Googie gets guardianship: conserving the Atomic Age through Tom’s Diner in Denver.

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. 

Tom's Diner: Googie architecture in Denver

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.

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16 thoughts on “Googie gets guardianship: conserving the Atomic Age through Tom’s Diner in Denver.

      1. AvatarAmericanDirt

        I can’t decide if the best soundtrack would be Man or Astro-man?, Juan Garcia Esquivel, or a hybrid of the two…!

        Reply
  1. AvatarJeffrey Jakucyk

    This kind of reminds me of the old Edens Theater in Northbrook, IL which has something of an Eero Saarinen feel to it (actually designed by Perkins and Will, who are no slouches for sure). It’s kind of a hybrid between Googie and Brutalism. I distinctly remember watching the Back to the Future movies there, and even as a young kid being awestruck by the expansive interior. https://drloihjournal.blogspot.com/2018/02/history-of-hyperbolic-paraboloid-edens-theater-northbrook-illinois.html Alas, large single-screen theaters weren’t long for this world, and the same issue with refurbishing the building precipitated its demise while I was in high school.

    Reply
    1. AvatarAmericanDirt

      What a fantastic looking building. I went to undergrad not too far from there, though after it had been demolished. I agree with your hybrid statement: at first blush, it also seems like something potentially conceived for Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia, which would have been appropriate for the time of construction. But I suppose that, even by the 1970s, the notion of a single-theatre in a freestanding outparcel building was a bit outdated, and the attempt to append a second screen wasn’t good enough, as multiplexes and mall-tiplexes became the norm. Sure, it had abundant parking, but what if the movie sold out? How frustrating that it got razed so shortly after closing, which leads me to think there were other real estate interests at play long before it shuttered. I presume the site isn’t vacant today? If the theater had been salvaged, though, I could easily see it retrofitted to serve as IMAX (which started to become prominent about the same time it closed), or, in an alternative universe, someone could have plopped it down to serve as a church in Columbus, IN. No one would have batted an eyelash.

      Reply
  2. AvatarBrian M

    Have to say that in world where so many beautiful buildings are lost, either to neglect or demolition, that the destruction of the windowless box in downtown DC seems like an odd focus for fervor. “Preservationists” seem to be an odd religious cult to me, especially as the built environment ages and the urge to preserve turns to ever more banal or even ominous and threatening modern era buildings. 🙂

    Reply
    1. AvatarAmericanDirt

      Third Church of Christ, Scientist seems to be a perfect example where the high-minded aesthetic judgment of the professional critics fails to land on its target, ultimately failing to make the case or persuade the general public of the righteousness of the preservationist cause. I never saw the Washington DC building firsthand (at least not at a time when I was aware of it), but I know others who did, and not a soul gave whisper of its architectural/aesthetic merit unless they themselves were architects, and even they could usually concede that it would never capture the hearts of the layperson. The building was expensive to maintain–aside from heating/cooling, they needed to assemble scaffolding every time lights got replaced in the sanctuary–and the congregation was already hinting at abandoning it around 1990. Needless to say, as soon as this rumor disseminated, the preservationists latched on and appealed to the City to make it a District Historic Landmark…less than 20 years after construction!

      Needless to say, the Christian Science church won this battle, deservedly it seems. I can’t imagine how a developer would ever repurpose it while saving the features that make it architecturally interesting.

      Reply
    1. AvatarAmericanDirt

      That was pretty much the the time of Googie’s peak! Quite a few diner holdovers today, if they have their own freestanding structure (i.e., not part of a strip mall), still use some retro-future styling like a stainless steel material or an unusually streamlined massing with chevrons or “spoilers”. We see this as well in the modern “family restaurant”, which essentially is a diner except they don’t usually operate 24 hours. I think the vintage look even in modern diners is a throwback for nostalgia for a time when diners were at their prime popularity.

      Reply
  3. AvatarJeffrey Jakucyk

    I watched the YouTube videos linked in the article and it’s a delightfully low-budget public access program about the building’s history. A drinking game sure to get you killed would be to take a shot every time someone says “hyperbolic paraboloid.” The pretentious architectural critic/historian/grad student even made some of the same design comparisons I did, but without using the term Googie. I swear I watched the videos after posting my last comment.

    Anyway, the building was left basically in its original state all the way to the end and milked for all it was worth. So sadly it had gotten noticeably dated and rundown by that time. The video also states that the roof was only 4″ thick concrete, and it was exposed on the inside. That sounds like a thermal nightmare in Chicago’s cold climate. It was torn down to build the “Village Square of Northbrook” shopping center that in itself is a hybrid between a strip mall and a power center (Dick’s Sporting Goods, PetSmart, Party City, Trader Joe’s, DSW, etc). Medium-box retail?

    There’s a nursing home that predates Edens by a couple years that remains smooshed between the buildings but with its front to the expressway, and blank fences to the shopping center’s parking lots on the remaining three sides. That’s the only bit of pre-1990s architecture left in that entire block.

    Reply
    1. AvatarAmericanDirt

      Again, it’s a shame that the building wasn’t saved, though it sounds like retrofitting it for any other use would be prohibitively expensive. And if it had become a church, in most respects that would be a downgrade. No offense to organized religion, but churches as a non-profit entity are rarely a high value use. In fact, it’s not uncommon in dying malls for the outside 8-screen multiplex to get converted to a church; I’ve rarely seen anything go the other direction. That part of North Shore Chicago was also still a pretty dynamic growth area in the 1990s. It’s slowed a great deal since then but remains very affluent; it wouldn’t surprise me if the theater could get some genuine preservation traction if it had happened today.

      As for the public access videos and their pretentious verbiage, I raise you one: in the article I’m currently writing, I say “concentric trianguloid”. Unironically.

      Reply
        1. AvatarAmericanDirt

          I’ll confess I had to do a little research to know what you were referring to, but I’ll have to confess that rotor to a Wankel engine definitely evokes the trianguloid I’m referencing in Silver Spring, MD.

          Reply

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