Letter from Alan Hess
A R C H I T E C T
IRVINE, CA 92612
949 551 5343
A R C H I T E C T
IRVINE, CA 92612
949 551 5343
November 6, 2017
Historic Resources Commission
City of Whittier
13230 Penn Street
Whittier, CA 90602
re: Five Points Carwash
To the Commission:
I am writing to express my support of the proposal for the former Five Points Carwash building.
This building is an important example of the Googie Modern style of architecture, and of a significant chapter in the growth of Whittier and Southern California after 1945. It also retains a remarkable degree of integrity.
I have reviewed drawings of the proposal by Clearwater Communities for the Five Points Carwash structure. The proposal maintains the key architectural elements of the original design, even while it updates aspects of the building to make it economically viable today. This makes the proposal a good example of how a historic building can be successfully brought into the present day. Five Points Carwash will be part of the daily life of citizens today just as it was intended to be originally.
I make this assessment as an architect, architectural historian, and author of nineteen books, including several on the architecture of California in the twentieth century, as well as two on the particular type and style of this building. I have also written numerous articles on related subjects for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, PlacesJournal.com, Architectural Record, Architectural Digest, and other journals. I have received awards for my work as a historian and author from the Los Angeles Conservancy and Docomomo-US, grants from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and a fellowship from the Pew Foundation's National Arts Journalism Program. I have lectured on related topics at many universities and museums in the U.S. and Europe, and have been interviewed as an expert on radio, television, and filmed documentaries.
I have been familiar with Five Points Carwash for many years as one of a diminishing number of midcentury carwashes in the Googie style, which I discussed in my 1985 book Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture, and in the updated edition Googie Redux in 2004. Along with the era’s coffee shops, gas stations, car dealerships and other building types, the carwash was a significant architectural expression of a new car-oriented suburban way of life. Five Points Carwash is an excellent representative of this type and style of building. Similar carwashes were once a common sight on commercial strips throughout California in the 1950s and 1960s. Though they utilized a basic prototype, they were not entirely identical.
A primary feature of Five Points Carwash is the long broad roof over the wash tunnel, which was not enclosed and thus open to the public street. This provided a clear view of the mechanical car wash equipment, and the cars themselves moving through the tunnel. It created, in effect, a kinetic billboard advertising the function of the building.
A second key architectural element is the series of tall pylons which rise above the roof. These were functional elements that supported the roof and drew attention to the building and the carwash business. Their tall, sculpted shapes would attract the eye as a motorist approached and passed the building. Five Points Carwash features tapering I-beams, one of several shapes used for these prototype carwashes.
A third key element is the sign, a design of dynamic angles and tapered forms, with the words “CAR WASH” in a jazzy, informal font. These shapes are related to Modern graphics and art of the period, brought to the public street.
Googie carwashes such as this reflected the Modern architectural concept of "form follows function.” In place of a traditional style (such as Classical or Colonial), Modern architecture derived its form by expressing its purpose, structure, and materials. Thus the design features the open-air carwash tunnel, exposing the cars and wash equipment; the mechanical equipment is not hidden, but prominently displayed in the design. The tall pylons are exposed industrial Ibeams, with flanges and webs, but also function as integral ornament. The tall sculpted pylons and sign allowed the low horizontal building to be visible to motorists on busy commercial strips like Whittier Blvd.
Clearwater Communities’ proposal to restore the carwash treats these signature original elements with sensitivity. The building’s appearance and purpose will reflect its original character. Clearwater has followed accepted standards applied to historic buildings by maintaining its original use, removing non-original additions, and restoring the structure and neon sign. Decisions such as paint colors are in keeping with its historic character. By replacing existing carwash equipment with current, more sustainably appropriate technology, the proposal reflects the original spirit of Googie design, which celebrated the ways in which modern technology can improve daily life. Added elements, such as the vacuum cleaner stations, have been planned so as not to detract from the historic structure.
To my knowledge, this would be the first carwash of this type to be restored in this manner. However, there is a clear trend to landmark and preserve other Googie, car-oriented building types of this period as historical. In Los Angeles, Johnie's at Wilshire and Fairfax, and Norm's on La Cienega are city landmarks; in Burbank, a 1949 Bob's Big Boy is an LA County landmark; in Downey, both the oldest McDonald's stand and Harvey's Broiler (now a Big Boy franchise) are landmarks. Whittier can be proud of its involvement with this positive trend.
If you have any further questions about this project, I would be glad to address them.