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Once upon a time in Los Angeles, you could get a hot dog from a hot dog and a tamale inside a tamale. You could get a bowl of chili while sitting in a chili bowl, a cup of coffee beneath a coffee cup, and a mug of beer in a beer keg. The buildings where hot dogs, tamales, and the rest were sold looked like those things but were cartoonishly huge, as if made for the use of giants.
Buildings that imitate the things sold inside are called mimetic architecture. There were several mimetic buildings in Los Angeles from 1920 through the 1940s, from a camera store that looked like a camera and a piano store shaped like a piano, to a flower shop in the form of a flowerpot.
Not all the exuberant commercial architecture was an oversize image of what was inside. Igloos and icebergs sold ice cream. Snowcapped mountains housed a bar. Windmills advertised baked goods. An oil derrick dispensed motor oil, but an oilcan served hamburgers. Bacon and eggs were logically dished inside a stucco pig, but hamburgers were on the menu inside big dogs and toads.
Chinese shrines, Art Deco ziggurats, and domed mosques pumped gasoline for Gilmore, Signal and Violet Ray. The wings of a Fokker F-32 airliner, improbably parked at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Cochran Avenue, shaded the gas pumps of Bob’s Airmail Service Station. The Sphinx Realty Company was a (sort of) sphinx. A steamship was (and still is) the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Los Angeles. The Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard was an enormous brown derby hat. The name of the restaurant was simply the restaurant.
Material dreams like the imitative Tail o' the Pup and the symbolic Coca-Cola Building are collectively called programmatic architecture, where form willfully ignores function. Predictably, Hollywood played a role in making it part of fantasy Los Angeles.
Spectacle and Sham
In 1915, following the success of “The Birth of a Nation,” director D. W. Griffith planned his next movie on an even grander scale. Griffith’s “Intolerance” would show “Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages” with all the melodrama and sentimentality he could fit into the film’s three and a half hours. For scenes set in ancient Babylon, Griffith ordered two rows of 50-foot pillars topped by gigantic rearing elephants. More elephants guarded city gates, 136 feet tall and pattered with ornamental crests and frescoed gods. The decaying plaster and plywood set loomed over the intersection of Sunset and Hollywood boulevards until 1919 when the Los Angeles Fire Department ordered its demolition.
Jim Heimann, who has documented California’s unrestrained programmatic architecture in several books, dates its beginning in Los Angeles to the lingering spectacle of Griffith’s Babylon set. But there were other precedents. Buildings in the amusement zone at San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition in 1915 looked like toadstools and pagodas made of plaster, fiber and chicken wire. That same year, San Francisco’s similarly named Panama-Pacific International Exposition had a 120-foot figure of Buddha, an enormous Uncle Sam and a two-story horse. Griffith was impressed and brought some of the fair’s craftsmen to Hollywood to build the “Intolerance” sets.
By the early 1920s, local builders had the skills to sculpt plaster, stucco, wood, and wire into eye-catching storefronts. Los Angeles had the perpetual good weather and a mobile population eager to see the sights from the era’s open automobiles. Business operators had embraced the advertising value of architecture to attract novelty-seeking customers. Sun, speed, wide vistas, and post-war optimism built fakery into the fabric of Los Angeles and into the city’s mythology of itself.
When Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen designed a titanic pair of binoculars as the portal to the Chiat/Day Building in Venice in 1991, they were having postmodern fun with the history of shape-shifting Los Angeles architecture. But the taste for dreamscapes went deeper than novelty buildings.
Wallace Neff and other architects in the 1920s designed spacious homes in Pasadena and San Marino in the new Spanish Colonial Revival style. They agreed with San Diego architect Richard Requa, who argued, “the logical, fitting and altogether appropriate architecture for California… is a style inspired and suggested” by Spain and colonial Mexico.[i] In the style’s cheerful disregard for authenticity and in its creation of a past that ought to have been, the Spanish Colonial Revival prefigured the theme park designs of Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Universal Studios Hollywood.
Developers in Southern California eventually laid out entire cities — or “themed communities” — in the style. Santa Barbara and Ojai remade themselves in white stucco, red tile and wrought iron. Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County was newly built beginning in 1921 as a hybrid of Navajo pueblo and Mexican colonial village.
The Spanish Colonial Revival answered the longing of well-to-do homeowners who wanted to be connected to the essence of Southern California, even if that connection was a sham. In the deliberate conflation of place and dwelling, architects and their clients sought a new kind of California domesticity that was intended to redeem modern life from haste and monotony. The Great Depression ended that project, and the Revival style had a diminished afterlife as a sketchy stucco box with red tile trim, a flat roof and a cement figure of a sleeping Mexican on the porch.
What made it possible to build that kind of house was the climate that suggested the style. Houses in Los Angeles need only enough bracing to shed occasional rain, not bear the load of a long winter’s snowfall and ice storms. Liberated from stone, brick and a pitched roof, a house in Los Angeles could be anything from a storybook “Hansel and Gretel” cottage, like the Willat/Spadena House, to a docked UFO, like the Chemosphere.
"(N)ot even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon… On the corner of La Huerta Road was a miniature Rhine castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers. Next to it was a little highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of the Arabian Nights… It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are."
