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Saving The Last Of California’s Spectacular Googie Windmills

LA used to be dotted with huge glowing windmills. Now, the only one that remains–above what is now a Denny’s–is spinning again.

While most restaurants are eager to adopt the latest design fad, a Denny’s in Southern California spent a cool six figures resurrecting a beloved piece of its 1960s design: a spinning windmill.

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Designed in 1967 by the architect Harold Bissner–who is now 92 years old–and his business partner Harold Zook, the restaurant was originally built for Van de Kamps–a chain of Dutch bakeries known for its windmills. While they were iconic during the midcentury, those landmarks waned in popularity and were slowly demolished over time.

“I did 13 of them and there’s only one standing now,” Bissner tells Co.Design. “I had to slowly see them go downhill. As far as tearing them down, they were often in parking lots of shopping centers, and space came at a high cost.”

Midcentury diners and coffee shops, often done up with exaggerated geometric silhouettes, punchy colors, and had eye-catching signage, are a particularly rich part of Los Angeles’s history. Called “Googie” style, these structures were designed to entice drivers to stop in. Bissner’s enormous windmills, for example, would be visible to passersby on the highways.

“Southern California is strange; they like that kind of stuff,” Bissner says of the whimsical architecture.

Bissner’s last windmill, located east of Pasadena in Arcadia, California, nearly met the fate of its long-demolished brethren. When Denny’s took over the building in the ’90s, it wanted to tear down the structure. But after locals protested the removal, the company decided to keep it.

The impetus to restore the windmill came about when business was slow at the restaurant. But instead of trying to completely overhaul the building (which locals railed against in the past) Denny’s looked to the history that appealed to customers in the first place.

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For example, while Bissner wasn’t directly involved with the restoration, he was consulted during the process. George Fasching, Arcadia’s former mayor who remains active in local politics, advocated reactivating the windmill for years and tracked Bissner down to see what could be done to the building to spice things up while staying historically faithful.

“I told him all the action is already going on there right now,” Bissner says, referring to the windmill. “All you have to do is light it up.”

Flickr user Chuck Coker

The windmill had ceased moving in 1989, so to get it up and running for the first time in nearly 30 years Denny’s replaced the motor, added LED lights, and reinforced the blades (and added some spikes to keep birds and pigeons from perching on them). Now, the 49-year-old structure is back, attracting diners just as it did when it opened in 1967. “It’s lightened up Arcadia and the restaurant is packed every night,” Bissner’s wife says.

Historic designs are often viewed as disposable (RIP, Four Seasons) but retaining these places enlivens the urban fabric and ensures that we’re not all eating in the same sterile spaces that restaurateurs feel compelled to design using “Millennial Strategies”–looking at you, KFC and Taco Bell–in order to attract more money and foot traffic.

Who would’ve imagined that Denny’s would be an ally to historic preservation?

[All Photos (unless otherwise noted): courtesy Denny’s]

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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