It’s not every day that a person stumbles across a location that he or she had recently read about in the news, completely unintentionally. But that’s exactly what happened earlier this year as I nudged my way forward, from a side street onto Colfax Avenue, the main east-west arterial in Denver. And low and behold: I came across this squat little structure.
It’s an edifice that manages the rare accomplishment of being both quirky and banal at the same time. Immediately it rung a bell: I had read an extensive featurette on this same building about a year earlier, on what was then still called CityLab. The name of the restaurant is—or at least was—Tom’s Diner, the building’s occupant for the last twenty-one years—the longest tenant since its late 1960s construction.
Anyone over the age of thirty probably remembers seeing restaurants like this during his or her childhoods, delivering a consumer-friendly vision of the future through a very dated lens—a la The Jetsons. I qualify the statement with “over the age of thirty” because this architectural style, popularized in the 1950s and 60s, is increasingly becoming an endangered specie in its own right. But at one point in time, it was hard to imagine any family-run diner not adopting that tawdry/glitzy space shuttle look, through massing (unconventional shapes and volumes), materials (shimmery steel or polymer coatings), ornamentation (gravity-defying trusses, spandrels, buttresses, gables) or any combination of the above—all accented with copious neon lights.
If it isn’t already obvious from the title, the name of this architectural movement is Googie, essentially a popularization of the mid-century modern aesthetic already underway in the post-war era, particularly in California, which enjoyed a construction boom. While mid-century modern’s earliest incarnations are largely institutional or corporate, advancing the Art Deco and internationalist movement that surged prior to and after the Great Depression, Googie loosely reacted to the self-importance of these big-ticket edifices, molding the aesthetic into smaller, middlebrow, car-friendly forms conducive to the rapidly suburbanizing urban periphery. As a result, Googie buildings most frequently housed gas stations, motels, and budget restaurants; the idiosyncratic name “Googie” putatively came from a popular Hollywood coffeehouse whose architect, John Lautner, became synonymous with the Atomic Age aesthetic. Undoubtedly eye catching to the average household in 1960, Googie buildings proved resoundingly popular out West, thanks in no small part to the considerable population growth, though Googie was nationwide by the time Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. In the late sixties, owners of old urban commercial buildings began cladding their façades with vaguely Googie-inspired embellishments, no doubt in a desperate attempt to modernize increasingly obsolete structures with the goal of encouraging visitors to the historic business districts that, by that point, were visibly losing out to the suburban shopping malls.
Like basically every other architectural movement, Googie’s novelty began to wane; by the 1970s, partly out of becoming too ubiquitous (and thus losing its novelty), other visions of the future supplanted it. Additionally, the tenants of Googie buildings rarely claimed the same staying power as institutions or corporate centers, so, as the coffeehouse and motel tenants of the 50s and 60s closed, the subsequent property owners either eliminated many of the most conspicuous Googie elements (in an attempt to “re-modernize”) or they demolished the structures altogether. By the early 1990s, preservationists recognized that a formerly omnipresent architectural language faced critical endangerment. For a good twenty years, Googie archetypes plunged in number, due in large part to the preservationist perception that the movement was middlebrow, chintzy, secondhand, and never intellectually serious enough to warrant salvageability.
Fast forward another thirty years and structures like Tom’s Diner achieve a respect they never enjoyed when Googie was at its populist peak. Opening in 1967 as part of the local White Spot coffeehouse chain, the distinctive building on Colfax endured a variety of tenants after White Spot closed in the mid 80s, but the façade remained largely unchanged, all the more when Tom’s Diner gave the location some stability. The butterfly roof with the exaggerated yellow trusses remains unaltered after fifty years: though it may seem unremarkable to anyone who recalls the McDonald’s archetype from the 1980s and 90s, it’s a rare find among locally owned eateries. (And even most long-established McDonald’s have completely remodeled.) And then there’s the sign to Tom’s Diner:
It’s nowhere near as striking as the custom cut-out lettering of a great Googie sign, and it lacks the neon. (For a truly striking Googie emblem, one only needs to visit Fabulous Las Vegas—one of the nation’s most famous and beloved signs.) Nonetheless, the Tom’s Diner sign evokes the energy and space age spirit of Googie, from its diamonds and chevrons to its generous kerning in the word “diner”.
