LOS ANGELES — When we last reported on Norms Coffee Shop in January, the new owner of the Southern California chain had just been issued a demolition permit for the building, leading to a massive outcry from architectural preservationists. On January 15, LA’s Cultural Heritage Commission put a hold on any demolition until a March 19 meeting, where they will decide whether to grant monument status to the iconic midcentury eatery. Since the chain and its properties were sold separately, however, even if it does become an official monument, it may still face threats from nearby development.
According to Los Angeles Magazine, developer Jason Illoulian, the new owner of the site on which Norms and its 43-space parking lot sits, has big plans for the location. He wants to build a “community of shops” over the parking lot, citing similar high-end projects in Venice and Brentwood. Although he throws around meaningless buzzwords like “curated experience” and “authentic feel,” he does seem to have a genuine appreciation for Googie architecture, enthusiastically telling the magazine: “that sign is just like fucking awesome.”
Norms isn’t just any hip, old-school diner, however. The 1957 building designed by Armet & Davis is a prime example of Googie architecture, the retro-futuristic mid-century style that brought modernism to the masses. “While Southern California is rich in architectural variation,” notes Bianca Barragan on Curbed LA, “you could make a strong argument that Googie — exemplifying the collision of car culture and the Jet Age futurism that bloomed after World War II — is the signature style of the region.” More than simply a regional style, Googie exemplified architectural populism, as Googie scholar Alan Hess told Smithsonian in 2012: “One of the key things about Googie architecture was that it wasn’t custom houses for wealthy people — it was for coffee shops, gas stations, car washes, banks … the average buildings of everyday life that people of that period used and lived in.”
The architect that Illoulian is working with, however, doesn’t seem to share his enthusiasm. Craig Hodgetts of Hodgetts + Fung thinks that the people who want to save Norms are only interested in it for its hipster cache (“the Mad Men syndrome” he says), and that they’re not reflective of its customer base. “[They] are not from the working class public, you can be assured of that,” he told LA Mag. “They’re from people who are aesthetically aware.” Not only is his statement a classist gross generalization, it also runs counter to an idea crucial to this form of architecture: that all classes want and deserve good design.
On top of that, he doesn’t think Norms makes sense on tony La Cienega, saying: “It’s not appropriate. I think the original audience (for Norms) is really happy and content with the generic In-N-Out Burger type of place.” I asked the Los Angeles Conservancy, who spearheaded the move to halt demolition, for their thoughts on Hodgetts’s comments. “It’s a thriving business that holds a special place in the hearts of people who have been eating there for years,” said Adrian Scott Fine, their director of advocacy, in an email statement. “You could ask the people who pack Norms 24 hours a day if they think it’s appropriate for the neighborhood.”
I stopped by Norms earlier this week to judge for myself. Mid-morning on a Monday the parking lot was packed, and the restaurant was hopping, probably 80% full by my unofficial tally. “This neighborhood doesn’t need any more shops,” said Valdo, a ramp agent at the airport, who had ordered a pancake, waffle, and cheesy eggs. He has been coming to Norms for years and said it had wide appeal, from people in the community to celebrities. The location is also perfect for the late night and weekend crowds leaving the bars up on Sunset Boulevard.
“From the famous to the homeless,” is how Sean the host described their clientele, attributing their popularity in part to their affordable menu. Although it was busy when we were there, he assured us we wouldn’t be able to get a table on the weekends.
Illoulian and Hodgetts are obviously free to develop the property to maximize their profits as they see fit, however Norms is not some dusty, nostalgic holdover; it’s a thriving restaurant that has catered to a diverse audience for over fifty years. “Norms is buzzing and vital and packed with customers 24 hours a day,” writes Chris Nichols. “The low prices, high design, and central location make this a place where different classes mingle in a city increasingly segregated by wealth inequality.”
The notion that Norms is “not appropriate” for the neighborhood shows both an ignorance of its broad appeal as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes this city’s urban landscape so dynamic. LA is a beautiful mess and the heterogeneity of its architecture is one of its defining characteristics. (Across from Norms, an Opening Ceremony shop sits next to a classic Royal Car Wash for example.) What’s not appropriate is surrounding a popular and architecturally significant restaurant with a string of faux-authentic boutiques, thereby eliminating its much-needed parking lot. Shouldn’t the many groups that frequent Norms — working class and aesthetes among them — be the ones to decide if it’s a good fit for the neighborhood?