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LOS ANGELES — Architectural preservationists won a major victory last week, when the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to designate Norms La Cienega as a Historic-Cultural Monument. While this decision does not offer unlimited protection for the iconic, mid-century eatery, it does mean that any permits for alteration or demolition would be reviewed by the Cultural Heritage Commission and the Office of Historic Resources. “Any proposed alterations are supposed to meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation,” Ken Bernstein, manager of the OHR, told us. “This means that most significant features of a historic building should be preserved and that new additions should be compatible with the architectural character of the building.”
Designed by architects Armet & Davis in 1957, Norms La Cienega is a quintessential example of Googie architecture. This mid-century Southern California phenomenon brought together car culture and space age futurism in a striking new style characterized by dynamic geometric forms. Named for a coffee shop designed by famed architect John Lautner in 1949, the style would come to be used in a range of structures including restaurants, theaters, gas stations, and banks, and embodied a kind of architectural populism befitting these public buildings. Although derided by some critics as lacking in seriousness, Googie architecture is now seen as a quintessential part of Southern California’s architectural history. “Today Googie is a distinct and significant part of the story of Modernism,” noted historian Alan Hess, “telling how it became part of the everyday life of millions.”
While some Googie buildings still remain, a great many have been demolished, including the style’s namesake building which was torn down in 1989. Preservationists have had other recent successes, such as Johnie’s Coffee Shop on Fairfax which was granted landmark status in 2013. Unlike Norms however, Johnie’s is not a functioning restaurant, being used primarily as a film location (most notably for Reservoir Dogs and The Big Lebowski). According to the LA Conservancy, only about eight Googie restaurants remain in LA.
Led by the LA Conservancy, the push to have Norms declared a historic landmark began in January, when the new owner of the property was issued a demolition permit. A temporary hold on demolition was then issues by the Cultural Heritage Commission. In March, the site’s new owner, Jason Illoulian of Faring Capital, told Los Angeles Magazine of his plan to develop a “community of shops” where Norms much-needed parking lot stands. Craig Hodgetts, the architect he’s working with, expressed disdain for both Norms defenders and patrons, dismissing the former as hipster elitists who don’t actually patronize Norms, and the latter as aesthetically naïve, “content with the generic In-N-Out Burger type of place.” Nothing could be further from the reality, as City Councilman Paul Koretz told the LA Times, “It has probably the most diverse customer base, from small children and senior citizens to rock-and-rollers … It’s really not just culturally significant but culturally uniting.” Neither Illoulian nor Hodgetts responded to our requests for comment.
Norms president Mike Colonna expressed his intention to continue running a Norms restaurant out of the La Cienega location, via a statement released by the restaurant chain. “We look forward to working with our landlord on a solution that would allow us operate Norms La Cienega,” the statement read, “while protecting the integrity of our Googie architecture and the historical significance of the building.”
In a press conference held outside the restaurant in March, Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, voiced his support for preservation. Saying that he wrote his original notes for the series at Norms, he touched on not only the architectural, but also the cultural significance of the restaurant. “It’s a viable restaurant, yes. It’s a part of the community, yes. It’s a part of the neighborhood, absolutely, but more importantly it’s an inspiration and a treasure and should be treated as such.”
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