And, as is obvious from the above photos, this Denver institution is now closed. It faced a fierce and bitter historic preservation battle, as the CityLab article referenced above chronicles. In this instance, the struggle placed unwanted attention on diner owner Tom Messina, eager to retire and sell his desirable location to a developer, who in turn hoped to build an eight-story multifamily building on the site. Opposing this initiative were neighbors and Denver-era preservations, who saw the building itself as a critical Googie relic that merited consideration as a local historic landmark, thereby protecting it from demolition and development but also precluding (or at least seriously restricting) Messina from capitalizing on his quarter-century labor of love. The ideological camps either perceived Messina and the developer as greedy opportunists with no regard for heritage, or the local opposition as NIMBYs who merely hoped to stymie a more intensive, higher density use through a bogus appeal to preservation.
Without going into the greater details of the legislative push-and-pull, it goes without saying that COVID-19 shifted the course. Though Messina was preparing for an elegant, celebratory closure to Tom’s Diner, the pandemic cut short those plans. Such a conclusion should surprise no one: many places that were preparing for a gently paced phase-out opted for a much more sudden termination when it was clear that COVID was here to stay. And before the battle between Tom’s Diner and Denver preservationists got bloody, a developer with a penchant for urban preservation and Googie stepped in, buying the property while fully supporting of its eventual listing on the National Register of Historic Places. During my recent visit, the former Tom’s Diner property looked a bit forlorn, covered in plywood and surrounded by a security fence. But odds are good that this is a short-term purgatory; as the economy improves, the developer will find a creative solution to integrate the squat structure into a multi-story apartment building, retaining the Googie accents as a means of attracting a creditworthy restaurant tenant that can capitalize on the added housing density.
The likely happy outcome for Tom’s Diner is an exception, given the hundreds of Googie imitations that less sensitive developers have pulverized. And Tom Messina’s predicament echoes a concern common to property owners shackled to architecturally distinctive but obsolete buildings. An aesthetic successor to Googie that I have featured multiple times is brutalism. In many respects, the hulking cement and metal edifices of the 1970s and early 80s that exemplify brutalism serve as the direct futurist response to Googie. Whereas Googie was small, playful, and accessible, brutalism was massive, self-important and deadly serious. Though evocative of the Star Trek spacecraft that undeniably made them appear very modern, most brutalist buildings are so austere, so closed off from the surrounding city (they emerged at a point when urban crime was surging) that they hardly elicited much affection. They nearly always appear carceral. By the mid 1980s, brutalist buildings—never embraced by the public—suffered from an overwhelmingly negative perception, but they tended to house civic or non-profit institutions and service oriented businesses—e.g., municipal government offices, university libraries, banks (like this one in Asheville, NC)—so they were less likely to shutter than the diners and motels of Googie. They lingered up through the end of the century, a point in time when many of them were facing the need for major upgrades (HVAC, restrooms, roofing) coupled with a tenant class remarkably chary to pay for them.
The obsolescence of brutalist buildings reached a fever pitch with the battles over the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown Washington, DC in the mid 2000s. This church’s narrative was loosely similar to that of Tom’s Diner in Denver: an aging, shrinking congregation was ready to “retire” to s smaller, more energy-efficient structure, but needed to sell the property to pay for a relocation. And since no other developers could repurpose the ungainly, windowless structure, the purchaser would inevitably demolish it. Preservationists rallied to save the church because of its significance to brutalism, which precluded the Christian Science congregation itself (who hated the windowless building) from charting a viable path forward. Unlike Tom’s Diner, however, the preservation efforts failed in this instance: not only was the 1971 structure too young to meet any DC or national standards for historic landmark qualifications, but the Christian Science congregation appealed to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to claim that these efforts to declare Third Church of Christ, Scientist as “historic” posed an undue burden on the congregation and their exercise of religious liberties. The church won the battle, and demolition of Third Church commenced in early 2014.
While Tom’s Diner—an emissary for the Googie movement—seems likely to enjoy a brighter future, it remains to be seen if the development will proceed. Certainly at the time of my photo, with a chain link fence surrounding it, the structure looks like it awaits the demolition crew. But given Denver’s surging economy, it’s unlikely it will remain mothballed for long. It’s hard to remain optimistic about other Googie ventures, most of which do not elicit the sort of preservationist activism as Tom’s Diner. But while the scale and indestructibility of brutalism may ultimately be what salvages the remaining archetypes, the smaller, comfier aesthetic of Googie seems to muster more affection and a lot more nostalgia, the latter of which is simply affection toward the retrospect. And who knows: maybe the next futurist successor to Googie and brutalism—the postmodern movement that took hold by the mid-1980s—will face similar preservationist challenges as the buildings age. If that battle comes to a headway anywhere in Denver, we only have to travel a mile west of Tom’s Diner:
The Robert Graves-designed addition to the Denver Public Library.