Broiler Torn Down"...
January 7th 2007
Phil Cox, 60, of Lakewood stands at the hood of his classic 1949 Oldsmobile as he takes in the scene of Johnie's Broiler Monday in Downey. A member of the car club "Vipers," Cox and his friends use to hang out here every weekend during the mid- to late 1960s.
A landmark in ruins
Johnie's Broiler in Downey Demolished... Jan 7 2007
Downey vows action
DOWNEY - Residents and city officials on Monday examined the remains of a piece of local history that was reduced to rubble over the weekend.
Before the Car Outlet Inc. dealership set up shop in 2002, the 90,000-square-foot parcel of land at the corner of Firestone Boulevard and Old River Road was home to Johnie's Broiler, the place to be seen if you had a hot ride.
The restaurant was one of the last of its kind constructed: a Googie-style gathering spot where hot-rodders and car enthusiasts spent their nights socializing during the golden age of Southern California's Happy Daze era.....
Downey Police Capt. Jim McCulloch said the agency is investigating who authorized the illegal demolition of Johnie's on Sunday afternoon.
Authorities said they plan to interview property owner Christos "Johnnie" Smyrniotis and his lessee.
"It clearly wasn't a professional group (of demolitionists)," McCulloch said, adding that the electricity and gas were still on when bulldozers came. "People could have been hurt."
Gas and electricity wereswitched off at the site late Sunday afternoon. Those responsible for the demolition face up to six months in jail and fines, McCulloch said.
Smyrniotis could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.
An employee with Car Outlet said the dealership "had nothing to do with the bulldozing," but said a manager would call the Press-Telegram for further comment. No additional comments from Car Outlet came Monday evening.
Johnie's demolition will likely be brought up at tonight's Downey City Council meeting, City Hall spokesman Scott Pomrehn said.
The meeting is at 7:30 p.m. at Downey City Hall, 11111 Brookshire Ave.
It wasn't clear Monday afternoon if Johnie's demolition will be added as an agenda item, but Pomrehn said the issue will likely lead to a request for a closed-door session to discuss potential litigation due to numerous OSHA violations from the unsafe environment in which bulldozing contractors worked. A statement to the public will be issued after the meeting.
As for the undamaged Johnie's Broiler sign, Pomrehn said, "We're bringing in engineers to investigate the integrity of what is remaining." The sign was spared when police halted the demolition Sunday.
A request denied
Johnie's Broiler is eligible for listing in the state's Register of Historical Resources because of its architecture and cultural heritage, according to an April 2002 report by the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
But attaining that status is contingent on the property owner pursuing the paperwork, which Pomrehn said Smyrniotis has not done.
The city doesn't have a preservation ordinance in place, though it is an issue that had been brought up to the City Council prior to Johnie's demolition, Pomrehn continued.
The Los Angeles Conservancy as early as 2001 has kept an eye on Johnie's, even requesting to stay in the touch with the city should the land on which parking dealership sits face development. Also, a grassroots group of Downey residents called Johnie's Friends formed in 2001 to protect the site.
"As a rule, the city will not demolish unless we know what will be in its place," Pomrehn said.
City officials would have been sensitive to any renovation on the site because of its cultural significance, he continued.
That was what happened in October when Smyrniotis' lessee filed a request to tear down the dealership and put a small retail shopping center in its place.
The request was denied due to a number of deficiencies. It lacked an environmental impact report - a requirement under the California Environmental Quality Act - as well as a traffic impact analysis.
Downey's planning department also requested other information, among them landscape and irrigation plans and complete building floor plans.
Senior planner Dave Blumenthal detailed these requirements in a Nov. 17 letter to Montebello-based architect Richard Stupin with RAS Associates that was also given to Smyrniotis. Pomrehn said the letter was the city's last communication and had not yet received a response.
`This is our innocence'
Opened in spring 1958 by Harvey Ortner, Harvey's Broiler incorporated the Googie elements: wild angles, strong rooflines, brightly lit interiors and exteriors, big V-shaped car canopies and larger-than-life signs.
"(Because) the assembled property had a unique exposure to the street from both directions due to the bend of the road, Harvey (Ortner) requested that I consider a restaurant design that would take advantage of that position and make a `statement' at the same time," architect Paul B. Clayton said to the City Council in December 1989 in support for Smyrniotis's request for a variance allowing the original sign to remain.
Smyrniotis, described to the Press-Telegram by several long-time residents as Ortner's former cook, bought the restaurant in 1965 and changed its name to Johnie's Broiler.
According to a Wikipedia article on Johnie's Broiler, legend says the eatery was named Johnie's instead of Johnnie's because the extra "n" would not fit on the sign. The famous "Fat Boy" mascot was added in 1966.
According to an April 2002 report by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, Johnie's Broiler in its heyday - between 1958 to 1968 - accommodated 350 parked cars, had car service for 98 cars and seated up to 110 inside its restaurant. Eighty-five employees, including the carhops, helped with the operation.
"It was a major mark on the tour circuit," said Adriene Biondo of the Los Angeles Conservancy. "Everyone would congregate here. It was the sparkling jewel of Downey."
It drew hot-rodders and car enthusiasts. On its opening night, cruisers waited an hour and a half for their turn to drive through, said Downey resident Helen Burns, 66, who was present that first day.
She recalled being 16, picking up girlfriends from South Gate in a 1949 metallic-green four-door Ford, to "cruise, and say hello."
There were a handful of spots for cruising in the area - The Clock in Lynwood and The Tip Top in Paramount were others - but everyone ended up at Harvey's.
"When we were kids, this was one of the highlights of cruising," said Downey resident Kathy Morgan, 65.
Throughout Monday, residents visiting the site brought camcorders and digital cameras to record the rubble.
City vehicles blocked entrances to the parking lot. A GE truck driver who said he was supposed to deliver a portable office to the car lot, left when no one wanted to sign off on the cargo.
Another long-time resident, Councilman Mario Guerra, also had memories to share: As a teenager, he took his first dates to the drive-in.
"I feel that what happened here is so far off-base," said Guerra, who visited the site Sunday and Monday. "This is unbelievable. I'm actually pretty angry that there is someone out there with the gall to circumvent the law under the cloak of a weekend."
Burns said she was one of the residents who called Downey police to report the demolition.
"This is our innocence," Burns said. "It's a part of our life. This was a place to be carefree. We didn't have to worry about knives and guns.
"It's a shame it had to go down like this, like it was visited by a thief in the middle of the night."
On the Net: www.roadsidepeek.com/preserv/2002/johniesbroiler/
Thanks to RoadsidePeek.com for letting me post their pictures on this site..
Samantha Gonzaga can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (562) 499-1284.