Helen Burns got word Sunday that something seemed fishy at Johnie’s Broiler, the iconic roadside 1950s drive-in where she had cruised her green metallic Ford perhaps thousands of times in her youth.
It didn’t matter that the landmark -- whose soaring neon rooftop sign and midcentury glass-and-stone facade helped spawn a new architectural style called Googie -- had been selling used cars instead of burgers and malts since 2002.
When Burns, 66, learned that the used cars had moved to the far side of the lot, she suspected that something was afoot with the site. Her worst fears were realized when she found bulldozers demolishing the place when she arrived at 5 p.m. The original kitchen and back of the coffee shop had already been turned into debris, and the rest of the place wouldn’t take long to follow suit.
“ ‘They’re going fast, they’re ripping this place down,’ ” she recalled telling police as she urged them to intervene.
Then she got on the phone with fellow preservationists and car buffs -- who had battled alongside her in 2002 to designate the drive-in restaurant a state historic landmark -- and urged them to call police as well.
By the time Burns returned to the scene half an hour later, police had halted the illegal demolition: required permits had not been obtained, Downey Police Capt. Jim McCulloch said, nor the proper precautions taken.
But it was too late. Little remained beyond the huge red-neon “JOHNIE’S broiler” sign -- “broiler” spelled out in larger cursive -- still suspended above the remains of the original restaurant. Just below, on its other sign, a flat blue plastic, cartoon-like fat boy was still hoisting his cheeseburger to his lips. Burns said she had held out hope that “someday, somebody might come in and restore the place, maybe not to its former glory, but at least we’d have the architecture.”
Plenty of others felt the same way. All day Monday, cars honked as they drove by the yellow tape surrounding the debris, as armed security guards kept watch around the establishment, where on some nights in its 1960s and 1970s heyday, up to 3,000 young people would come to cruise their hot rods and Kustom Kars -- as customized cars were sometimes called. A typical cruising route might start at Grissinger’s in Long Beach, up through Hawthorne to Holly’s, the Wich Stand on Slauson and then on to Johnie’s in Downey. It was also a popular location for movies, including the fight scene between Ike and Tina Turner in 1993’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” and 1994’s “Reality Bites,” with Winona Rider and Ethan Hawke.
The structure, believed to be among the last and largest intact drive-in restaurants, “stands as an icon of roadside architecture, car culture and midcentury modern lifestyle,” the preservationists said on their website.
It helped inspire a type of modern architecture known as “Googie,” in which entire buildings were designed to essentially be signs to attract customers, with strong lines, gigantic signs, glass walls and brightly lighted interiors.
“It’s outrageous, incredibly sad,” said Jay Platt, a member of the Los Angeles Conservancy, who was surveying the wreckage Monday morning.
Adriene Biondo, who led the preservation campaign that drew thousands of signatures, agreed: “There’s an outpouring for the building.... Last night, it was like a deathwatch.” Several classic car buffs called or stopped by with their condolences; commiserations had come in from as far away as the Netherlands.
Downey City Councilman Mario Guerra vowed to bring the matter up at a council meeting tonight. “People could have been injured or killed; the electrical was live.”
City officials said longtime owner Christos “Johnie” Smyrniotis had asked city planning officials in October for permission to demolish the building and build a small retail complex on the site. In November, the city said the application wasn’t complete and requested more information about how the new plans would affect the historic aspects of the property.
The 2002 preservation campaign succeeded. The property would have been included in the state Register of Historic Places after the nine-member state Historic Resources Commission unanimously approved its listing in late 2002 -- except that Smyrniotis had objected (on economic grounds, he told the commission). Owner approval is required for inclusion.
Smyrniotis did not return phone calls Monday.
Originally known as Harvey’s Broiler, the restaurant was founded in 1958 by Harvey Ortner, who went from building cars at Ford and General Motors to serving those who arrived in them. It was renamed Johnie’s Broiler in 1966 after Smyrniotis purchased it. Legend has it that the restaurant’s sign could only fit one “N,” thus the unusual spelling of “Johnie.”
The restaurant closed in late 2001, then morphed into a used car dealership in 2002 -- but that enterprise drew criticism when some of the original interior was gutted.
Times photographer Spencer Weiner contributed to this report.