A view of Norms (image via flickr.com/ronslog)

A view of Norms (image via flickr.com/ronslog)

LOS ANGELES — At a hearing earlier today, Los Angeles’ Culture Heritage Commission voted to consider granting Historic-Cultural Monument status to Norms Coffee Shop on La Cienega. This would protect the iconic building in the Googie modern style until a final decision is made by the commission. According to the Los Angeles Conservancy, the new owners of Norms were issued a demolition permit on January 5, triggering a wave of outrage from architectural preservationists. Founded by Norman Roybark in 1949, the restaurant chain had been family owned until last year when it was sold to Jim Balis, who has a history of turning around floundering food businesses, including Dunkin’ Donuts.

The 24-hour coffee shop was designed in 1956 by Louis Armet and Eldon Davis and is emblematic of the space-age Googie style that took hold in Southern California in the postwar years. The origin of the style’s name comes from a coffee shop designed by John Lautner in 1949. Characterized by bold geometric forms, upswept roofs, glass, steel, and neon, Googie buildings represented the optimistic futurism of the Atomic age with a dose of SoCal car culture mixed in.

“Norms on La Cienega is an original example of the culture that made LA great,” architecture and culture writer Edward Lifson told Hyperallergic. “It is an unpretentious building, just like the food. An oasis of a one-time staple — easygoing, inexpensive — in LA. Its presence on a major LA boulevard keeps that vision/reality alive.”

Norms Coffee Shop on La Cienega (via laconservancy.org, photo by Hunter Kerhart)

Despite their mid-century popularity, many Googie structures were later demolished (including the original Googie’s in 1989), making it a now endangered architectural form, with only a handful left in the city. According to LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who was live-tweeting the hearing, architectural historian Daniel Paul testified that Norms, there are only three great Googie restaurants left.

Hawthorne also tweeted that Alan Hess, who literally wrote the book on Googie, said Norms is a unique piece of LA modernism in that it can be appreciated, and entered, by the public.

At the hearing, lawyers for the current owners said they applied for the demolition permit to reserve the option of development in the future, not because of immediate plans. Still, LA Observed noted that the restaurant’s normally full display cases were conspicuously empty today. Judging from Hawthorne’s post-hearing tweet, it’s still open, but it will be up to the commission to decide for how long.

The restaurant is also the subject of a 1964 painting by LA-based artist Ed Ruscha, “Norms, La Cienega, On Fire,” which is part of a well-known series the artist calls his Summer Paintings that includes “The Los Angeles Country Museum of Art on Fire” (1965–68) and “Burning Gas Station” (1964–66).

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Matt Stromberg

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.