An icon of mid-century architecture at Figueroa and 26th Avenue?
Today it doesn’t really look like much, but the IHOP located just off the 110 freeway’s Figueroa exit in Cypress Park may be something special (figure 1). Designed by the firm of Armét and Davis, the building was briefly the fourth location of the Preble’s restaurant chain and a late example of a whole new idea in dining.
The original restaurant opened in 1969 in a style that architectural historian Alan Hess has called “Coffee Shop Modern”. A commercial variant of the larger Googie architectural movement, Coffee Shop Modern is defined by expressive rooflines, bold integrated signage and space age details. These features were designed to tempt passing motorists from their cars into restaurants with sleek and efficiently-organized interiors. The specifically automobile orientation made Coffee Shop Modern a home-grown style with broad, national appeal and its spread shaped far more than the Southern California landscape.
Louis Armét and Eldon Davis, along with John Lautner, Wayne McAllister and William Cody, were some of the movement’s leading figures. Many of these men trained locally at USC’s School of Architecture and epitomized a new generation of designers who took their inspiration from the organic forms of Frank Lloyd Wright while updating his ideas to fit a mid-century commercial taste.
By the late 1960s, Armét and Davis had been designing buildings together for more than 20 years. They formed their partnership in 1947 and apparently developed an expertise in restaurants by accident. According to a story Davis told the LA Times, the men had been driving around looking for somewhere to eat. They noticed that many of the restaurants they passed were difficult to distinguish from each other. This led to an exhaustive study of the form, so that when they were eventually commissioned to design a restaurant, the partners made sure that their building looked like no other. Using large walls of plate glass with irregular floor plans, they designed restaurants that stood out from their surroundings. They used so much glass that a typical Armét and Davis coffee shop was described as “a view with a sunshade over it”.
While commercial designs were less than half of their total commissions, the team’s focus on ensuring that their restaurants functioned as efficient “selling packages” made them extremely popular with restaurateurs. Their most famous coffee shops include: Norms on La Cienega, the Holiday Bowl on Crenshaw and Pann’s on La Tijera, among many others.
Given this expertise, it is not surprising that Richard Preble approached the firm when he considered launching his chain. The first two Preble’s Restaurants opened in 1965 in South Pasadena on Fair Oaks (figure 2) and on Main Street in Alhambra (figure 3). In 1968, Preble opened a third restaurant at Lake and Walnut in Pasadena and the fourth on Figueroa. Each of these buildings used patterned concrete block with “native stone” decorative material and large plate glass windows. The building at Lake and Walnut has been completely remodeled and none of the original features remain. However the three other buildings, in South Pasadena, Alhambra and on Figueroa retain significant historic elements. In particular, all have a distinctive roofline with three tiers of colored rock shading the entryways.
The permit for the building on Figueroa was issued in October 1967 and the restaurant opened in April 1969. However, the Preble’s chain seems to have been rather short lived. By June, 1970 the site on Figueroa had become Francisco’s Restaurant. That same year, a walled and covered patio was added on the south side, obscuring the architects’ original irregular shape. It’s hard to say exactly how long Francisco’s lasted, but by 1987 the building was an IHOP – as it has remained until today.
For more Googie Resources, check out:
- A video by Harry Pallenbert on LA Observed
- Resources from the Los Angeles Conservancy
- Googie Architecture Online
- An introductory style guide on Curbed LA
- The Roadside Architecture.com website for a broader perspective
 Hess, Alan Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2004
 Cameron, Tom “Socked by Sockeye – He Turns to Designing; Eldon Davis” Los Angeles Times Nov 22, 1964 pg. I1
 “Restaurant Set for Downtown Pasadena” Los Angeles Times, Nov 7, 1965 pg. L11
 “Prebles Chain Begins Expansion Program” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1968 pg. N4