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Something to Laugh At: Charles Phoenix on Mid-Century Modernism Preservation

Giant donut stands, wacky rooflines, other national treasures

By Mike Singer

Some call him the “King of Retro,” as he takes audiences on tours of a bygone era of Googie-style coffee shops, ranch-style tract homes, drive-in movie theatres, and space-age neon signage.

As brought to life in Americana the Beautiful: Mid-Century Culture in Kodachrome and Southern California in the 50s: Sun, Fun, and Fantasy, Charles Phoenix grew up going to Disneyland. He latched on to themed environments early on in a California marked by sunshine, subdivsions, and perpetual spin.

“Frontier-land…Tomorrow-land…Polynesian-land: We live in a themed world,” the pop humorist says.

Phoenix’s forays into mid-century pop architectural gems are designed to keep them intact so future generations can appreciate their playful and trendy delights. While he spins a highly entertaining narrative, his goal is to help convert everyday Americans with no particular interest in mid-century Modern design into preservation advocates.

During Palm Springs’ Modernism Week last month, Phoenix presented a sold-out live slideshow performance celebrating Southern California in the 1950s by looking at all the hallmarks of mid-century West Coast design: dingbat apartments, wacky roof lines, stacked freeways, Googie-style (named after a now-defunct West Hollywood coffee shop) signage, and much more. AIArchitect talked with the design-pop historian after his show to understand the role of humor in making the mid-century built environment more accessible—and cherished—by all.

AIArchitect: Beyond Palm Springs, you put on retro shows in Buffalo, Tulsa, Denver, Las Vegas, San Antonio, and many other cities. Why are so many people interested in everything mid-century?

Phoenix: I think for some it’s nostalgia. I think for others, it’s love of design. For others, it’s cultural. It’s an incredibly interesting time to study.

On virtually every single level, the contrast between now and then is huge—how can something so close be so far away? We are an evolution of the mid-century era, which I consider to be the golden era of American culture.

Mid-century architecture—many don’t even know what it is. Then five minutes later, they are going, “Oh my God, that’s by my house, we love that.” Or, “We didn’t know that this was the biggest neon bowling pin on earth.”

There’s mid-century architecture of all kinds [in] every city in the U.S. When I go to a city, I say, “I’m an outsider, and this is what I found special in your town.”

I can bring people into a theater who aren’t necessarily tuned into the built environment—they’re not designers—and when they walk in they say, “What am I going to see, what’s this guy talking about?” Half the time, those audiences say, “We just took that for granted. We had no idea that it was so unusual and rare and unique, but thank you for letting us know, so now we are going to cherish it even more.”

The things I show I would show the Queen of England so she can see what defines Americana. I would show her that giant drive-through donut stand in Los Angeles. I would show her the world’s oldest McDonald’s, at the corner of Florence and Rosemead in Downey, Calif. In the scheme of world culture, this is an American landmark of the highest order, a natural treasure.

What are you looking for when you search out mid-century structures for your presentations?

Mostly, I am concentrating on the no-name-brand stuff. I go for the undiscovered, the underrated, the unknown, and the misunderstood. There are little gems and jewels hither and yon in every community. No matter where I go, there is interesting stuff.

I am not afraid of whimsical architecture. I grew up watching cartoons and going to Disneyland, so I don’t shy away from themed environments, or that log cabin restaurant with fake snow on the roof.

One of the things that I am very interested in is architecture dictated by the car, so I’m often looking for “carchitecture.” There’s a ton of that in Southern California, and it really exploded in the 1950s, after the war. I’m also looking for low-brow stuff like fast food stands, drive-in movie theatres, shopping centers, donut stands, dingbat apartment buildings, and themed environments of the mid-century.

I have trained myself to look through the layers of time. There are a lot of buildings that have been remodeled—re-muddled—but you know that underneath that 1980s façade of a building that’s very deteriorated, there’s something interesting.

Which architectural firms helped define the mid-century California look?

Armét & Davis was the most significant architectural house in all of mid-century Southern California. They didn’t invent Googie architecture, but they perfected it. They did something different that was pure Southern California. They designed the modern coffee shop, like Pann’s and Norms, and so many others. They brought a vocabulary together that fit the Southern California culture that no other architectural firm did as well.

There’s another firm, Killingsworth, Brady & Associates, that mastered post-and-beam like no other firm I know of. They did amazing work, including their own office, built in 1955 in Long Beach. They did a Case Study house in Long Beach that has a 17-foot-tall front door.

I remember asking [Edward Abel] Killingsworth, “How do you operate in terms of designing a building?” And he said, “When you get to the front door, I want you to know that you’ve arrived.”

How does humor advance architectural preservation, and why is your approach important?

When I started doing this, I used the word “history,” but somebody told me, “You’re so funny, change the ‘h’ word from history to humor because humor is more valuable.” It’s history disguised as humor, and humor disguised as history. I’m giving you history, but with a humor overlay because that’s sure to engage people more.

People in the future deserve to see some amazing things that we have created in the mid-century era, things that our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were responsible for. We have to be watchful custodians of what we consider to be the gems. So I am trying to educate people. This isn’t about us, you and me right now, and all these other people here. This is about people who haven’t even been born yet.

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Charles Phoenix at Foster’s Freeze in Torrance, Calif., built about 1950. Image courtesy of Bob Greenspan.

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The Hauser in Los Angeles, built about 1958. Image courtesy of John Eng.

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A Googie-style Pann's in Los Angeles, built in 1958. Image courtesy of John Eng.

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Marineland of the Pacific oceanarium in Palos Verdes, Calif. Postcard courtesy of the Charles Phoenix Collection.

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Drive-thru Donut Hole in La Puente, Calif., built about 1968. Photo by Bob Greenspan.

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Norms restaurant in Los Angeles, built in 1957. Postcard courtesy of the Charles Phoenix Collection.

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At Home with Modernism


Visit Charles Phoenix’s website.


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