Photo by James BunoanAbout a half-century ago, parts of Orange County (particularly the parts around Disneyland) were defined by perhaps the world's highest concentration of googie architecture. Its swooping, neon-lit, retro-futuristic style was as ubiquitous in its day as Taco Bell Moderne and Big Beige Box are now. But by the time the young Dan Paul discovered it, googie—like the orange groves it had replaced—was beginning to disappear.
"Googie is the first architectural style that's really unique to Los Angeles and Orange County equally," says Paul, an OC native, as we drive down Lincoln Avenue in Anaheim, once one of the most googified streets in the region. "It's part of the historic fabric of something unique that happened in this area."
But the unabashedly commercial googie—the architecture of the coffeeshop, the bowling alley, the drive-in and the gas station—had been designed to sell, not to last. And by the late 1960s, googie's aesthetic vocabulary—the language of the space race, of the wide-open superhighway, of the nuclear family, of a cheerfully capitalistic America—just didn't make sense to many people anymore. It still doesn't.
But Paul insists there are new ways to look at a googie building now—as history and as a soon-to-be classic design. "Architecture is built, falls out of favor for a generation, and then gets gutted and destroyed," he explains. "But it always comes back—like Victorian and Art Deco—and whatever is left is saved for posterity."
Paul is one of a highly organized handful of Southern Californians—in Los Angeles, it's a specialized group of the Los Angeles Conservancy called the Modern Committee; in Anaheim, credit goes to Anaheim public librarian Jane Newell—determined to save or at least document dwindling examples of local googie design, not just as relics or curiosities but as relevant and dynamic touchstones to history. And sometimes as works of art. Anaheim's La Palma Chicken Pie Shop—almost unchanged since it was built in 1955—is perhaps the flagship example of local googie, as well as one of the most eloquent arguments for keeping the architecture alive.
"Maybe there's a possibility of just driving down the street and enjoying a sign or getting pleasure out of looking at an old building," Paul says. "Maybe we don't have to see it just as something old. So often, people are just in ruts. And you need to say, 'Look at what's right in front of you.' That's the beauty of preservation."