Naming of Johnie’s Coffee Shop as historic L.A. landmark hits snag
Getting Johnie’s Coffee Shop named a historic landmark in Los Angeles was supposed to be easy as pie.
In April, the Los Angeles Conservancy nominated the Googie-style diner at the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and South Fairfax Avenue for the city’s list of Historical-Cultural Monuments, which includes architectural icons such as the Bradbury Building downtown and the Watts Towers. The process moved smoothly through a tangle of bureaucratic stops.
Then, days before an Aug. 15 Cultural Heritage Commission hearing to recommend historic status for the now-closed 1956 restaurant, with its Space Age neon signage and jutting rooftop, the city acknowledged that it has been sending legal notices of the proposed designation to the wrong address.
That’s a problem because once declared a landmark, property owners face legal restrictions on future alterations of a structure. If necessary, the Cultural Heritage Commission is empowered to step in to delay or even halt a planned demolition.
The property owners’ attorney didn’t respond to calls for comment. Paul Neuman, a spokesman for 5th District Councilman Paul Koretz, said heirs are working cooperatively with the city and conservancy members.
“They were hit a little late in the process,’' Neuman said. “They are being pretty darn good sports about it.”
On Tuesday, the city’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee agreed to delay a vote to endorse the designation so property owners have more time to hash out plans for the coffee shop’s future with preservation advocates.
The new hearing is set for Nov. 5.
“That’s a great place,’' Councilman Gil Cedillo said in approving the delay. “I dated my wife there. I had a great lunch with her one afternoon. So let’s save that.”
Johnie’s had long been owned by David Gold, founder and previous owner of the 99 Cents Only discount chain, which he sold in 2011.
The mix-up happened, officials say, because the city sent notices of the designation plans not to Gold but to the Los Angeles equity firm that bought his discount chain. To complicate matters, Gold died in April at age 80 — the same month that the conservancy submitted the designation application.
Gold’s heirs weren’t alerted to the possible historic status until a few days before the Cultural Heritage Commission meeting. By then, the process was well underway and the commission voted unanimously to add the coffee shop to the city’s list of Historic-Cultural Monuments.
The full council must also vote on the designation.
Adrian Scott Fine, the conservancy’s advocacy director, said Johnie’s came under its radar as the county’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority drew up plans for a Westside subway extension.
Metro identified the coffee shop as the potential site for construction staging, creating uncertainty as to the diner’s future, Fine said.
Preservationists say it’s one of the best examples of Googie-style “statement architecture” designed to draw the attention of motorists and get them to stop. It defined Southern California in the 1950s and ‘60s as more and more residents bought cars and moved to the suburbs.
Its angled butterfly wing rooftop along with wide, cantilevered eaves and a splashy neon-and-incandescent-bulb frontage make it worth saving, Fine said. “There used to be a lot more buildings like Johnie’s and they are increasingly rare at this point,” he said. “Johnie’s is one of the most intact.”
It was designed by Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, architects influential in the development of California’s coffee shop culture. The pair designed several other notable coffee shops for chains such as Norm’s, Pann’s, Ship’s, Denny’s and Big Boy, he said.
Johnie’s closed in 2000 and since has been used primarily for filming. Fine said he doesn’t think the delay will hurt the conservancy’s push to protect it.
“This allows more time to explore options,” he said.
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