Los Angeles’ “Googie World” Architecture Tour Took Us Back to the Future

Posted inArchitecture

Driving in Los Angeles can be a dangerous game. There’s the stop-and-start traffic, the Tesla-wielding egomaniacs with immortality complexes, the TikTokers filming videos from the driver’s seat. But there are also those architecture looky-loos who find their eyes wandering from behind the wheel toward the many very stunning buildings in LA that steal focus. 

Exterior of Norm’s Restaurant on La Cienega Blvd. via Sharon VanderKaay/Flickr

Of these distracted drivers, I think we can cut the building rubberneckers the most slack— and I’m not just saying that because I am one. Los Angeles is a sun-soaked mecca of architectural splendor, home to a rich tapestry of styles that range most notably from Spanish Mission Revival and Craftsman to Art Deco and Midcentury Modern, not to mention many others. At its worst, LA is a city filled with narcissistic pipe-dream-seekers, but at its best, it’s a stunning time capsule of aesthetics that need to be protected at all costs. 

None more so than the cult favorite, Googie. 

Exterior of a car wash in San Bernardino, CA via Cogart Strangehill/Wikimedia Commons

While you might not have heard the term “Googie architecture” before, anyone who’s ever stepped foot inside of a Denny’s has encountered it. During the Atomic Age of design, Googie took mid-century America by storm in the form of futuristic coffee shops, carwashes, and even churches. Bold, swooping structures, jaunty neon signs piercing the sky, and large outdoor eating areas all began popping up throughout Southern California in the 1950s, primarily to catch the eye of drivers passing by. 

Sketch of Googie’s Coffee Shop on the wall of Armét Davis Newlove Architects

The term “Googie” was derived from the Los Angeles eatery Googie’s Coffee Shop, designed by John Lautner on Sunset Boulevard in 1949. But Googie’s was just the beginning. 

Smash cut to present day Los Angeles. The California Coffee Shop style at the core of Googie architecture is still deeply embedded into the look and feel of the sprawling metropolis, most iconically represented in the chain Norms Restaurant, the Burbank burger joint Bob’s Big Boy, and the crème de la crème: Pann’s Restaurant, just a stone’s throw from LAX in Inglewood. While these buildings have stood the test of time, it hasn’t been easy. Relics of Googie architecture have endured thanks to the immense efforts of Googie obsessives at places like the Los Angeles Conservancy, who continue to fight tooth and nail to protect these masterpieces from real estate developers licking their chops for the buildings’ coveted locations.  

At the frontlines of this fight is LA native Chris Nichols, a senior editor at Los Angeles Magazine, historic preservationist, the author of Walt Disney’s Disneyland, and one of the foremost Googie-philes. Nichols has volunteered at the LA Conservancy for decades, where he’s served as the Chairman Emeritus of the organization’s Modern Committee. At the end of last year, Nichols ran the Googie World Expo in LA, which included a day-long bus tour of Googie landmarks on the west side of the city, and I was fortunate enough to be a participant. 

“I love this stuff so much,” Nichols told our gaggle of Googie fiends at the top of the tour, donning his signature suspenders and bow tie. “I’ve been suffering from Googie Disorder since I was a teenager.” We had all gathered at Armét Davis Newlove Architects (formerly Armét & Davis up until 1972) in Santa Monica, the heralded firm founded in 1947 that pushed Googie architecture to even greater heights after its initial inception. “John Lautner may be credited with doing the first googie building, Googie’s—which gave it its name—but Armét and Davis and then Armét Davis Newlove perfected the style, and really gave it the energy and excitement that we all love about it,” Nichols explained. 

Armét Davis Newlove is responsible for many of the most adored Googie buildings that typify the aesthetic, including Pann’s and the first Norms location on La Cienega Boulevard, along with the prototypes for chains that would soon pervade the rest of the country, such as Bob’s Big Boy and Denny’s. They’ve constructed over 4,000 Googie restaurants, and the firm is still operational to this day. “They’re producing what they’ve always produced: churches and restaurants! Those are their two specialties,” said Nichols. Modern-day franchises they’re currently working with are Wendy’s, Burger King, El Pollo Loco, and Dutch Brothers coffee shops. But this tour was all about the Googie heyday, which, according to Nichols, was at its peak in 1957, 1958, and 1959. 

