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Roadside Giants

Jim Heimann discusses roadside vernacular architecture
By Alice Jurow, November 2008, Updated June 2021

The Pup Cafe, Culver City, Calif., 1929

The Dog, near Lane, Ore., 1935

They’re part of the great American road trip—curious artifacts that startle the eye along the highway: giant oranges, artichokes, cows or coffee pots whose shape is meant to suggest what they sell. Or sometimes the shape tells a story, like “What fun it would be to spend the night in a teepee!” or “Let’s visit Santa in the summertime!” Mostly they’re relics of a time when food-gas-lodging signs were not standard interstate equipment, and nationwide chains had not yet homogenized the roadside landscape. In the first few decades of the 20th century, the dawn of the automobile age, motoring was an adventure into a countryside full of regional flavors and anarchic architectural impulses.

In his new book, California Crazy and Beyond (Chronicle Books, 2001), designer/historian Jim Heimann catalogues hundreds of sightings, photographs and archival images of roadside vernacular architecture. While this sort of building can be traced to historical prototypes—cerebral 18th-century French architects designed things like spherical cottages and barns in the shape of giant cows—essentially, California Crazy is a true American folk architecture, enthusiastically improvised out of equal parts crass commerce, naïve charm and wacky poetry. We asked Heimann to shed some light on this fascinating subject.

Bark: The Pup Cafe in Culver City, California, graces the cover of California Crazy—do you think giant dogs have a particular significance in the world of wacky roadside architectural images? I counted a couple of elephants and several pigs, fish and chickens, but no cats. Do dogs appear more often than any other animal? Or at least more than any other non-edible animal?

Jim Heimann: I’m not sure they have a specific significance, but I think their popularity was bolstered by the fact that dogs had more of a media presence in the ’20s and ’30s. There were cartoon dogs like Bonzo and Betty Boop’s dog [Bimbo], as well as Little Orphan Annie’s pooch [Sandy]. There was Pete the Pup from the Little Rascals, the RCA dog [Nipper], and Buster Brown’s dog [Tige]. So dogs were pretty well ingrained in pop culture and the public’s visual awareness. Of course, the relationship of dogs to hot dogs can’t be dismissed. I think people in general related to dogs as a familiar and comforting image. As far as I know, dogs beat out other animals. The cat thing is interesting. I have never run across a cat building, but there are some great cat images from the first half of the century that would have made great buildings. Go figure.


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B: Can you talk a little bit about the dog-inspired architecture in the book—the physical structures, the owners and builders, the history of these businesses?

JH: Unfortunately, most of the owners and contractors were long gone before I was able to interview anyone. As far as their construction goes, the view of the Chili Bowl in the front of the book gives a good indication of how they were constructed: very simply, with two-by-fours, chicken wire, tarpaper and stucco. Most were built by the owners themselves or a local contractor. Codes were simple or non-existent, so you could get away with lots of things. When the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles reconstructed the Dog Cafe for its permanent exhibit, they had to do much more for earthquake and structural construction. The plans for these buildings were usually done by the owner or a relative or friend, and a sketch was handed over for the builder to figure out. Remember, lots of L.A. contractors did movie set work, so some had a background in constructing things with strange shapes.

B: I recall a time when many people thought of roadside oddities—giant hot dogs, doughnuts and the now-beloved Doggie Diner heads—as “hideous.” Do you still encounter any negative response to California Crazy–style buildings?

JH: Every once in a while some idiot won’t get it, but for the most part [the current book and its first edition, published in 1980] made it clear this was just another aspect of architecture. There are certain camps in the architecture profession that dismiss this stuff, but there are just as many defenders. Certainly, the passage of time has made us look differently at this disappearing architecture; we can better appreciate its place in history.

B: So many of these wonderful buildings were designed for the moment and are often falling into disrepair; what percentage of them still stand?

JH: Most are gone. There are no guidelines, and they keep disappearing despite preservation efforts. Two months ago, a 50-year-old giant Santa Claus in Carpenteria, California, was destroyed after intense lobbying by preservationists. The developer won out because of money and his own wish to make the roadside stop more like an East Coast Cape Cod village. This was one guy who thought this architecture was hideous and, like many developers, was looking out for his own personal interest and financial gain rather than preserving a part of the past. If they can destroy a landmark Richard Neutra house in Palm Springs [California], there certainly is little hope for these roadside buildings.

B: So what are these buildings? The meeting of architecture and marketing? The first conceptual architecture? Pure kitsch?

JH: They were really a product of their times—a response to the loosening up of social mores, the burgeoning roadside culture. How do you get people to notice your business going down the road at 35 miles an hour, versus walking down a main street where customers have the time and eye level to peruse a product? Southern California has the most concentration of these structures, because there was a lot of cheap affordable land and small suburbs connected by roads and highways. But it was also a national phenomenon. These were buildings as signs; they were whimsical and innocent and very definitely American-built by people who were unaware of the snooty architects and architectural critics.


Alice Jurow is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and editor.