Out from under the Wrecking Ball | Travel | Smithsonian

Out from under the Wrecking Ball

The Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee fights to rescue remnants of 1950s "Googie" architecture and other 20th-century landmarks

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When preservationists set out to save a Beaux Arts, Victorian or Art Deco landmark, they can usually rely on whole faculties of architecture professors ready to testify to the building's timeless worth. But the 50-odd members of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee, more affectionately known as Modcom, often fight for roadside attractions traditionally scorned by the architectural establishment. On those occasions when they weren't ignored altogether, the Modcommers' endangered commercial landmarks--the cantilevered car washes, space-age hamburger stands, parabolic bowling palaces and "futuristic" coffee shops of the postwar era-- were dismissed as "Googie" architecture, named after a long-demolished Los Angeles restaurant whose mascot was a cartoon waitress with fried eggs for eyes.

It was, for instance, only over the bitter opposition of the property owner and the derogatory testimony of a University of Southern California architecture professor that Modcom won California State Point of Historical Interest status for an endangered 1949 Bob's Big Boy in Toluca Lake.  That it managed to rescue the 1953 Downey McDonald's, the nation's oldest surviving McDonald's, against the initial wishes of the McDonald's Corporation itself, is a testament to its members' inexhaustible energy and penchant for the grand media gesture. These youthfully ironic and eclectic volunteers will spend weeks, months, even years, fighting to rescue endangered holdouts that are more a fixture of their parents' youth than of their own.

"You don't see those mavericks who used to start these businesses anymore," says former Modcom chairman Peter Moruzzi. "Think about it. All these national chains--McDonald's, Big Boy, Denny's--were started by visionaries willing to push the boundaries of design.... That's what architecture should be all about."

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