Tag Archives: architecture

Wayne McAllister’s drive-ins in the round

Architects who design restaurants often have labored in anonymity, and that goes ten-fold for those whose work involved drive-in restaurants. In the beginning drive-ins were simple shacks plastered with signs, as were other buildings of the early automobile age. Like the chicken coups converted to motor courts and the farmers’ fields rigged out for overnight camping, they served as temporary fixes for seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck from the passing traffic.

The couple of dozen Los Angeles drive-ins Wayne McAllister designed in the 1930s – the Wich Stand, Simon’s, Robert’s, Herbert’s, Melody Lane — were likewise ephemeral, tumbling into ruins with rising real estate values. Yet, despite the ephemerality of the form, he was one of the few designers who managed to develop a functional and aesthetically satisfying style for an inexpensive roadside building type.

This post is based mostly upon Chris Nichols’ The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister, a book that traces McAllister’s career and conveys his genius at transforming crude vernacular building forms into sophisticated expressions of car culture.

Born in San Diego, Wayne McAllister and his wife Corinne, then both 20, took on a major project in 1927 with the Moorish Moderne design of Agua Caliente, a Prohibition-era Tijuana gambling mecca. Wayne was a self-taught high school dropout whose first job was designing houses, a task he was able to execute handily. According to his own account, he regularly completed a new design each day. In the course of a roughly 30-year architectural career, his work focused on the design and remodeling of hotels and restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Among his Las Vegas hotel projects were El Rancho Vegas, the Desert Inn, and the Sands Hotel, while a partial list of his LA restaurants includes Café Caliente, Mike Lyman’s, Richlor’s, Lawry’s, Clifton’s, and Bob’s Big Boy. From 1956 to 1961 he was an architect for the Marriott Corporation.

Although he is best known for the Sands, his circular drive-ins are considered significant in architectural history. Alan Hess, author of Googie, noted that thanks to Wayne McAllister, “Commercial vernacular design developed a respectable architecture that stands on its own right, not simply as a second-rate version of high art design.” It is interesting that even a lofty modern architect like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe developed a drive-in restaurant design, in 1945 (it was never built).

Wayne’s circular drive-ins typically had 20-foot pylons on the roof on which the drive-in’s name was spelled out, with horizontal louvers partially concealing neon tubes that made the signs glow. While his early designs had no doors – the businesses stayed open 24/7 and evidently had no need of heating or air-conditioning – this element was eventually modified. For a time his styles were influential, but after World War II when drive-ins expanded throughout the country, round buildings with overspread roofs were scrapped for rectangular structures from which long canopies stretched outward.

Noir crime novelist Raymond Chandler referred to Los Angeles’ drive-ins “gay as circuses” in The Little Sister (1949), leading Alan Hess to remark: “In almost anyone’s mental map of Los Angeles, the drive-ins of the thirties had become indelible landmarks.” Their images remain no less powerful today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Pie in the skies – revolving restaurants

laRonde346They are so clever and, yes, so corny in a circus-y way that revolving restaurants seem like they must be a product of American ingenuity – but they aren’t. The restaurant in Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair Space Needle was not the first. Nor was it the second, third, or fourth. According to Chad Randl in A History of Buildings that Rotate, Swivel, and Pivot, the first revolving tower with a restaurant opened in 1959 in Dortmund, Germany. Sometime in 1961 came spinning restaurants in Frankfurt, Cairo, and Honolulu (pictured), in about that order.

belgeddes1930The revolving building itself actually came earlier and was rather simple technologically. In 1898 a leading attraction in Yarmouth, a seaside resort in England, was a rotating observation tower on the beach. Decades later designer Norman Bel Geddes proposed a restaurant set atop a rotating column for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 (pictured). Unlike his, though, the design used by most restaurants features an interior ring that rotates while the building remains stationary.

They’ve often appeared in movies and TV shows. A 1934 British film, Give Her a Ring, featured a set with a revolving restaurant, decades before Elvis Presley and his date enjoyed dinner in the Space Needle in the 1963 film It Happened at the World’s Fair. A few years later evil scientist Ernst Blofeld operated a secret mountaintop laboratory in the Swiss Alps in the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. After the film was completed the structure reverted to its original purpose, a revolving restaurant which of course uses the film as its theme.

A fantasy played out in fiction and occasionally in real life has the restaurant spinning out of control. The ideal rate of rotation is about one full turn per hour; a test of smoothness is a penny which remains set on edge for several rotations. Double the speed, as happened mistakenly at The Pinnacle in Chicago in 1965, and the ride gets jerky. Customers feel tipsy while the waitstaff can’t find their tables when they come out of the service core.

RevolvRestStars339Despite being fairly easy to engineer and not really all that new, in the 1960s revolving buildings became symbols of progress. Often set atop communications towers, they were intended to help defray costs of tower construction and operation. Today, whether in towers or on hotel roofs (where they look like flying saucers that have landed), they continue to represent modernity in developing countries around the world. While North America has largely stopped building them or has shut down forever their little 1-HP motors, still they spin on in Kuala Lumpur, P’yongyang, and countless other places.

butlinsDetail2337For diners gazing from on high – whether upon the Pyramids, distant mountains, or, more often, streets clogged with traffic – revolving restaurants are pleasant. Who doesn’t enjoy the feeling of god-like detachment while sipping a martini and surveying a cityscape? Yet, on the whole revolving restaurants are geared more to “peak” dining occasions than to the consumption of haute cuisine. Their forgettable yet expensive food has tended not to win them steady local trade. Plus, tackiness such as found in Florida hotels with Polynesian restaurants twirling in the sky, or “Certificates of Orbit” such as once were given out at Butlin’s Revolving Restaurant in London’s post office tower (detail pictured), have branded them cheesy tourist traps in many people’s minds.

That raises the question of why it took so long for Las Vegas to get one.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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