Midcentury Modern L.A. Icon Gutted

When the acclaimed 1960s television drama "Mad Men" was nominated again at this year's Golden Globe Awards, the televised Season Four clip featured characters Don Draper and Peggy Olson talking over cocktails at a dark, smoky bar. Instead of being filmed on a Hollywood set, the scene was shot at La Villa Basque, a Vernon, Calif., institution known for its pristine 1960s Googie architecture and, until recently, untouched interior décor. New management took over at the restaurant and banquet hall last month, and now preservationists worry that a remodel will do more harm than good.

A retro oasis in the heart of industrial Vernon, La Villa Basque has served more than a million people since it opened in 1960, though dwindling business in the early 2000s meant the restaurant could only afford to stay open weekday lunch hours.

"During the 60s and 70s, there was often a line out the door of people waiting to get in. When the meatpacking plants and some manufacturing drifted away, the lines began to disappear, and business began to die off," Joe Eagan, La Villa Basque events and promotion manager, said in an e-mail. "The three-martini 'Mad Men' lunches became a thing of the past. The face-to-face meetings were replaced with e-mails and conference calls."

With its new chef and management team, dinner is back on the menu at the French/Basque restaurant owned by longtime Vernon mayor Leonis C. Malburg, grandson of the city's co-founder John B. Leonis. The 51-year-old building at 2801 Leonis Boulevard, which includes a coffee shop, restaurant, lounge, and event space, features rough-textured stone aggregate exterior walls, projecting walls and roof canopies, wrought-iron interior grillwork, a custom mosaic tile-clad fireplace, terrazzo flooring, Formica countertops, and other 1960s hallmarks. So far, however, the new management has gutted the banquet hall, removed the main dining area's wood room divider, and removed other original furniture and decorative items.

Eagan says the updates his team is implementing are necessary to keep the business running.

"We are bringing back the energy of the 1960s that Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack epitomized," Eagan said in an e-mail. "Most of what we are doing are upgrades and behind the scenes, i.e. plumbing, electrical, kitchen. The new manager has a fantastic eye for style and elegance, and everything I've seen so far is right on as far as keeping the place preserved."

But preservationists like Los Angeles urban anthropologist Eric Lynxwiler aren't so sure.

"They do know that what they have is special, but they also want to make money," says Lynxwiler, who hosted his 2009 wedding reception at La Villa Basque. "What they're doing is sensitive to the novice, but to the preservationist, it really makes me clench my teeth. … They're making this 1960 restaurant '1960s,' in quotation marks, to suit their idea of what 60s is. And I can't fault them for it. But I still cringe."

The Los Angeles Conservancy has reached out to La Villa Basque's management, according to Adrian Fine, the conservancy's director of advocacy. It is encouraging its supporters to patronize the establishment and to communicate to the management the importance of keeping the space intact and historically preserved in order to attract customers.

"Clearly the business does need updates, and changes to the menu, and things like that," Fine says. "We want to send our supporters, our members, our volunteers to go down there and support them and buy food and buy drinks and go to their events, but it's hard for us to do that if the place is no longer La Villa Basque as we once knew it."

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Comments

Submitted by Studebiker at: March 29, 2011
They can trash the old design and update it all they want but unless they provide good service and have a good chef it'll still fail. Replacing plumbing, wiring and kitchen fixtures are necessary but if they loose those original fixtures and designed interior they will loose what makes that place special.

Submitted by Brian at: March 20, 2011
Well it sounds like it could have been worse. Sometimes I think we should place a larger blame on our society in general for not appreciating and patronizing such historic establishments. The management has the right to expect to make a profit. We need to create a culture where it is profitable to maintain historic authenticity.