The postwar boom hit Los Angeles in a flurry of expansive glass walls, flamboyant, seemingly floating roofs, and indoor-outdoor landscaping that came together in a style met with a mixed reception. To this day, people like Nichols have to fiercely protect the integrity of Googie, which has long been derided as “a little too commercial, a little too flamboyant, a little too western, and a little too American for serious consideration,” as Alan Hess writes in his landmark book from 1986, Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture.

Johnnie’s Coffee Shop Restaurant on on Wilshire Blvd. via Child of Midnight/Wikimedia Commons

“I was given a copy of Googie by Alan Hess when I was 17, and I said, ‘Wow! This is incredible!’” Nichols told us through a megaphone once we were on the tour bus, careening through the city. “I made my parents drive me around and show me all of these buildings. Then I called Alan Hess out of the phone book, who told me that the Los Angeles Conservancy was starting a ‘50s group that I should be involved with. So I went to the meetings and it changed my life! I met all of my best friends there, I met my wife there.” It was clear from the jump that the group on this tour was tightly knit, just like any group of pals united by a common interest. It just so happens that this crew was bonded by a deep and profound admiration for a niche architectural style pioneered in Southern California. 

The handful of stops we made on the tour ranged from a church to Mel’s Drive-In (of American Graffiti fame) in Santa Monica, but the crowning jewel of the day was Pann’s. “I love Pann’s with all of my heart and soul,” Nichols gushed as we ambled into the parking lot. “This is the greatest, best, most amazing Googie building in the world,” he continued. “It still has its original owners. It’s completely restored, completely intact. Completely beautiful and perfect. This is what I live for.” 

Pann’s was chiefly designed by the visionary Helen Liu Fong of Armét & Davis in 1958. She was just 24 years old when she was hired by Armét & Davis in 1951, shattering barriers as a Chinese-American woman in a white-male dominated field. But her skill was undeniable, primarily as an interior designer who designed many café booths, barstools, and counters herself.

Exterior of Pann’s via Russell Mondy/Flickr

It’s nothing short of a miracle that 65 years after it was first built by Fong and the rest of the Armét & Davis team, Pann’s remains a pristine beacon of authentic Googie architecture. Owner James Poulos has been intent to restore Pann’s throughout the years in ways that meticulously preserves its original Googie features, but not all restaurateurs are as thoughtful. 

Interior of Pann’s via Russell Mondy/Flickr

“The biggest challenge is that restaurant owners are a unique breed who oftentimes are not interested in preservation,” another preservationist on the tour, Peter Moruzzi, lamented to the group. “Commercial buildings are difficult; they’ve always been difficult, and they always will be difficult, compared to residential. Residential, you have a single owner, and you can often find an owner who appreciates the property and wants to do the right thing. With commercial, there are just so many other pressures and interests. You have council people involved and neighbors— it’s just hard. It’s really, really hard. Restaurants in particular.”

Parking lot view of Pann’s via Russell Mondy/Flickr

The harsh reality is that the magnitude of classic California coffee shops make their upkeep unrealistic in modern times. “The economic changes in the last 75 years made it so that you can no longer have one person with a lot for parking hire Armét Davis and Newlove to come in and do something with custom artwork and landscaping and a giant neon sign—all of this expensive beautiful stuff—and still sell a hamburger for 59 cents,” Nichols said. Land values in Los Angeles have skyrocketed to such an exorbitant extent that it’s unsustainable to have restaurants take up that much square footage of property, not to mention the cost of staffing. Nevertheless, the fight for Googie respect and rescue wages on.  

Union 76 gas station in Beverly Hills via Ignacio Icke/Wikimedia Commons

As a 17-year-old, Nichols stood helplessly across the street from the original Googie’s Coffee Shop as it was being demolished in 1988. “I was on a pay phone with the LA Conservancy at a gas station,” he shared. “I called the Conservancy and I was like, ‘It’s coming down! What are you doing?! Googie’s is being demolished and you’re not here, I don’t understand!’ And they said, ‘That ship has sailed. You would’ve had to deal with that years ago.’”

At the end of the tour, Nichols encouraged all of us to write letters to cultural heritage commission meetings, attend the meetings, and call our council members to protect these landmarks. “That’s a big deal, and that stuff goes a long way,” he said. This lively, sold-out group gathering for a Sunday bus tour in November 2022 serves as a starburst of hope that there are still determined guardians of Googie architecture out there, committed to protecting this special style. But we can’t take any of it for granted. “The fact that any of these Googie coffee shops survive is remarkable in and of itself,” said Peter before we all returned to our 21st-century lives. “So whenever you see one, you need to go patronize it, because you don’t know how long it will be there.”