Just a few days ago, Alison Martino’s phone was ringing off the hook. The social media doyenne of the Facebook group Vintage Los Angeles, a photo-driven celebration of iconic LA places and people, was commiserating with Googie architecture enthusiasts, who just learned that their beloved Norms restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard was threatened by a demolition permit pulled by the property’s new owner.
“I was ecstatic to see all the love and support,” said Martino. Over 2,700 shares later, Martino and the Los Angeles Conservancy both noted this was the biggest social media response they have ever had about a preservation issue. Subsequently, on January 15th, the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission voted unanimously to consider the building a Historic Cultural Monument (HCM).
Designed by Louis Armét and Eldon Davis and built in 1957, Norms La Cienega has most of its original design elements intact, making it a pristine example of Googie. “It’s a text book definition of the style,” explained Alan Hess, an architect and author of Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture. Hess also wrote the HCM Nomination for the Los Angeles Conservancy. Unique to Southern California, this post-war vernacular style boasts cantilevered roofs, and a space age, futuristic exuberance, with neon signage and sweeping glass facades.
But the Cultural Heritage Commission nomination is not the final word, explained Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy. Ultimately LA City Council has to approve HCM designation (which should happen for the project in the next six months) and even then, Fine said there may be lengthy negotiations to figure out how to preserve the architecture while allowing the owner to develop the 21,833-square-foot piece of land, purchased for about $10.7 million, according to parcel records from the LA County Office of the Assessor.
A Limited Liability Corporation called Norman Cienega Property Group bought the property (not the restaurant chain) from Norms founder, Norm Roybark’s second wife’s son John Neidlinger. DJ Moore, an attorney representing the corporation, claimed in an email that his client has no immediate plans to demolish or alter the building. He added, “We have just begun working with architects and historic resource experts to evaluate potential opportunities for the site. No decisions will be made until we have had discussion about any potential development proposals with the community.” The Los Angeles Times reported that Culver City architecture firm Hodgetts + Fung has been engaged to investigate opportunities on the site.
Moore also wrote that Michael Illoulian is the corporation president. The Illoulians are a well-known family of developers who are very active in the neighborhood surrounding Norms. Most notable is Jason Illoulian, whose Faring Capital has built several residences over street facing retail projects and is planning a mixed-use West Hollywood development with Hodgetts + Fung. According to the California Secretary of State database, Jason Illoulian is listed as the agent for the corporation.
In the meantime, Norms continues to serve the community as long as it can. With only a month-to-month lease, it is still a tenuous situation for both long time customers and employees who have been enjoying the building and the food since 1957. “We will be thrilled if the building gets landmark status,” said Jerry O’Connell, the vice president of the Bellflower-based chain that currently operates 18 Norms restaurants. “Right now it’s really hard to define the new property owners’ intentions… We’d like a more permanent lease agreement but right now it seems to be out of our control.”