Alpine Village Says Auf Wiedersehen To Its Restaurant
For more than half a century, anyone who drove along Torrance Boulevard in unincorporated West Carson couldn't help but notice a picturesque, slightly run-down hamlet of European-style chalets next to the roaring Harbor Freeway. Alpine Village included an outdoor shopping center, a German market, a bakery, roughly 18 stores and businesses. The kitschy, approximately 14-acre complex, which hosted weekly swap meets, bingo nights and an annual Oktoberfest celebration, was a mainstay in the lives of thousands of Southern Californians of German and East European descent.
"My memories as a small child were of the area among the shops where chickens roamed," says Hermosa Beach resident Heidi Lindner. "Sometimes, there was an organ-grinder with a monkey named Michelle, who both entertained and scared me. Nearby there was a small amusement park-type space with a teeny carousel and Ferris wheel near the Oktoberfest beer garden area."
In February, news broke that after 51 years, the restaurant that anchored Alpine Village was slated to close on Apr. 21. According to the current owners, an anonymous board that has run the Bavarian retail park since its founding, the restaurant has been losing money for years.
The news comes during a tumultuous period for the Bavarian retail park. Last year, reports surfaced that Pacific Industrial, a Long Beach-based real estate development company, wanted to purchase Alpine Village, tear down most of it and turn it into a storage center.
The perceived threat of destruction made preservationists pay attention. They launched a drive to get Alpine Village recognized as Los Angeles County's third historic landmark. (The city of L.A. has a separate process for designating cultural and historic landmarks and has issued more than 1,100 of them.)
HOW A BAVARIAN VILLAGE SPRANG UP IN LA
This sterling example of 20th century roadside architecture was the brainchild of Josef Bischof and Hans Rotter, according to Laura Taylor Kung of ASM Affiliates Inc., who wrote the Alpine Village Los Angeles County Landmark Evaluation Report for the county. Rotter, a former player for the Los Angeles Kickers, a powerhouse amateur soccer team, wanted to turn a vacant dump off the freeway into a soccer field. Inspired by the Danish-style buildings in Solvang, he and Bischof went to the German South Bay Club and the German American League with the expanded idea of a Bavarian-style tourist attraction.
Architect Bruno Bernauer was hired to draw up the original plans. The first building permits for Alpine Village were filed in May 1967. Over the next two years, a German village rose in sunny Southern California. In December 1968, newspaper ads began touting the development as "the little Village in the Alps."
According to Kung, when Alpine Village opened in 1969, it boasted the Alpine Inn Restaurant, a movie theater and a soccer field. Kung writes that specialty shops included the "French Pancake House, Alpine Village Ski Chalet, Alpine Fashions, Alpine Parfumerie, Alpine Jewelers, Alpine Glass and Porcelain, Eschbach's Alpine Delicatessen, Lorrie's Card and Gift Shop, Photo Edelweiss, German Home Bakery, Salamander Shoes and Olde Legende Candy."
Over the years, the complex grew to include a petting zoo, a mini-amusement park, the German American League Clubhouse and swap meets. Oktoberfest, which according to Kung started in some form as early as 1967, drew thousands every fall. Weddings and Protestant church services were held at the idyllic chapel in the center of the shopping area.
The Los Angeles Turners Museum, the museum of L.A.'s oldest German Heritage Club (founded in the 1850s), extolled the virtues of Germanic culture and exercise. In 1973, the Los Angeles Times reported:
Alpine Village is a warm and friendly little town in Southern California with authentic Alpine atmosphere. They are designed and decorated by Bavarian artists for the purpose of creating a happy place. Many varieties of homemade sausages and gourmet pastries are made right at the Alpine Village by masters from the old country. All these foods and imported beers, wines and liqueurs are served at the Alpine Village Inn.
While Alpine Village drew curious tourists, it also became a nostalgic focal point for people like Lindner's father, who had moved to the U.S. from Germany in the 1950s. By 1973, the Times estimated that L.A. County was home to 129,436 people of German descent. They went to Alpine Village not only to shop but to yodel, dance the polka, listen to Austrian brass bands and drink imported beer.
"Alpine Village is one of the few places you can get really good German style meats and baked goods anywhere in California," Lindner says.
At the restaurant, guests could dine on dishes like sauerbraten and wiener schnitzel, while the bakery served apple strudel and black forest cake.
Nicole Hauptmann, who grew up in Norco, frequented Alpine Village with her family, both sides of which had come to the U.S. from Germany after World War II.
"As a kid, I was always excited to go there. It made me feel like I was really in a small village in Germany," she says. The Village also held a more personal connection. Her parents met there in the late '70s while attending Oktoberfest.
Linda Muir, a Silver Lake resident of German descent, first went to the Village in 1973 with her fiancé, Peter Bazovsky, who had grown up in Europe.
"Peter felt a true kinship to the 'Fatherland' and I also felt a genuine connection," Muir says. "Alpine Village was my first strong exposure to a cross-section of Germanic goods and services. There is a German word that sums up my initial impression, and that is gemütlichkeit, which loosely translated means warm, cozy, friendly. It was a welcoming place, especially in those early years."
Bazovsky bought a Tyrolese suit for his wedding at a Village shop, and the couple bought Lufthansa Airlines tickets for their honeymoon from a Village travel agent. Over the course of their marriage, they would frequent the Village to see European movies, buy Christmas gifts and shop for European furniture.
