Zipparchitecture on two coasts

Two recent Zippys offer remarkable vernacular architecture on the US coasts:  a great rocky pile of a fantasy home, created by a performer of enormously popular entertainments — a castle on the Connecticut! — on the east, restaurants in the shape of a parasol — SoCal novelty architecture! — on the west:

(#1) Castle built a hundred years ago by actor William Gillette; reminiscent of the house in the Flintstones animated tv series; topped by the Carvel soft ice cream symbol

(#2) Parasol restaurant in SoCal’s Seal Beach (1967), sister to the first Parasol in Torrance (1961)

Zipparchitecture. A designation first used here in a posting, of 11/21/15, about Zippy and Frank Gehry’s EMP Museum in Seattle (with its pop culture twist). Zippy’s attention, however, is largely focused on pop-cultural constructions: diners, coffee shops, motels, fast food restaurants, drive-ins, theme restaurants, bowling alleys, roadside attractions, and the like (there’s a Page here with links to some of this). For Zippy (and of course Griffy), such poparchitecture lives next door to conceptual art, performance art, Pop Art, surrealism in art, and public art of all kinds.

Gillette’s Connecticut folly then leads Zippy naturally (because of its rockiness) to the Flintstones’ house (and its real-life imitators), on which see my 9/3/15 posting “Flintstone days”; and (because of its up-thrusting aspirations) to soft-serve ice cream dreams in the Carvel mold, on which see my 12/21/12 posting “Soft serve”, and study this actual building from the golden days of the confection:

(#3) Carvel ice cream shop at 474 De Kalb Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, 1959

(Identical in form to the Carvel ice cream outlet of my Pennsylvania childhood.)

Gillette and his castle. From Wikipedia:


Gillette Castle State Park straddles the towns of East Haddam and Lyme, Connecticut in the United States, sitting high above the Connecticut River. The castle was originally a private residence commissioned and designed by William Gillette, an American actor who is most famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes on stage. Gillette lived at this estate from 1919-1937. The estate was purchased by the state of Connecticut in 1943 for a price of $5,000.

… William Gillette’s “castle”, called Seventh Sister and renamed “Gillette Castle” by Connecticut State in 1943, was built between 1914 and 1919 with an addition completed in 1924 on a 184-acre tract at the top of the southernmost of a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. Gillette died having no children, and his will precluded the possession of his home by any “blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded”.

… Gillette designed the home and personally overlooked every phase of the construction. Construction was performed by the Porteus-Walker Company, a leading contracting and wood-working firm based in Hartford, Connecticut founded by Gillette’s childhood friend, Robert Porteus. It has been described as being designed in a medieval gothic, or an “American fairy tale mixed with European flare” style, or as “a weird blending of Victorian and Arts and Crafts”.

… The style of the home’s interior reflects craftsman aesthetic popularized by Gustave Stickley.

(#5) CT coast, with (Old) Lyme in the middle (New Haven is to the west)

On Gillette, from Wikipedia:

(#5) Gillette as Sherlock Holmes on stage

William Hooker Gillette (July 24, 1853 – April 29, 1937) was an American actor-manager, playwright, and stage-manager in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is best remembered for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage and in a 1916 silent film thought to be lost until it was rediscovered in 2014.

Gillette’s most significant contributions to the theater were in devising realistic stage settings and special sound and lighting effects, and as an actor in putting forth what he called the “Illusion of the First Time”. His portrayal of Holmes helped create the modern image of the detective. His use of the deerstalker cap (which first appeared in some Strand illustrations by Sidney Paget) and the curved pipe became enduring symbols of the character. He assumed the role on stage more than 1,300 times over thirty years, starred in the silent motion picture based on his Holmes play, and voiced the character twice on radio.

His first Civil War drama Held by the Enemy (1886) was a major step toward modern theater, in that it abandoned many of the crude devices of 19th century melodrama and introduced realism into the sets, costumes, props, and sound effects. It was produced at a time when the British had a very low opinion of American art in any form, and it was the first wholly American play with a wholly American theme to be a critical and commercial success on British stages.

The Parasol. Briefly on the restaurants, from Roadside Architecture:

The first Parasol Restaurant opened in Torrance, CA in 1961. That building was demolished in 2001 for a Walgreen’s. The Parasol Restaurant in Seal Beach opened in 1967. The building was nearly demolished before it reopened as a Mel’s Drive-in in 2007. The original sign was adapted and the exterior is pretty much the same. However, the interior was gutted. Mel’s closed in 2009. Since 2010, the building has housed a Panera Bread.

(I saw, but did not eat in, the Torrance Parasol back in the 60s. It was a local tourist attraction.)

