How Car Culture Shaped The Crazy, Cool Architecture Of Midcentury LA
On February 22, 1929, hundreds of Angelenos crowded on the corner of 10th and Hope streets in downtown Los Angeles. They had come to celebrate the opening of a fantastical, four-story structure designed by esteemed architect Bernard R. Maybeck. Broadcast over radio station KFI, the event was hosted by L.A. Mayor George Cryer and movie star Dolores del Rio. An orchestra played standards and Paul Taylor's Metropolitan Chorus sang popular tunes of the day.
This elaborate shindig didn't mark the debut of a museum or a major university. It was held to celebrate a car lot, the Earle C. Anthony Inc. Packard Dealership and Service Center, to be exact, built at a cost of $1 million.
For the next week, thousands of Angelenos streamed through the building's neo-Baroque showroom to view a "Pageant of Transportation" featuring historic cars from decades past. But Maybeck's architecture was the star of the show. The Los Angeles Times enthused:
"His daring conjunction of tremendous byzantine columns of black marble with travertine capitals and corbels… contain elements from several architectural epochs. The walls of the showroom are constructed of French limestone purchased in France."
An artist painted the showroom's ceiling to look like that of an ancient cathedral, aged as if the "smoke of thousands of torches" had coated it. The advanced lighting system in the showroom, controlled with a 46' switchboard (the L.A. Times claimed it was the largest switchboard ever built), supposedly duplicated "all lighting conditions ranging from the rose of dawn to full amber sunlight to purple evening dusk and moonlight."
The pomp and circumstance surrounding the opening made it clear that cars and car culture were central to life in Los Angeles, and to the region's image of itself. As the 20th Century progressed, SoCal car culture merged with cutting-edge architecture to produce some truly fantastic structures.
Nearly a century later, some of the most iconic structures built to sell and service automobiles are being restored and repurposed. Most recently, the 1937 Streamline Moderne Firestone Tire and Service Center on La Brea Ave. reopened as the All Season Brewing Company.
If you could teleport Angelenos from a hundred years ago to 2021, this news would come as a shock (as would the whole time travel thing, presumably). Back in the nineteen-teens and early 20s, cars were still exciting technology and gas stations were little more than shacks. According to L.A. Times historian Cecilia Rasmussen, when L.A.'s first "gas station" sprang up on the corner of Wilshire Blvd. and La Brea Ave. in 1909, it was a simple wagon topped by a gas tank.
In 1913, the aforementioned Earle C. Anthony built the first real service gas station at the corner of Washington Blvd. and Grand Ave., in downtown L.A. According to Rasmussen, demand was high, and the station sold 200 gallons of gas in only two hours.
By 1920, the United States had 15,000 gas stations. As Adrian Scott Fine, Senior Director of Advocacy for the L.A. Conservancy notes, cars became more affordable during the 1920s while Los Angeles leaders pushed for paved roads and highways.
"The car radically changed the way in which American cities, and certainly L.A., looked previously to that," Scott Fine says.
The earliest gas stations and garages were purely functional, according to historian and architect Alan Hess. They were little more than metal and glass bolted together with a pump out front. (If you wanted to open your own gas station, you could purchase a premade kit). During the 1920s, cottage-style roadside gas stations, like the Christiensen and Grow Filling Station in Orange, a Storybook-style 1928 station, became popular. (Preservationists are currently attempting to get the site landmarked.)
"It was meant to blend in with houses, so that this strange new type of architecture had some point of reference. So, people could say, 'Yeah, that fits in here. And yes, you could build one of those on my corner, and I'll use it,'" Hess says.
The earliest exemplar of car architecture in L.A. was established in February 1923, when the massive Spanish Colonial Revival headquarters of the Automobile Club of Southern California opened. Designed by architects Sumner P. Hunt and Silas R. Burns, the organization's West Adams flagship soon attracted other auto-themed businesses to Figueroa St.