Alpine Village's popularity continued to grow through the 1980s and early '90s. Hans Rotter and his wife,Teri, moved the restaurant to a larger space within the complex and expanded it. According to the Los Angeles Times, the restaurant could serve 600 diners and included the "elegant" Emerald Room where guests could dine on roast duck, venison and seafood while drinking beer brewed on site, at Hofbrau.
One of L.A.'s first successful specialty breweries, Hofbrau employed German brew master Ludwig Erl. It was later bought by Angel City Brewery, which was located at Alpine Village from 2004 until moving to downtown Los Angeles in 2010.
By the 1980s, Oktoberfest had grown into a multi-day celebration, hosting tens of thousands of people from around California.
"We went often as children, dressed to the nines in dirndls and lederhosen, as gender dictated. We would eat and run around like maniacs among the tables as our parents and family ate and drank as the band played. Watching the folk dancers was pretty impressive and we imitated them, badly," Lindner says.
The Los Angeles Times described what a visitor could expect from Oktoberfest in the mid-'80s:
Brass bands direct from Germany will play their famous "oom pah pah" music for listening and dancing at the beer garden. There will be many folk dancers in colorful costumes of dirndls and lederhosen. There will also be games, including pretzel-eating, beer mug carrying, wood sawing and yodeling...authentic German food is served every evening. Plates are heaped with wursts, sauerkraut, fresh hot pretzels, fried potatoes and apple strudel. Lowenbrau beer is featured.
It wasn't all fun and games. In 1985, four white supremacists wearing Nazi emblems showed up at the restaurant during Oktoberfest. The Rotters refused to serve them, and the men later sued the Rotters with the help of the ACLU.
"The suit dragged on until March 10, 1988, when a Superior Court judge ruled against Alpine Village, saying it didn't have the right to refuse service to the men because of what they were wearing," writes Sam Gnerre of The Daily Breeze.
In 1991, reality again came crashing down on the fairytale complex when a drug bust in the parking lot turned deadly. The sting, initiated by the police during a busy evening, left one suspect dead as guests ran for cover and bullet holes pierced windows showcasing beer steins and Hummel figurines.
"The scene in the parking lot was like World War II," bystander Leo Valencia told the Los Angeles Times. "There were undercover officers everywhere, shooting at every moving guy and yelling, 'Don't move.'"
Over the next 20 years, Alpine Village remained a robust attraction among both locals and tourists. The swap meet was a mainstay of many South Bay residents' lives and hundreds would crowd into the bar during the World Cup. In 1998, a whopping 100,000 people attended Oktoberfest.
AN UNCERTAIN FATE
By the early aughts, tastes had changed. Kitschy retail centers like Alpine Village began to seem unsophisticated and out of date. People increasingly began shopping at big box stores. In 2008, the Rotters were fired as general managers after demolishing the parking lot and batting cages without a permit. Many regulars started to feel the magic of Alpine Village was slipping away.
"Unfortunately, the whole flavor and atmosphere dramatically changed when the last owner/managers took over. Many of the stores closed and were taken over by others that really have nothing to do with the German/European experience," Muir says.
Hauptmann agrees: "Sadly, it has diminished a bit over the years. My dad said back in the day it used to be more like a park with the shops and restaurants."
Like brick and mortar stores everywhere, the Village's shops were also hit hard by online shopping. "Having less active shops in the shopping area has changed the feel. Everything is obtainable online that once you had to seek out at specialty stores," Lindner says.
Despite these changes, Alpine Village's ride-or-die fans continue to patronize the shopping center. Although her husband passed away many years ago, Muir still goes there to buy hard-to-find European products from the cosmetic store.
Lindner continues to purchase her meat and baked goods at the Alpine Village market every Sunday. "For me, Alpine Village is a way to maintain contact with a part of my heritage. A lot of Germans have assimilated, which is great, but I enjoy having a place where I can go to 'get my German on,'" she says.
"I recently had my 40th birthday party at the restaurant there," Hauptmann says. "Many family and friends attended. We enjoyed the food, drinks and the music by my friend's band, the Express Band."
In August 2019, Alpine Village enthusiasts started mobilizing because they feared real-estate acquisition firm Pacific Industrial was in escrow to purchase the land. Neil Mishurda, co-founder of Pacific Industrial, says those were just rumors and that the firm was never seriously interested in purchasing the property.
"Those initial reports were inaccurate and we were surprised to be named in them. We were never in escrow to buy the property, and other than briefly looking at it (as we do with many properties all over Southern California), we ultimately moved on and have no interest in buying — much less redeveloping the site," Mishurda says. According to Kung, the Alpine Village board stated back in October that there were no serious offers to buy the complex.
Still, fans of Alpine Village are nervous about its fate. "Developers only see dollar signs. They don't care about what that place means to people and how it has touched so many lives," Hauptmann says.
They've formed a Facebook group, Friends of Alpine Village, and are working with the Los Angeles Conservancy to get the Village declared a Historic Landmark. On Jan 24, 2020, the Historical Landmarks and Records Commission approved a resolution recommending the designation. The nomination is now in the hands of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, which will take up the issue. No date has yet been set for that.
Although the latest news of the restaurant closing has devastated many longtime patrons, they're convinced that Alpine Village is worth preserving for future generations.
"It's not just Germans or German-Americans shopping at the market or going to Oktoberfest," Lindner says. "It is truly a cross section of the residents of Los Angeles of all ages and nationalities. To have this place close would leave a gap in the diverse cultural tapestry of Los Angeles. There is really nothing that is its equal. Long may it live."