Preservation Round-Up: Gaga Over Googie Edition

Posted on: January 10th, 2011 by Jason Clement 2 Comments

Pancakes anyone? The site of Portland's first Denny's. (Photo: Google Maps)

Good afternoon, Nation, and welcome to this week's first Preservation Round-Up, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s twice-weekly digest of preservation news and notes from around the country.

Today we start with a question: Is your town's first Denny's worth saving?

Thanks largely to their typical sprawl-tastic and/or faux-diner design, I'll go out on a limb and assume that a good handful of you just answered -- perhaps even screamed -- "Absolutely not!" However, for preservationists (and some foodies) in Portland, Oregon, the issue isn't so cut and dry.

In 1963, the local paper ran an advertisement heralding the grand opening of a "new star in Portland's constellation of progress," a place where patrons could park with ease, enjoy air conditioning, and chow down on some USDA Choice Top Sirloin for just over a buck. The ad was complete with a rendering of a hopping restaurant with a check-mark roof and sheet glass windows, all beneath a high flying, starburst of a sign. Welcome to Denny's, which aimed to "satisfy everyone everywhere -- 24 hours a day!"

Fast forward to today. The building -- a rare Googie find with no historic designation -- is boarded up and broken. The owner has an architect and some slick drawings of a new, one-story nightclub that would best the old Denny's by well over 5,000 square feet.

So, what's a preservationist to do? The reader comments on this recent story do a good job of summing up the quandary:

"Where are all the design savvy gentry? Distinct design such as this needs to be preserved. Modernism is all the rage and in a few years even the 'tear the damn thing down' brigade will regret this loss."

"As much as I love modernism (I've owned 2 modernist houses) the building was never in synch with the neighborhood. Also, it's not one of the better examples of Googie. It just looks like a sad wallflower who wore the wrong outfit to the party."

"Sorry but I don't think this is a good idea when a structure with plenty of pop is being replaced by a generic flop. Have you ever heard of the architect who designed the new building. I think not."

"Maybe keep the sign somehow? I love old buildings, but I think that would be a sufficient nod to the past."

The good folks over at Preservation Portland present a variety of arguments for why the building should stay, including what some may see as the common sense one:

Unless there are irreversible structural issues, why demolish a building only to replace it with something that will serve the same essential purpose and will do nothing to add housing density or other social benefits to the community? Such a demolition is a waste of resources and energy.

Aside from architectural legacy and the embodied energy of the bricks and mortar, is there an argument to be made about what the building means to America's food culture? SlashFood.com takes a shot, remembering back when Paris suffered a loss that definitely did a thing or two to its culinary cred:

Tearing down a Denny's isn't going to destroy America's retro culinary culture (that's mostly been done already). But let's fast-forward for a moment to the raising of a grand food market that did exactly that, destroyed the historical heart of one of the greatest city's in the world, ripping out a piece of its soul. Like an amputee with an artificial limb, Paris has never fully recovered from the damage done by tearing down the centuries-old Les Halles market, with its lattice-work pavilions where trucks used to unload produce and goods from all over the country in the middle of the night, spawning a de facto café culture of after-midnight supers with onion soup and platters of pig's feat that disappeared in a flash exactly 40 years ago. Today, Les Halles is a dreary concrete wasteland with a cheerless underground shopping mall surrounded by fast-food joints and t-shirt shops.

And of course, this isn't the first time a Denny's has been at the center of a tricky preservation question. In 2008, Portland's neighbor to the north stood up for one of the chain's locations that looked like a cross between a barn and a ski chalet -- another Googie gem.

So, what do you think? Be it for the architecture, the environment, or quite simply what it says about comfort food in this country, should Portland save its first Denny's?

And with that, let's quickly (my editor means it!) romp through some other preservation headlines that have nothing to do with bottomless pancakes: The South Bronx is going gangbusters on blight, some people have really cool houses, Los Angelenos remember Angels Flight, someone created a new -ism, jazz bites the dust in NOLA, Taliesin turns 100, and residents of downtown Dallas grapple with losing an 85-year-old neighbor.

Oh, and it snowed in New York City -- and historic stuff looks pretty in the snow. Behold: A wintery High Line (via Twitter).

Jason Lloyd Clement is an online content provider for PreservationNation.org. He is currently craving breakfast for lunch in a big, big way.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Jason Clement

Jason Clement

Jason Lloyd Clement is the director of community outreach at the National Trust, which is really just a fancy way of saying he’s a professional place lover. For him, any day that involves a bike, a camera, and a gritty historic neighborhood is basically the best day ever.

Modern Architecture, News Round-Ups

2 Responses

  1. Brian Wolf

    January 10, 2011

    I’m a young heritage conservationist. I’m definitely into mid-mod. And I like the Denny’s and I would hope it would be preserved and reused. You can make some really interesting spaces out of 60s chain architecture. But I would draw the line at individually designating a mass produced design like this – at least at this juncture. I can certainly see it as a contributing structure to an auto-oriented district. I can see the arguments for old gas stations that have become rare and highly unusual, too. But I can’t see the individual significance of this Denny’s – at least not while there are many of them around nationwide.

  2. Alan Hess

    January 10, 2011

    There’s a place for preserving early structures that represent a major business — Ford’s Piquette plant, or the oldest remaining McDonalds (opened in 1953 with neon-lined golden arches, it qualified for the National Register in 1983 — its in Downey, CA). These are artifacts that tell us about our history, our economy, our social life. But there’s also a reason to save buildings like this Portland Denny’s because they are vital parts of living cities — which need to have variety of scale, use, style, space, etc. These are architectural and urban design qualities, and historic preservation fulfills those needs uniquely. This Denny’s is a 1958 prototype design by architects Armet and Davis, one of the most prolific and creative architects of the Googie style. It’s daring high-tech cantilevered roof contrasts with its natural stone pillars and generous planting beds — which the large glass windows made part of the interior as well as the exterior. That sign is also integrated into the design, repeating the angled lines and featuring (originally) a jazzy, space-age font. This is good design that adds to our streets, and cities shouldn’t go around throwing out good architecture, whatever it is.