Eldon Davis, 1917-2011

Eldon Davis, 1917-2011

Norm’s Wichstand, one of Davis’ most famous buildings.
Courtesy ADN Architects

Eldon Davis was always bemused–though gracious–when people showed interest in his fifty-year-old designs for Modern coffee shops like Pann’s, Bob’s Big Boy, Norm’s, Wichstand, and Denny’s. Davis, who died April 22 at age 94, had a modest Modernist’s attitude: architecture simply solves problems. He nurtured no nostalgia, even for his own buildings.

But to younger architects, historians, preservationists, and the public, the coffee shops he designed with partner Louis Armet became much more: they were emblems of a key period when Modern architecture was truly something for the masses. Eldon, the dapper, bow-tied, USC-trained professional architect of schools, banks, and churches, also tapped into the youthful rock and roll spirit of the booming 1950s suburbs, where everyone could cruise through the hamburger stand. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson even wrote a song about the Wichstand, one of the greatest Armet and Davis coffee shop-drive-ins in LA’s Windsor Hills.

Eldon Davis (top) and Mel’s Drive-in in Sherman Oaks, 1947 (above).

It’s taken decades for Davis’ architecture to be recognized as part of the extraordinary surge of creative design coming out of Southern California in the mid century. Originally tagged with the whimsical label of Googie (after John Lautner’s Sunset Strip coffee shop), his designs were widely criticized as arbitrary and extreme by the architecture establishment. But opinions have changed: just last year eminent historian Thomas Hines credited Armet and Davis with “major contributions to a significant building type.”

Other architects established the main concepts of this car-oriented suburban architecture, but Armet and Davis developed their own distinctive interpretation. Working closely with restaurateur-clients like Bob Wian of Bob’s Big Boy and Norm Roybark of Norm’s, Eldon and colleagues such as Helen Fong, Lee Linton, and Victor Newlove translated efficient service and commercial necessity into architectural form and space. Kitchens were put on display, and every cook top and plate holder echoed the building’s unified aesthetic. Bold modern roof structures captured the energy of the space age and also attracted the eye of motorists. Walls of glass and indoor-outdoor dining patios took advantage of the balmy climate.

On his 90th birthday four years ago, friends and colleagues rented a party bus and traveled to a few of Eldon’s remaining monuments. The tour started at Norm’s La Cienega, where the sign’s neon pennants still wave in the electronic breeze over the stylish Modern interior of ceramic tile, terrazzo, stainless steel, plastics, counters, and booths. Armet and Davis never embraced the severe abstractions of Modernism; in the vein of Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture, they used rich textures, warm colors, natural materials, and flowing spaces.

The tour ended at one of Davis’ best-preserved coffee shops, Pann’s in Inglewood, still operated by Jim Poulos, whose father commissioned the restaurant in 1956. Modernists loved glass boxes, and Pann’s is Armet and Davis’ version. Where Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House is serene and rectilinear, Eldon’s is angular and energetic. Instead of looking out on a sylvan meadow, Davis’ design taps into the pulsing energy of glinting chrome and the flow of traffic as seen through the panoramic windows.

Pann’s Restaurant, 1956.

Still, coffee shops, no matter how well designed, were not a path to professional prestige in the 1950s. Lautner blamed his association with Googie architecture for crippling his career, but Davis took a different tack. He marketed his coffee shops in restaurant journals; that’s what the clients read. Hiring photographer Jack Laxer to photograph his buildings in stunningly beautiful 3-D transparencies also helped. From custom coffee shop designs like Pann’s, he moved on to create prototypes for national chains; the first 400 Denny’s used his 1958 prototype design, securing Armet and Davis’ reputation as the premier coffee shop architects nationally.

Davis’ passing reminds us that our legacy from the fertile design era of the 1950s includes both the cool elegance of the Case Study houses and the vibrant opulence of the Googie coffee shops. Both sought to bring good design to the average person. Eldon Davis’ coffee shops actually accomplished that. For the price of a burger and a cup of coffee, any Angeleno could enjoy the Modern life at one of his coffee shops.