Keeping The Faith
HISTORIC PRESERVATION is a bit like religion: the general intent is the salvation of all that is worth keeping, but there are often as many opinions about who or what is worth saving as there are participants.
So perhaps it is fitting that an icon of my youth, a cultural some would even argue, architectural—landmark was nearly demolished on a Sabbath afternoon. Johnie’s Broiler, a legendary ’50s Googie-style drive-up restaurant in Downey, Calif., that I knew as Harvey’s Broiler, had been sacrificed to the bulldozer of social reformation. Or maybe it was greed. Preservationists, the same disciples who earlier had saved an original, golden-arched McDonald’s a few blocks away, were quick to put a stop to the illegal demolition. But they were mostly too late. The boomerang canopy and glass-walled structure had already been flattened. Only the flamboyant, atomic-age neon sign still teetered above a cloud of 21st-century dust.
The truth is that I hated that kind of architecture even when it was fashionable. Still, I have to admit that Harvey’s was a place with special meaning to me. Like all young Americans, I was obliged to pass through a cruising phase, and in the late ’50s Downey was a hub of the now celebrated Southern California hot rod and custom car culture. Harvey’s was where we cruised—my friends and I and every other teenager from miles around— to show off our obsessions.
Well, some of us, anyway. A strictly enforced hierarchy governed parading the two rows of carhop parking: unless you had very cool or very hot wheels you didn’t dare cruise the front row. Running the gauntlet in my dad’s old work car, had I attempted it, would have unleashed a cacophony of front-row ridicule. In the status-crazed world beneath the boomerang canopy, a man was measured by the size of his tailfins.
Harvey’s was already in decline by 1966 when a former cook bought the place and renamed it Johnie’s, casually dropping the second n when there wasn’t room for it on the original sign. Life in America was also changing. Our atomic-age, TV-dinner life, along with its trendy car culture, had revealed itself to be only a passing fad — a hiccup in the rhythm of evolution.
By the time Harvey’s became Johnie’s I had returned from living in Europe, where postwar frugality, efficiency and a high regard for design that was more than decoration had enlightened my perspective on the ways of my native country. Better yet, the experience also helped me appreciate much that was so very right about America, and the ostentatious Harvey’s culture wasn’t on my personal list of winners. I didn’t miss it at all. What I did miss during my odyssey was the wilderness, popcorn, Mexican food and, of course, home.
As I write this in a bungalow almost a lifetime later, I’m conscious that this house was somebody’s unpretentious home through the extravagant ’50s —the same people, in fact, who built it and moved in as newlyweds in 1914. With few changes, it remains my home today and it is a whole lot like the homes of millions of others. Apparently, through all the reckless swings of history and whims of fashion, America’s concept of home hasn’t changed much at all.
The wilderness is still here too, and countless other places of the heart, saved from annihilation by the almost religious zeal of organized preservationists. But historic preservation, as it relates to residential archi-tecture and the maintenance of an essentially American concept of domestic life, is not like an organized religion at all. Instead, one house at a time, it is upheld in the hands and minds of individual homeowners.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
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