The Story of LA’s Own: Googie Architecture

Architect John Lautner designed a coffee shop named Googies that was located on the corner of Sunset in Crescent Heights in Hollywood. The building's unusual angles inspired a new style of architecture called Googie, after the original diner.
Architect John Lautner designed a coffee shop named Googies that was located on the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights in Hollywood. The building’s unusual angles inspired a new style of architecture called Googie, after the original diner.

As America recovered from the Depression and World War II, the culture that followed exemplified a renewed zest for life. No longer beholden to restrictions on materials needed for the war effort, the 1950s were a time of celebration. Our cars became works of art, we turned our attention toward space and rock ‘n roll music was about to explode. And American architecture was another piece to that celebratory, Space Age enthusiasm. Los Angeles, long at the forefront of architectural development, once again developed a unique style: Googie architecture.

Modernism architecture and design were sweeping the nation. The emphasis on clean lines and sleek design was new in this country. In addition to becoming popular with home design, it also became popular with commercial buildings. In particular, an especially bold Modern interpretation now known as Googie began dotting roadsides across the country. Googie’s popularity was a little shorter than the larger Mid-century Modern movement and lasted only from the late 1940s to about the mid-1960s. After that, it fell out of favor and never returned.

Googie featured upswept roofs and had a space age feel.
Googie featured upswept roofs and had a space age feel.

Because this was a car era, Googie buildings were designed to stand out and catch the attention of motorists as they drove by. The shapes used in Googie architecture implied movement—cars, rocket ships, flying saucers, atoms and boomerangs, which was in keeping with the popularity cars and space at the time. Googie looked toward the future, or what designers thought the future looked like. They used geometrical shapes, such as parallelograms and parabolas. Not only did these shapes allude to math and science, they were terrific at catching light from various angles. The experimentation with shapes led to upswept roofs, curvaceous buildings and sharp angles like one might imagine on a space ship. It also led to bold use of glass, steel and neon, as seen with elevated signs.

Mel's Diner--originally Ben Frank's--on the Sunset Strip. Googie architecture has close ties with Los Angeles and Hollywood.
Mel’s Diner–originally Ben Frank’s–on the Sunset Strip. Googie architecture has close ties with Los Angeles and Hollywood.

Perhaps fittingly, the flashy and bold style of architecture gets its name from a flashy and bold location—the famed Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Googie’s coffee shop sat next door to Schwab’s Drug Store at the intersection of Sunset Blvd. and Crescent Heights. Because of its proximity to Schwab’s, Googies also become a hub for entertainment gossip and a celebrity hangout. The story goes that the original owner, Mortimer Burton, named his diner after his wife Lillian, whose nickname was Googie. The restaurant was built in this new style of architecture, which didn’t have a name at first, so “Googie” stuck as a way of identifying it. Architecture critic and magazine writer Douglas Haskell gets the credit for first using the term Googie in 1952.

The original coffee shop was designed by John Lautner, who had apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s before opening his own practice. In addition to basically inventing Googie architecture, Lautner designed such landmarks as the Paul Sheets House (featured in The Big Lebowski and Charlie’s Angels), the Leonard Malin house (an octagonal house perched on a five-foot pole) and the Russ Garcia House (also called the Rainbow House for its unusual roof shape).

Googie architecture was primarily featured in service buildings, such as gas stations, car washes, coffee shops and bowling alleys. Perhaps that's part of the reason critics didn't take it seriously.
Googie architecture was primarily featured in service buildings, such as gas stations, car washes, coffee shops and bowling alleys. Perhaps that’s part of the reason critics didn’t take it seriously.

Though popular through the 1950s and part of the 1960s, the Googie trend fell completely out of favor by the early 1970s. Architecture scholars and critics didn’t have much use for it either. Douglas Haskell, who coined the term Googie in the first place mocked the style and the fact that he believed Hollywood influenced the aesthetic. It was flashy but not taken seriously, especially because of the humble nature of the businesses that inhabited these buildings. The buildings constructed in Googie were generally service oriented, such as restaurants, gas stations, car washes, motels, bowling alleys, and the like. They just weren’t taken seriously. As a result, much of the Googie architecture was torn down at an alarming rate.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that any sort of efforts were made to save these post-World War II treasures but in a lot of cases it was too late. Even since conservation efforts have started, we’ve lost several more Googie masterpieces. Some still remain, though, and we love the ones that are still here!

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