Googie Diner Illegally Demolished

Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
The city may rebuild the famed diner, which starred in the 1993
films What's Love Got To Do With It and Short Cuts.

Credit: Adriene Biondo

Most of a 1950s Googie-style diner was illegally demolished last weekend in Downey, Calif. Only the sign and about one quarter of Johnie's Broiler remains after a backhoe leveled the building on Jan. 7—without a permit.

"We're outraged, to say the least," says Scott Pomrehn, assistant to the city manager. "At a minimum, this is a misdemeanor. They demoed a building without a permit, so the minimum is six months in jail and $3,300."

Many people spoke out against the teardown at a city council last night. "It was probably the largest crowd we ever had," Pomrehn says.

Built as Harvey's Broiler in 1958, the car-hop restaurant became Johnie's in 1966. After Johnie's closed in 2002, the 90,000-square-foot lot became a used-car dealership.

Owner Christos "Johnie" Smyrniotis, who bought the building since 1965, allowed his tenant to strip the building's interior of its booths and terrazzo floors. Although the building was eligible for listing on the state register in 2002, Smyrniotis blocked the listing. In October, he applied for a demolition permit, but the city denied the request in November, saying it was an incomplete application, according to Pomrehn.

"We gave him a two-page list of requirements, and said, 'In addition, you need to do an [environmental impact report] and address the historic significance of the site,'" Pomrehn says.

"I had no idea they were going to tear Johnie's down," Smyrniotis told the local Downey Patriot. "The tenants did something very stupid."

The city council, which has posted a 24-hour guard at the site, is considering its legal options. "The city's desire is to get it rebuilt," Pomrehn says. "That sign is structurally sound—we've had an engineer go out—so the sign is savable, and the part of the building is savable."

Located in Southern California, Downey is also home to the oldest surviving McDonald's, the chain's fourth restaurant, built in 1953. After a 1994 earthquake left it damaged, McDonald's decided to tear it down, landing the site a spot on the National Trust's 11 Most Endangered list that year. The company reconsidered, however, and the Downey McDonald's is still open today. 

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed