s historic properties directory.
Whether Johnie’s will be rebuilt or fully demolished remains to be seen. On Dec. 5, city officials wrote a letter to Christos “Johnie” Smyrniotis, the owner, outlining an agreement that he and the city had reached earlier: Smyrniotis would pay a consultant, chosen by the city, to report what options remain for preserving all or parts of the diner’s structure.
“From the economic standpoint, it has to be developed,” Smyrniotis said. “We might put in a restaurant, maybe something else.”
Smyrniotis, who in 2002 rejected Johnie’s official inclusion on the state landmark list, says he understands what the diner means to Downey residents.
“It was very sad for me to see Johnie’s demolished,” he said, noting that he was a chef at the diner before he bought it from the original owners in 1968. He continued to flip burgers and stuff bell peppers there until 2002, when he retired and the restaurant was shut down and the property was converted into a used car lot.
Some residents say the diner’s time has come and gone.
Catherine Reed, 80, a resident of Downey for nearly 55 years, was a waitress at the diner from opening day until she quit 10 years later in 1968.
“In its prime, it was the best diner in southeast L.A., but then it went to nothing,” she said. “It’s the young people who don’t know what it was about. It was a pretty place, but it had it’s day. I feel that it should be gone.”
Some younger people are also tired of all the commotion.
“The time to save it was before, not now,” said David Bouffard, 27, a lifelong Downey resident.
Even those who want to see the diner restored concede it had gone downhill in recent years.
George Redfox, 39, a teacher at Warren High School in Downey and a member of the Downey Historical Society, recalls driving by and seeing a low sanitation grade posted in the window.
“We never really stopped loving the restaurant, we just stopped loving what was going on there,” he said.
According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, in the year before Johnie’s closed, it received health ratings as low as 70 out of 100, or a “C.”
Eric Pierce, city editor of the Downey Patriot, said the paper received more letters on Johnie’s than on any other story this year, with writers almost equally split on whether to save it or start up the bulldozer once more. But months after a moratorium on development of the property was declared, readers call the lot an “eyesore” and say “something should be done soon.”
On Dec. 11, the City Council voted to not extend the moratorium, which means that in late January, for the first time since the demolition, the area can be cleaned up. It also means Johnie’s fate may soon be decided.
Michael Buhler, director of advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy, called the agreement between the city and Smyrniotis “encouraging” but worries that because Downey does not have a historic preservation ordinance, the diner may not be protected in the way it could be.
David Gafin, Downey mayor pro tem, said he was aware there is interest in introducing a preservation ordinance but “nothing has come out of it yet.”
This makes Redfox, who wants to start a city conservancy group, nervous.
“Downey is losing its character,” he said. “City Hall doesn’t want to deal with that issue. They take the old architecture and ruin it with big-box mansions and stores.”
Gafin, a near-lifelong Downey resident, doesn’t think the city is losing its character. Instead, it’s evolving, he said.
“If you’re a stagnant city, it’s not going to be too long before you become a declining city,” he said.
Downey’s 113,587 residents share 12.7 square miles, so longtime residents are hyper-aware of changes in their neighborhoods, he said. According to city records, 61% of homes in Downey were built before 1960.
The city responded to complaints of “mansionization” -- when older, ranch-style homes are torn down to make place for large two-story homes -- by changing the residential building codes in April 2006 to limit their size.
Still, he understands residents’ appeals to save Johnie’s.
“If anything of any type of significance disappears, it’s sad,” Gafin said.
Analisa Ridenour, 40, founder of the Coalition to Save Harvey’s Broiler, which led the effort to get it on the state historical landmark directory, said there was room for compromise.
“It’s probably not going to be restored to its 1958 status, but the strip mall interpretation is the scariest -- this great sign with a tax preparer and Laundromat beneath it,” she said.
For now, Johnie’s Broiler is locked behind a chain-link fence, and under the V-shaped canopies, where souped-up Ford Thunderbirds once parked, sit the remains of counters, booths and other diner debris.
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The fate of Johnie’s Broiler remains undecided, but another Downey eatery has already been preserved. The city is home to the world’s oldest operating McDonald’s, which in 1994 was identified by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the “11 most endangered historic places” in the nation. The restaurant was slated for demolition because of earthquake damage, but residents fought for it to be saved, and McDonald’s spent two years restoring it and building an adjoining museum. It’s now a state historic landmark.