"All of a sudden, there were gas stations. Then, there were dealerships. And, you know, the whole quarter transformed itself, one lot at a time through the growth, specifically, of cars," says historian Jim Childs of the West Adams Heritage Association.
You can still see the importance of car culture along the Figueroa corridor, most famously at the iconic Felix Chevrolet, which opened in 1921. Located at the corner of Figueroa Street and West Jefferson Blvd., it is increasingly being crowded out by businesses catering to USC but drive up Figueroa and you'll find numerous auto dealerships — Toyota, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Chrysler.
"If you take a quick ride from the Staples Center to Exposition Park, you will find nothing but car showrooms," Childs says.
By 1933, the U.S. had more than 170,00 gas stations, according to the book The American Gas Station. During the 1930s, architects became inspired by the technology and design of cars, ships and planes, and they developed an architectural language separate from the revival styles they had previously relied on.
"Modern architecture is about expressing new technology of the 20th Century — steel, glass, concrete. But the automobile is probably the most important, most significant, most influential new technology of the 20th century to shape modern architecture, especially in Los Angeles. Architects were realizing you need a restaurant, you need a gas station, you need a showroom for selling cars. But what's the architectural potential in that function? That need developed here in Southern California simply because we had so many cars," Hess says.
Gas stations, service stations and dealerships built in the Streamline Moderne and Modernist styles began to pop up across Southern California. L.A.'s most famous remaining example is the former 1935 Gilmore Gas Station at Highland and Willoughby avenues. Designed by R.J. Kadow, this retro glass encased station now houses a drive-through Starbucks (a replica of a 1936 Gilmore Gas Station can also be seen at the Original Farmers Market at The Grove). Then, there's the sleek and graceful Casa de Cadillac dealership in Sherman Oaks, which was designed in 1949 by Randall Duell.
"It's clear mid-century modern, all about the idea of showcasing the automobile in this very sleek glass box," says Scott Fine.
As Streamline Moderne evolved into the futuristic Googie style, dealerships, car washes and gas stations realized the eye-catching style was perfect for attracting passing motorists. According to Curbed LA’s Bianca Barragan, Googie was a uniquely Southern California innovation, springing out of the middle-class, car culture driven Americana of post-World War II. She writes:
"Cantilevered roofs, starbursts and hard angles are all themes in Googie architecture… All three traits can be seen in the building that gave the style its name: a coffee shop called Googies in West Hollywood, designed by the great Organic Modernist John Lautner and built in 1949. Unfortunately, House and Home architecture critic Douglas Haskell coined the term 'Googie' in 1952 as a pejorative. (He thought Googie was tacky.)"
Unlike the sophisticated and sleek Streamline Moderne style, Googie was flashier and aimed at folks running errands in their cars.
"Googie had to stand out on the commercial strip. It had to catch the eye of the customer as they were driving by at 30, 40 miles an hour on Ventura Boulevard or Wilshire. Giant neon signs were often part of the design. So much of it was about how to stand out, how to get attention, how to tell the customer where to turn to get gas or buy a car or get a hamburger," Hess says.
Scott Fine agrees. "In terms of Googie, it is all about attracting attention from passing cars. That's part of its gimmick. It's wild and extreme and looks different from everything else to draw in the passing motorist to come in and spend some money. It's just a fun architecture but it was tied to very utilitarian needs in terms of gas and buying a car or getting your car washed," he says.
Numerous examples of Googie-style car-inspired architecture, designed by some of SoCal's most talented mid-century architects, survive today. There's Jack Colker's iconic 1965 Union 76 Gas Station in Beverly Hills, with its famed sloping roof designed by architect Gin Wong of Pereira & Associates. It was intended for the entrance of LAX but airport officials changed their minds.
"When LAX changed its mind about the gas station, they had a competition to see who would take the structure. Union Oil Company had a family of station owners and they won the rights to the design. The station owner had that corner at Crescent Drive and 'Little Santa Monica,'" Wong’s daughter told Los Angeles Magazine in 2015.
