6HWbNHN-show-poster2x3-c7tgE2Y.png

Artbound

Start watching
MJ250sC-show-poster2x3-Bflky7i.png

Tending Nature

Start watching
Southland Sessions

Southland Sessions

Start watching
HvlSxHY-show-poster2x3-4ik43uV.png

Earth Focus

Start watching
5LQmQJY-show-poster2x3-MRWBpAK.jpg

Reporter Roundup

Start watching
City Rising

City Rising

Start watching
Lost LA

Lost LA

Start watching
Member
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams.

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

Support Provided By
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.
la-as-subject-name-treatment2

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..

Support Provided By
Read More
A patient suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) receives oxygen inside an ambulance after she was evacuated from the Vijay Vallabh hospital, which caught fire in Virar, on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, April 23, 2021.

'Losing Hope': India's COVID-19 Meltdown Exposes New Front in Digital Divide

As desperate relatives post pleas for help and information on Twitter, those without access to the internet struggle with inundated phone lines and overburdened hospitals.
Two young Black men in suits pose together and smile at the camera.

'COVID Is a Wake-Up Call': Black Entrepreneurs Aim to Level Playing Field

Black-led social entrepreneurs in the United States and Britain are tackling inequalities highlighted by COVID-19.
A patient wearing an oxygen mask is wheeled inside a COVID-19 hospital for treatment, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ahmedabad, India, April 21, 2021.

Beg, Borrow, Steal': The Fight for Oxygen Among New Delhi's Hospitals

Medical staff are facing life-or-death scrambles to get scarce oxygen supplies as COVID-19 cases surge.