Objections to the inauthenticity of Los Angeles mistook what was fundamental about the city, that it was historically and geographically distinct from other places in America. Traditional building styles, such as a department store decorated like a Venetian palazzo or a bank that looked like a Roman temple, were as inauthentic in Los Angeles as a tire plant in the form of an Assyrian fortress or an apartment building that looked like the bridge of an ocean liner.
The desire for beauty and romance was acute in turn-of-the-20th-century Los Angeles as uprooted Midwesterners poured in. Local boosters answered the need with an invented history of dashing Spanish hidalgos on horseback, languid señoritas in lace mantillas and adobe homes that prefigured the Spanish Colonial Revival. Even the topography of coastal Southern California was enlisted into the deception, despite the non-native eucalyptus trees and the imported palms that filled out the stage set.
William A. McClung in “Landscapes of Desire” named this blend of myth and landscape “Ramonaland,” after the title character in Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel “Ramona.” Towns were named for her, as well as housing tracts, schools, hotels — and unashamed tourist traps claiming to be the birthplaces, homes and graves of a character in a novel. Dydia DeLyser in “Ramona Memories” makes the argument that “elements from a work of fiction became factual through the landscape”[iii] and gave new residents a context for imagining their place in it. Ramonaland overlaid Southern California with a fabricated past that assisted Anglo migrants in seeing and possessing a place that was genuinely alien to them. But it was a fantasyland they entered, a theme park as big as Southern California.
An invitation to escape into an immersive, alternate reality was key to the allure of 20th-century Los Angeles. Clifton’s Pacific Seas cafeteria entertained bored retirees in a stage set of waterfalls and jungles. Waiting for a fried chicken dinner at Walter and Cordelia Knott’s restaurant in Buena Park, patrons wandered through a “real” frontier ghost town. Shoppers at Hollywood’s Crossroads of the World loitered among storefronts designed in Old World architectural styles.
In 1955, Walt Disney appropriated these concepts and wrapped a world’s fair amusement zone around them. Disneyland’s example of programmed fun inside programmatic architecture generated a new tourist industry that blended theme parks with themed shopping malls, which became an inspiration for The Grove and The Americana at Brand. Cultural critics echoed Nathanael West’s judgment that the results were often “tasteless, even horrible,” yet something in them — even at their cheesiest — satisfied.
The benign climate, excellent highways and the skills of Hollywood designers were material causes of our architecture of fakery. Our fondness for it is harder to explain. Rootlessness might be one reason; it defined Los Angeles when it was largely a city of restless exiles. They wouldn’t have come unless they had a thirst for novelty. Distance from disapproving cultural elites might be another reason. Risk-taking entrepreneurs had the freedom to be outlandish in how they sold donuts, ice cream and pianos. It worked. People talked about a dance hall in the shape of a pumpkin, a lunch counter that looked like a dirigible and a supper club that imitated a Zuni pueblo. People laughed at the odd buildings of Los Angeles, but they remembered the businesses inside.
Some observers claimed that the city’s streets were lined with weird commercial architecture, which served as proof if any was needed, that Los Angeles was uniquely crazy.[iv] The historian David Gebhard thought that fewer than 75 programmatic structures were ever built.
Perhaps these eccentric buildings weren’t just vulgar ballyhoo for a city of yokels. Perhaps they defined something positive about who we are and what set us apart from other places and from the critics who didn’t approve. We once had a need to encounter fantastic buildings that made us feel as curious and as small as a child, although there was something forlorn in that wish. A less naïve Los Angeles grew up after 1950, and it expressed its needs and attitudes in a different roadside architecture — in the soaring angles, swooping lines, and neon towers of Googie Style, made to be read at a distance and at 45 miles per hour. The look was different, but the impulse to defy convention and make a statement was the same.
When the Hollywood & Highland shopping and theater complex opened in 2001, part of its design echoed the vanished spectacle of D. W. Griffith’s walls of Babylon set. Los Angeles continued to be a place where dreams are made of stucco and chicken wire.
Field Guides to Fantasy
There are several compilations of programmatic Los Angeles architecture online. One of the most comprehensive was assembled by Weird California. Water and Power Associates covers the principal buildings in greater detail. Curbed LA offers a map to a few of the surviving buildings. The 1843 Magazine site has a useful history of programmatic architecture in Los Angeles with a closer look at some of the best-known examples. The latest edition of “California Crazy” by Jim Heimann, with David Gebhard’s thorough introduction, covers these in detail, along with many more.
Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm have online chroniclers of their histories and architecture. Spanish Colonial Revival homes in Los Angeles are discussed on any number of websites. Ojai and Rancho Santa Fe have historical associations that preserve their heritage of urban design and architecture.
Top Image: Architect Robert V. Derrah remodeled the Coca-Cola Building, located at 1334 South Central Avenue, into a streamlined ocean liner in 1936 | National Park Service
[i] Richard Requa, Architectural Details, Spain and the Mediterranean (Los Angeles: The Monolith Portland Cement Company, 1926), n.p.
[ii] Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust (London: Penguin Classics, 2006), 3.
[iii] Dydia DeLyser, Ramona Memories: Tourism and the Shaping of Southern California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), xvi.
[iv] “Anything haywire is always most haywire in California” in “Palaces of the Hot Doges,” Architectural Forum (August 1935), 30.