Ticket to the Twenties Themes: Programmatic Architecture in Los Angeles during the 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In a decade that featured more than its share of the wacky and the whimsical, the fad for buildings in the shape of things, academically known as “programmatic architecture.” was a phenomenon in greater Los Angeles.

There were many, many examples of these structures, many of them restaurants or otherwise involved in food service, including hot dog stands, tamale stands, ice cream parlors and the most famous of them all, the Brown Derby restaurant.

In yesterday’s post, the focus was on the Tepee, a retreat and home office built of adobe and red brick by Walter P. Temple adjacent to his Spanish Colonial Revival residence, La Casa Nueva.  In terms of regional examples of programmatic architecture, the Tepee may, in fact, be unique.

Van De Kamps LA 1928
The quartet of images shown here are from a late 1920s photo album in the Homestead’s collection.  This view is of a Van de Kamp bakery at Western and Beverly in Los Angeles with its distinctive Dutch windmill theme.

The museum’s collection has a fantastic photo album that appears to date to about 1928, with most of the images being of the family and friends of the unidentified owner.  There are also views of San Pedro Harbor, Mission San Gabriel, Riverside, local mountains and beaches, regional oil fields, and more.  Then, there are a quartet of photographs of local specimens of programmatic architecture.

One of the album pages features three such examples side-by-side.  A familiar site/sight from the era was the Van de Kamp Dutch Bakery chain, which had a replica Dutch windmill as the structure.  Theodore Van de Kamp, a native of Milwaukee, opened the first Los Angeles location of the chain in the downtown area with his brother-in-law, Lawrence Frank, in 1915.  The product, however, was potato chips.

Lighthouse LA 1928
Known as “The Lighthouse,” this strange glacial-looking structure with the namesake feature on the roof, was probably a restaurant, but the trail of research on it has gone “cold.”

A couple of years later, the pair opened a coffee shop, but, in 1921, the first Dutch windmill-shaped bakery debuted as Western Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, which might be the location in the photograph.  The structure was designed by movie art director Harry Oliver and was a smashing success.

At its peak, the Van de Kamp empire had over 300 bakeries and a few coffee shops.  Frank had a sideline called Lawry’s (a play on his nickname of Larry) and also established the Tam O’Shanter Inn in Atwater Village, which is still in operation.  The family relinquished its interest in Van de Kamp’s in the 1950s and the business folded nearly four decades later.  Former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp was a nephew of Theodore and Lawrence Frank.

Freezer LA 1928
“The Freezer” was a chain of five ice cream parlors west of downtown Los Angeles and in Hollywood and its ice cream churn with protruding handle definitely stood out.

Not as well known as Van de Kamp’s were the other two images on the page.  “The Freezer”, in the shape of an ice-cream churn, was a small chain of five ice cream parlors in areas west of downtown Los Angeles and in Hollywood.  “The Lighthouse,” which has the namesake feature emerging from the top right of what looks like a glacial monster with two eyes for windows and a wide front door for a mouth has been elusive in a search (someone out there know where it was?)

A few pages over, near an image of the old stone church of Mission San Gabriel and a faded portrait of a young woman named Berneice on a path near some thick vines, is the famed Brown Derby, of another chain, the first of which opened in 1926 on Wilshire Boulevard near from the Ambassador Hotel and a new version moved closer to the legendary hostelry a little over a decade later.  Others, not in the iconic hat shape, opened in Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Los Feliz.

Brown Derby LA 1928
The most famed example of “programmatic architecture,” or buildings in the shape of things, was the original Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard near the iconic Ambassador Hotel.  The hat, lacking its brim, is incongruously atop the back portion of a three-level mini-mall on the site south of Wilshire on Alexandria Street, but is evidently unused.

The mid-1930s hat, which shed its brim over the years, was in terrible condition after the restaurant closed but it was, strangely, moved to the top open story of a three-level 1980s strip mall down Alexandria Street from Wilshire, where it remains evidently unused.

This weekend’s “Ticket to the Twenties” festival at the Homestead will include my being stationed at the Tepee to talk about its place as a rare surviving example of “programmatic architecture,” or buildings in the shape of things, as well as the wild ups and downs of Walter P. Temple’s financial fortunes during the decade.

So, if you come down to attend the festival, drop by and see what’s doing at the Tepee.

6 thoughts

  1. The pictured Brown Derby opened in 1926 at 3427 Wilshire; this “hat” ran until the new hat was built 1/2 block east at 3377 Wilshire–the northeast corner of Alexandria–in 1936. It is the crown of that hat that apparently sits atop the building on that corner today.

  2. Hi Duncan, thanks for the comment and additional info. The post has been revised to note the difference between the 1926 Brown Derby and the 1936 replacement and that the latter, without the brim, is what is at the top of the mini-mall. We appreciate your insight!

  3. I’m not sure why so many people insist the current Brown Derby sitting on top of the mini-mall lacks a brim. It is, in fact, there–though smaller. I suspect that people compare photos of the original building, which stood alone and had a more complete brim, to the replacement, which was simply an entrance to a larger building with a reduced brim. Or maybe it’s because it’s not visible from street level, and people are just too lazy to go up the stairs.

    Great photos, by the way. I love programmatic architecture, and am always amazed to see another building. In this case, I’d never seen the Lighthouse before.

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