If you were driving down Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1950, you’d be able to spot the Sanderson Hosiery store from a football field away. Why? The shop’s owner, A.A. Sanderson, built a giant female mannequin leg and set it up directly on top of his storefront. Sanderson Hosiery wasn’t the only store in Southern California to use giant sculptures of animals and objects as a way to catch drivers’ attention as they were cruising down the street. Some went a step further, making their storefronts themselves into great big flower baskets, pigs, windmills, and milk cans.
“If you were driving down the street in a car, you had to see the business ahead of you in a much smaller time frame, because you’re driving 30 miles per hour,” explains Jim Heimann, an editor at Taschen and author of the book California Crazy. “If you saw a giant ice cream cone, you knew ice cream is up ahead. That kind of architecture worked well with an environment that had a lot of space.”
In 1980, Heimann introduced this unique form of architecture to the world with a book called California Crazy. Now, Heimann is back with his third edition of the tome, published this summer by Taschen. He’s been collecting images and ephemera, like postcards and drawings, of the region’s wild vernacular architecture for many decades.
His research sheds lights on why, exactly, Southern California produces such wacky structures. Car culture is a big part of it–these structures were often designed to grab the attention of motorists from the highway. But Hollywood and its need for large-scale sets played a major role as well. Heimann points to one example from 1915: That year, an amusement park built for San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific exhibition featured giant architectural-scale animals, like horses, ostriches, and elephants made out of a plaster substance and chicken wire. The director and filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who was there to speak at the convention, saw these fantastical buildings and convinced the craftspeople who’d created them to build a set for his latest film, Intolerance. He brought the artisans down to L.A., where they created the gates of Babylon for the movie–right on the corner of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard.
“The Panama-Pacific International Exposition set in motion for California to be the locus of programmatic architecture,” Heimann writes in one of the book’s introductory essays. “The Hollywood connection, the sprawling geography, and the culture of the automobile propelled this architectural type to prosper and flourish there–making California a bit more crazy than the rest of the world.”
I asked Heimann to share three of his favorite buildings from the new edition–and the stories behind them. They don’t disappoint.
From Chili Bowl to sushi
There were once dozens of giant chili bowls dotting the Southern California landscape, all of which housed hamburger and chili joints. Started by Art Whizin in 1931, the restaurant chain—appropriately called Chili Bowl—got its famously tacky exterior when Whizin was just a recent L.A. transplant, working at another hamburger and chili joint. According to legend, Whizin was sitting next to his friend at the counter dreaming about the restaurant he wanted to start, and his friend slid his chili bowl over to him and said, “Here, Whizin, do something with this.” Whizin decided he was destined to create a restaurant shaped like a chili bowl with a spoon in it.
Chili Bowl was a great success, though eventually most of the branches closed during World War II. The last one was on Pico Boulevard, near the Douglas Aircraft Company’s factory. Donald Douglas asked Whizin to keep the place open to feed his workers. That last Chili Bowl fed thousands of people who were making airplanes for the war.
Now, that Chili Bowl building is still there—but in a classic turn of events, it’s now a sushi restaurant.
I hoot, you hoot, we all hoot for ice cream
While their competition had giant ice cream cones as their advertising, one pair of strategic ice cream entrepreneurs took things up a notch and set up shop inside . . . an owl. In the 1920s, Tillie Hattrup and her sister opened an ice cream stand called Hoot Hoot Ice Cream in Alhambra, California. The stand, built by their neighbors who worked in construction building sets for Hollywood, had a rotating head, a repurposed Cadillac Horn inside that would make the whole structure “hoot,” and two headlights to make the eyes light up.
Unfortunately for the sisters, business wasn’t great, so they put their owl on the back of a flatbed truck and moved it 15 miles away, near a rubber factory that had just opened. It was a good call—Hoot Hoot became so successful it eventually turned into a restaurant. The building only survives in pictures; it was torn down in the 1979.
Dr. Seuss comes to town
Not all the buildings in the book hail from the early 20th century. Heimann says he discovered Dr. Satey’s Dediatric and Adolescent Medical Clinic when he drove by it just a few years ago. Located in Lancaster next to a hospital, Dr. Satey’s is unlike any clinic you’ve ever seen. It’s right out of a Dr. Seuss book, with wavy, distorted walls.
Heimann hasn’t been able to find the owner or architect of Dr. Satey’s yet, though he speculates that the architecture is meant to put kids at ease with its fantasy-world vibes. But it’s the perfect encapsulation of what’s so intriguing about this unique genre of architecture.
“The whole element of surprise I think is one of the sources of pleasure for these buildings,” Heimann says. “You’re driving down the street and you’re confronted with a giant pig, or in this case this giant wavy crazy building, and it’s so startling you have to slam on the brakes and stop and look.”