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California’s bizarre novelty architecture

The story of California’s bizarre novelty architecture

In the early 20th century, giant animals, hot-dogs, boots and baked goods began to loom large in California’s skyscape

In the early 20th century, giant animals, hot-dogs, boots and baked goods began to loom large in California’s skyscape

Jonathan Griffin | June 14th 2018

It may not be unique to California, nor even America, but novelty architecture – a superbly condescending name for roadside buildings shaped like hot-dogs, boots, icebergs and hats – has its historical and spiritual roots in and around Los Angeles. The city is the geographical focus of “California Crazy”, a redesigned and expanded edition of a cult book first published in 1980 and now reissued by Taschen. Written by cultural anthropologist Jim Heimann, it charts the history of this eccentric Pop style, from its origins in the early 20th century to its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, and looks at some associated forms of architectural craziness that have given southern California its unique identity. 

Before cars became ubiquitous in American cities, novelty architecture was most often found in amusement parks and world fairs. At the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, held in San Francisco in 1915, a “Fun Zone” included a 120-foot golden Buddha, a giant Uncle Sam, stucco elephants and ostriches, and a two-storey horse towering over an attraction billed as “Captain, the Educated Horse”. As citizens began, over the ensuing decades, to whizz about in private motorcars, the proprietors of roadside diners, gas stations and souvenir shops had buildings designed that would catch their eye. Before long, giant birds and animals, baked goods and fruit loomed large in the landscape. 

New materials and techniques were making these kinds of structures easier to build. For the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, seven new varieties of stucco were developed specially. When D.W. Griffith, a Hollywood director, visited the exposition, he was so impressed by the sophistication of the novelty buildings that he hired many of their craftsmen to help build the vast set of Babylonia for his film “Intolerance” (1916). The set, with 300-foot high gates and columns that covered four city blocks in the middle of Los Angeles, was intentionally visible to passing motorists. It caused a sensation. Even though it was dismantled in 1919, it had quickly become a landmark and, as Heimann writes, “set the tone for the intrusion of Hollywood fantasy on the urban landscape.”

Southern California was especially open to such an intrusion. During the boom years of the late 1800s and early 1900s, architects rapaciously incorporated an outlandish array of stylistic influences, from adobe missions, Swiss chalets and French chateaux to Japanese pagodas, Moorish palaces and Mayan temples. One suburban development, built on marshland by Abbot Kinney, an entrepreneur, was modelled on Venice, replete with gondolas on the gridded canals. Weirdly, visitors to this “Venice of America” could also ride on camels and walk down facsimiles of streets in Cairo and Tokyo. Never have the ideas of urban living and amusement been as closely entwined as they were in southern California during the first half of the 20th century.

 

In 1921 Irvin Willat, a silent-film director, commissioned set designer Harry Oliver to design the office headquarters of Willat Studios. The resulting building is a prime example of the “storybook” or “Hansel and Gretel” style, with its steep gables, charmingly irregular roof shingles and hyper-rustic wooden shutters. In 1929, the building was sold to Ward Lascelle, a producer, who moved the entire structure from its location in Culver City to Beverly Hills, where it remains today, recently refurbished but sadly without its original moat.

 

Built in 1928 in Montebello, east of downtown Los Angeles, the Tamale is an example of the purest form of programmatic architecture: a building made to look like the thing that it is selling (tamales are a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of steamed corn dough and meat). The idea is that instead of having a sign fixed to the outside of a building, the building itself is the sign. The bigger the sign, the harder it is to miss, especially when seen from a distance through the windows of a moving car. Ironically, in contrast to the eye-catching torus of a ring doughnut or the spire of an inverted ice cream cone, the low-lying, dumpy form of a tamale is perhaps not an ideal shape for programmatic treatment.

 

Distinct from “direct programmatic architecture”, a second, more sophisticated iteration of the genre – “indirect programmatic architecture” – elected not simply to depict the commodity on sale, but to represent an idea associated with it. For instance, one ice-cream stand was built in the shape of a white iceberg, conjuring the product’s refreshing coldness. Then there were buildings such as this one, from 1932, which revealed no obvious connection between the thing sold and the shape of the building. The owl’s head was able to rotate, its eyes had Cadillac headlamps installed inside and a horn blew “hoot hoot” periodically. Madness or marketing genius? It was certainly attention-grabbing.

 

The heyday of programmatic architecture was approximately between 1925 and 1934. After the mid-1930s, its influence was subsumed within more subtle genres, such as Streamline Moderne, in which buildings were styled to evoke – but not actually mimic – ships, cars and aeroplanes. In the post-war period, however, newly available materials including fibreglass and aluminium made large-scale sculptures easier to produce, and from the 1950s on, a number of giant animals and humans sprang up on the roofs of Californian businesses. This was not strictly programmatic architecture, of course: the functional buildings remained separate from their oversized signage, but such examples aspired to establish landmarks that were similarly eye-catching from the driver’s seat of a moving vehicle. One of the most iconic from this period is the gigantic, knobbly doughnut still visible in Inglewood, near LAX, mounted on the roof of what is now Randy’s Donuts. The original Big Donut chain was started by Ross Wendell in 1949. Seven years later it boasted 11 shops, each with their own doughnut.  

 

In 1930, a craze for miniature golf (or “Midget Golf”, as it was sometimes then called) swept across America. To many owners of Los Angeles’s vacant lots, these structures were appealing money spinners, being cheap and quick to install. More novelty amusement parks than examples of functional programmatic architecture, they nevertheless added to the whimsical streetscape of the city and, as David Gebhard, an architectural historian, suggests in “California Crazy”, influenced building styles in Los Angeles. They lowered the bar – or raised it, depending on your perspective – for the region’s tolerance of architectural eccentricity. Mary Pickford, a movie star, invested in this golf course in 1930, one of the more impressive examples in the “French ultra-modernistic style”, as the Los Angeles Times put it, on Wilshire and La Cienega Boulevards.

California Crazy. American Pop Architecture by Jim Heimann (TASCHEN)