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A Diner Shaped Like an Oil Can? It Happened in Montebello

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The Oil Can restaurant in Montebello, 1928. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.
The Oil Can restaurant in Montebello, 1928. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

There are greasy spoons, and then there was The Oil Can. Located on Whittier Boulevard in Montebello, this tiny diner mimicked the shape of the cans once used to lubricate machinery, complete with a giant handle and a spout that towered above the building's domed roof.

Its oil can shape may have been unique among restaurants, but this eccentric building does fall squarely within an architectural tradition inspired by Southern California's embrace of the automobile in the 1920s: programmatic or mimetic architecture. Built along major automobile routes, these eye-catching structures attracting passing motorists with their unusual forms. In essence, the buildings acted as their own signage. Some resembled food items (Randy's Donuts), others pieces of clothing (the Brown Derby), and some everyday items like an oil can.

Montebello's Whittier Boulevard was home to several examples of programmatic architecture in the 1920s and '30s, but as the bus-driving historians of Esotouric note, none was as fitting as The Oil Can. The discovery of an underground oil field in 1917 had brought fortune to the town and transformed its once graceful hills ("Montebello" is Italian for "beautiful mountain") into a forest of wooden derricks.

Little is known about The Oil Can apart from the details gleaned from these photographs, taken in 1928 by the Dick Whittington Photography Studio and recently digitized by the USC Libraries as part of an NEH-funded project. It apparently served several locally produced refreshments, including Whittier Ice Cream ("not just as good -- but better") and Eastside Beer (most likely 0.5% ABV "near beer," due to Prohibition). The Los Angeles Times made no mention of the restaurant or its proprietors, but the envelope that protected these 5x7-inch nitrate negatives mentions a Mrs. Rosenfield -- perhaps the woman responsible for this amusing object from the Southland's architectural past.

The Oil Can restaurant in Montebello, 1928. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.
The Oil Can restaurant in Montebello, 1928. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.
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L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region..

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