The 1963 Ray Vines Chrysler Dealership in Long Beach with its flying V roof, and the 1962 Five Points Car Wash (now known as the Googie Car Wash) in Whittier, with its soaring 35 foot pylons, are also standouts.
"The design of cars in this period and the design of the buildings that were servicing them were very, very closely related," Hess says.
Futuristic, monumental car culture architecture reached its peak in the 1960s. By the early '70s, the focus on eye-catching architecture in car culture was on its way out, spurred partially by the first Earth Day in 1970.
"The popular consciousness was turning away from technology as the answer to everything. Public officials were realizing that they had to be aware of nature and the impact of technology on our environment. The environmental movement really introduced a new popular fashion, in terms of these everyday buildings," Hess says.
Increasingly utilitarian branding became evident in the design of gas stations and service centers as small operations were swallowed up by large corporations. Cars, once considered cutting edge and futuristic, were now seen as mundane, problematic examples of L.A. sprawl.
Most examples of auto architecture have been lost but a handful remain. You can still get gas at the 1938 Raymond A. Stockdale-designed Spanish Revival Chevron in Brentwood Village. (According to a 1988 story in the L.A. Times by Sheldon Ito, the station's 40-foot tower featured small rooms that were rented by screenwriters, including James Poe, who wrote They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Lilies of the Field.) The 1956 Googie-style Lakeside Car Wash in Burbank is currently under threat of being razed to make way for a mixed-use development.
Other gas stations are being rehabbed to serve new purposes. As Scott Fine notes, these structures are uniquely suited for adaptive reuse. "They're fairly utilitarian inside, so that probably means that they can adapt more readily than other buildings. Like with the Firestone building on La Brea, you pretty much had a wide-open space in which to work," he says.
These buildings also stir up nostalgia for many Angelenos.
"They're buildings that people have connections to, that they've been going to for decades… So they're happy to see them taking on entirely new uses," Scott Fine says.
In 2007, the Adams Square Mini Park opened in Glendale. It includes a vintage 1936 Streamline Moderne gas station used as a picnic pavilion. In 2018, a 1941 Streamline Moderne Texaco station in Koreatown was reborn as the cheekily named Full Service Coffee Company.
The gold standard for conservation is the Gilmore Gas Station, which sat vacant for 20 years (and was damaged by a truck) until 2015, when Starbucks, led by Senior Store Design Manager Jonathan Alpert, began to readapt it. According to the L.A. Conservancy:
"Perhaps the biggest challenge was the oil contamination from the gas station. A hydraulic lift with an oil pump operated the garage's lift station, and over the years, oil leaked into the soil. As a result, the site required extensive environmental cleanup."
"It was always designed to serve the car, and the way they reopened it and reused it is still a drive-through. It's just the perfect marriage of old and new," Scott Fine says of the Starbucks, which won a Conservancy Preservation Award in 2018. "I think sometimes people discount older buildings and say they've outlived their life, but I think buildings like Starbucks and the Firestone, really show what can be done creating places so unique you want to go."
Not every attempt to reuse these architectural gems has gone smoothly. In 2020, a 1941 Silver Lake Texaco station was put into storage, with no set destination in sight. According to The Eastsider, there are plans to place it on the L.A. River, where it will serve as a bike rental station, but its current location is unknown.
There is also the ongoing fight over the fate of Felix Chevrolet and its Felix the Cat sign, which preservationists have been attempting to designate as a landmark for years. As Childs notes, the Felix the Cat sign has been a beacon to Angelenos for generations, a part of history increasingly threatened by high-end real estate developments. The showroom is currently being renovated and preservationists worry that the sign will be taken down or damaged.
To Scott Fine, Southern California's auto architecture is an important part of the historical record. "It's just another way of telling our story, and there is no better way to tell the story of L.A. than by understanding how cars impacted us — and still do today," he says. "We need to have some of these vestiges of these earlier eras to understand where we've been and where we're going. And why throw away something that can be reused?"