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The Novelty Architecture of Los Angeles

Paul Wormser, Library Director

Paul Wormser, Library Director

Betsy Ann Ice Cream, unidentified location in Los Angeles, ca. 1930. W. C. Sawyer Collection.

In the 1920s, Los Angeles was booming.  Flush with water from the Owen Valley, affordable land, a growing network of roads, and a burgeoning film industry, the city rapidly expanded. One of the changes that took place was the emergence of car culture.  The people of Los Angeles took to their cars, so much so that by 1928 there was one car for every 2.9 persons in the city.  At the same time, Hollywood was refining the art of making fantasy into reality through movies.

With more people zipping by stores in their cars, businesses explored new ways to attract their attention.  One approach was to go big.  This is what M. H. Sherman and his business partners did when they constructed the Hollywoodland sign to promote their real estate subdivision.  Neon lights also became a popular way of attracting interest starting in the 1920s.  One of the more interesting ways businesses caught the attention of the motoring public was through architecture.  From the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, Los Angeles was the hotspot for the rise of novelty or vernacular architecture.

How better to let people know that you sell ice cream then to have a building shaped like an ice cream cone?

The Big Cone. This store was located at 1934 San Fernando Road in Los Angeles, ca. 1930. W. C. Sawyer Collection.

This photograph of The Big Cone is from Sherman Library’s Wilber C. Sawyer Photograph Collection.  Sawyer, a civil engineer who worked for the City of Los Angeles, was an avid amateur photographer.  His favorite subjects were ships and boats of all sorts, but he also took an interest in buildings, including odd and unusual ones.  All of the photographs in this article were taken by Sawyer. Starting in the 1920s, the Los Angeles landscape was dotted with novelty buildings.  Some of these, like The Big Cone, were in the shape of the products they sold.  Others sought to convey the product through a stylized scene, such as an ice cream shop in the form of an igloo.

The Igloo on West Pico Blvd., ca. 1930. W. C. Sawyer Collection

Ice cream shops were some of the most common of these buildings.

The Glacier, on Crenshaw Blvd. near Vernon, ca. 1930. W. C. Sawyer Collection.
The Ice Palace, ca. 1930. W. C. Sawyer Collection.

Arguably the most famous example of this sort of architecture was The Brown Derby Restaurant on Wilshire, which became a popular hangout for Hollywood luminaries.

The Brown Derby Restaurant on Wilshire Blvd. W. C. Sawyer Collection.
Barkies Sandwich Shop (#4), 3649 Beverly Blvd., ca. 1930. W. C. Sawyer Collection.

Other businesses advertised by tying their name to the form of the buildings, such as Barkies Sandwich Shops. 

The Round House Cafe, ca. 1930. W. C. Sawyer Collection.

Another example is The Round House, with a locomotive bursting from the building at the intersection of Temple, Virgil, Silverlake and Beverly . It advertised “The Squarist dinner in the Whole Round World for a Round Dollar at the Round House.”  One could order a chicken, steak or ham dinner for $1.00 and have ice cream molded in the shape of a steam engine.

One of the most successful of the novelty designs was the windmills of Van De Kamp’s Holland Dutch Bakery.  In this case, the connection between novelty architecture and Hollywood is clear.  Harry Oliver, an MGM art director, designed the Van de Kamp’s bakery windmill.

Van de Kamp's Holland Dutch Bakery, ca. 1930. W. C. Sawyer Collection.

The popularity of novelty buildings declined by the mid-1930s.  Of course, novelty buildings continue to be constructed to this day.  But the time when you could stop at the intersection of Virgil and Beverly and see Van de Kamp’s Bakery, Barkies Sandwich Shop, The Round House Cafe, The Chili Bowl, The Freezer and The Cliff Dwellers (pictured below) are gone.

The Cliff Dwellers Restaurant, ca. 1930. W. C. Sawyer Collection.