Ain’t Nothin’ but a G Thang: Googie Architecture’s Misunderstood, Beautiful History in Long Beach
Photos by Katie Rispoli. For more pictures, scroll through gallery above.
“Googie” is the word for this style of architecture, but somehow it isn’t quite the word for it. I suppose we could say that “Googie” is a word synonymous with fun, eclectic, futuristic—at least it was in the mid-twentieth century.
Ten years ago it was nothing.
Googie had devolved into some kitsch coffee shop on the corner you wouldn’t think twice about replacing.
Today it’s Googie with a capital G. Today it’s Norms on La Cienega, Canter’s on Fairfax, Johnnie’s on Wilshire, Chip’s in Hawthorne, Bob’s Big Boy (aka Johnnie’s/aka Harvey’s Broiler), McDonalds, and Stox in Downey.
And in Long Beach? There is oh-so-much Googie in our own backyard.
Like Brutalism, Googie style architecture is today a combination of adored, hated, and just flat-out denied merit for its design. But just like Brutalism—a later, cold reaction to Title 24 and the energy crisis—Googie originated with a cultural phenomenon.
The lifestyle themed around the automobile had grown since the 1920s and 30s and, by the 50s, it was just standard practice. The American car exploded in the 1950s as a source of pride and economic stimulus for the nation. As autos became more stylistic, they became the venue for the experiences of the day’s youth. First dates grew as a concept and took place in drive in movie theatres, as well as drive in restaurants. Minimal Traditional style homes (a la Lakewood) followed by Ranch style homes (a la the Ranchos in Southeast Long Beach) lined the streets of Southern California and the nation. These homes boasted two car garages placed right alongside the front entrance ensuring that any passerby and visitor wouldn’t just get a glimpse of your house – they’d see what kind of car you owned and, as a result, understand your status.
This fascination with the automobile planned our streets in many cases. It came to expand the need for sidewalks, stoplights, and infrastructure… it was only natural it would come to define our buildings as well.
The Googie style began with drive in eateries, demonstrated by George’s 50s Diner on Atlantic in Bixby Knolls. This early example built in 1950 demonstrates the ‘carhop’ business model replicated on a mass scale by fast food vendors that same decade. Speedee’s McDonalds, the walk-up, quick-serve version of the popular chain, began in 1955 with the iconic Googie style restaurant seen today at the world’s oldest operating McDonalds in Downey. With plentiful parking, a walk-up window, and a dining room adjacent – the entire experience was carefully crafted around the car and the American consumer.
As the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, NASA prepared to send individuals into space and the space race began. The obsession with planets, orbits, and the potential for the American future brought with it a theme of design based around a futuristic perspective. Googie continued in application as car washes boasted giant fins along major boulevards painted in bold colors and everything from restaurants to hotels donned the now-iconic “sputnik” light fixture with rounded bulbs protruding in every direction. The “Dingbat” apartment filled the streets of Long Beach and beyond with parking displayed prominently at the ground level and living units above. The fronts of these simple stucco box apartments were adorned with tiles, light fixtures, astro-themed décor, and large sprawling signs declaring the complex’s given name.
For two decades, Googie design embodied America’s prosperity and hope for the future. In a time of social conflict, it highlighted brightness on the horizon. But as all things that trend meet their demise, this fun and exuberant architectural style fell out of favor in the late 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s Googie was simply outdated, and in the 2000s we saw it disappear in droves.
Today it hides, unsuspectingly, almost as if the remaining buildings are hoping to remain discreet so that they can stand just a little longer… until they’ve stood long enough. Long enough that occasionally a resident or passerby will notice their charm and reflect upon its character. Then long enough where someone in the surrounding community will stand up against the demolition of a Googie resource—perhaps not a bundle of architectural merit like La Cinega’s Norms—but maybe a structure so simple as Dave’s Hot Dogs and Burgers on Atlantic.
Maybe one day, in 2050, the last Googie buildings will stand. They’ll stand in the future they were designed to evoke, and they’ll be reused, adapted, and embraced as a natural fixture in the historic cityscape. These once unremarkable, yet always remarkable, buildings that we pass on foot and by car, will again be appreciated and respected as a symbol of the American past morphing into a global future.