Map of the area:

(#6) Torrance, next to Redondo Beach; Seal Beach, southeast of Long Beach

Detailed history of the Parasol restaurants, from the [L.A.] South Bay Daily Breeze on 7/7/17 by Sam Gnerre, “The Parasol restaurant delighted Torrance diners from the outside in”:

Angelo Louis Pappas was born on May 15, 1926, in Fall River, Massachusetts, and grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia.

After serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he moved to Los Angeles, where he planned to to fulfill his ambition to own and operate restaurants.

The Greek entrepreneur would end up owning more than a dozen restaurants, including two in the South Bay.

In 1957, he began planning what would become the Parasol restaurant chain. He consulted with an architect, who suggested the idea for the eatery’s circular shape, designed to look like an open parasol umbrella.

The 1950s were the golden age for what pop culture observers later would term the “Googie” movement, named for the West Hollywood coffee shop of the same name built in 1949.

The Googie style encompassed a particular style of smaller roadside buildings, often with space-age elements added to Streamline Moderne forms. The Parasol also was an example of representational architecture, buildings built to look like brown derbies, tepees, giant coffee cups — or parasols.

(On the Googie style on this blog: on 12/4/09 “Weekend comics 2: Googie”; on 10/12/12 “Bob’s Big Boy”; and on 1/15/15 “Norms”. Plus a number of postings on novelty, aka representational, architecture, most recently on 8/17/17 “In camera”.)

Excited by his architect’s idea, Pappas set about making the Parasol a reality.
He chose the southeast corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Crenshaw Boulevard in Torrance as the site for his circular restaurant. The three-day grand opening for the Parasol, which included a coffee shop and a dining room, took place on Monday through Wednesday, July 17-19, 1961.

The outer theme of the building, which cost an estimated $450,000 to complete, was carried on throughout its interior. Here’s how the Torrance Herald described it in its July 13, 1961 preview article:

“Custom-made chandeliers, each with three parasol-shaped shades, are a part of the exciting decor. Imported tile in regular and irregular shapes — in pink, brown and black — blend with the imported gold wall paper to be found within the circular restaurant.”

For the grand opening, Pappas arranged to give away full-size parasols to mothers and children in attendance.

The Parasol was open 24 hours a day, and its menu ranged from standard breakfast fare to burgers and sandwiches and steaks and lobster for dinner. It quickly became a popular place to grab a bite to eat for shoppers at nearby Rolling Hills Plaza.

… Owner Steve Nauert, who bought the Parasol in 1987, planted a vegetable garden around the Parasol in the early 1990s. Though the vegetables couldn’t be used in the restaurant due to health regulations, the garden became a popular feature among diners.

Naeurt kept alive the restaurant’s tradition of simple homemade food, but the Parasol’s fortunes began to ebb around this same time due to competition from fast food chains, price wars among other sit-down coffee shops and changing tastes among consumers.

He rebranded the Parasol as “Coffee Shop University” in1994, but the name change didn’t help.

The original Parasol served its last meals on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 1995. (Its name was changed back to the Parasol for its final day.)

The restaurant remained empty until the Dinah’s chain, whose flagship operation was the popular Dinah’s Family Restaurant on Sepulveda Boulevard in Westchester, decided to reopen it. The building’s interior was renovated, and at 6 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 29, 1996, Dinah’s at the Parasol, as it was renamed, opened for business. This updated version of the classic coffee shop embodied by the Parasol of the 1960s, lasted for little more than a year, closing in late 1997. It would never re-open.

During the times it was closed, the site was used for movie locations, including the “Pulp Fiction” parody, “Plump Fiction” (1997), which filmed there in 1996, and an Aaron Spelling TV pilot, “Odd Jobs,” starring Patrick Dempsey, which filmed there in December 1997. The film “Psycho Beach Party” also used the location for one day on July 17, 1999.

… In March 2000, the Parasol building was torn down to make way for [a] new Walgreens, which was built on the site in 2001.

Residents of Seal Beach had better luck in preserving their Parasol location, which opened at 12241 Seal Beach Boulevard in 1967.

When it faced demolition in 2004, the Friends of the Parasol group formed in an attempt to save the structure, whose architecture was pretty much identical to the Torrance Parasol.

They succeeded. In 2008, it reopened as a Mels Drive-In, part of a revived retro chain based on the Bay Area diner with carhops used in the film  “American Graffiti” (1973).

That incarnation lasted for only a couple of years, but in late 2010, Panera Bread opened  a location using the original Parasol building, where it operates to this day.

The Seal Beach Parasol (the one in #2) over the years:

(#7) The original Seal Beach Parasol (as in #2)

(#8) Mel’s in 2008

(#9) Panera in 2015

The shell remains, but the Googie novelty soul is gone.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: