Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The oldest McDonald's as Architecture

McDonald's, Lakewood and Florence, Downey, CA. 1953.
 Stanley Clark Meston, architect 

Sixty years ago this Sunday, the oldest remaining McDonald's stand opened for business at the corner of Lakewood and Florence in Downey, CA. Its yellow neon-lined arches piercing its dynamic roof wedge, and its wrap-around sheets of slanting glass make an unmistakeable icon. And it deserves to be called an icon, no matter how often that over-used label is applied to eye-catching but less significant buildings. 
Original franchisees 
Roger Williams (l), 
Bud Landon (r). 1983

Since it qualified for the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, Downey's McDonald's has also been certifiably historic -- now for exactly half of its existence. If anyone cares to think about it, that fact comes with a whole host of thorny questions and facts that shake up our ideas about what architecture is, where it comes from, and what makes a good architect.

Bud Landon and Roger Williams worked for General Petroleum in 1953 when Roger's brother-in-law, Neil Fox, told them of a good investment: two brothers in San Bernardino were franchising their hamburger stand idea, and Fox had purchased the first franchise. He opened the first golden-arched stand in Phoenix in June, 1953 (long since demolished.) Bud and Roger bought the second franchise and opened two months later.

Stanley Clark Meston,
architect, 1983
Dick and Mac McDonald sweetened their franchise terms to interest people, but they did require Bud and Roger to use the design for the stand that they had developed with Fontana architect Stanley Clark Meston. It was a gem; on a tennis court, the three of them (with Meston's draftsman, Charles Fish) had laid out the exact measurements of every piece of equipment for maximum efficiency. Dick and Mac had operated their original stand since 1948, perfecting a limited-menu self-service system. Meston's building embodied that system, right down to the built-in advertising: Dick had suggested large arches so the stand would catch the eye of customers through their windshields as they went about their daily life in new suburbs like Downey. That town was booming with aerospace companies at the dawn of the space age. Meston gave those arches the space-age spring of a bounding parabola, and made sure they glowed with multi-hued radiating neon.

sign, 1960

It's a simple design and thoroughly and functionally Modern; if form follows function, one of a hamburger stand's functions is advertising. Not only was it made of modern steel and glass, it was plugged into the cultural zeitgeist of new technology that was changing the way everyone lived. Steel and glass office skyscrapers rose in America's city centers, kinetic Googie coffee shops appeared on major suburban corners, gleaming white refrigerators stood in every middle class kitchen in the new mass-produced Ranch Houses across the nation. Meston's McDonald's brought the same aesthetic to the roadside of everyday life.

It's also a design that can be critiqued; the way the arches plunge through the roof is slightly awkward. But more interesting is to compare it to another drive-in restaurant designed by a master of Modernism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, for Indianapolis in 1948. No one can deny Mies' credentials. The Hi-Way Drive-In tried out his universal vocabulary of steel and glass made famous in his 1956 Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he taught: large steel trusses supported on steel columns at either end rose above the roofline. As the building's entire structural skeleton, exposed to view, they left the interior space open and the exterior walls entirely glass. It was a theoretical tour de force: technically exquisite, but functionally tin-eared. The Hi-Way Drive-in was never built. For all his fame, Mies did not know how to design a building to serve hamburgers to the growing suburban population of America. Stanley Meston did, even though you'll rarely read about him in history books. 

Meston and Charles Fish's original rendering of prototype
franchise design for McDonald brothers, 1953.
 (Charles Fish collection)
There are many good reasons to visit the McDonald's in Downey this weekend to celebrate a piece of history, culture, and architecture. It is a time machine: you can still buy a burger, fries and shake by walking up to the outdoor service window, exactly as Downeyites did August 18, 1953. You can still eat in the comfort of your car. You can look inside to see the ice cream freezer where Ray Kroc, a salesman who came by to sell his MultiMix milkshake machine to Bud and Roger, sat when he got the idea to open his own McDonald's franchise back in Chicago. You can still see Downey, only fifteen minutes from downtown Los Angeles but still claiming its unique identity as builder of key parts of the Space Shuttle, and home to original musical talents from Pop's Karen and Richard Carpenter to Rockabilly's Blasters. 

It's that strong civic sense that helped to preserve this piece of American history when McDonald's Corporation demolished scores of them nationwide. Back in the early 1990s, the McDonald's Corporation wanted to tear this one down after they had bought out Roger and Bud's franchise. Downey citizens, lead by Mayor Joyce Lawrence and aided by the Los Angeles Conservancy, stalled demolition until wiser corporate heads prevailed, and the stand was restored and re-opened in 1996.

In 1983, the idea of a McDonalds being a historic landmark was a punchline, even among architectural preservationists. How could a hamburger stand be historic, let alone significant? How could a suburban building be good architecture? How could Stanley Meston stand in the pantheon of architects with Mies van der Rohe?

How? It's a design that's inseparable from its time, place and people. That's what really good architecture is.


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