Another classic Los Angeles coffee shop is closing its doors. Norms, the vintage all-night spot on Pico Boulevard, is ending a long run this month according to Kevin Roderick at LAObserved. Norms in Santa Monica closed and was demolished in 2013 (the site is currently an empty lot) while Norms on La Cienega dodged a bullet and avoided closure last year.
Why so many changes to an institution known for not changing? In January 2015, after more than 65 years in the same family, the heirs of founder Norm Roybark sold the restaurant chain. In a separate move, they began to sell the land the restaurants sat on, setting the stage for conflicts between new property owners and the new owners of Norms. The county assessor reports that the 19,000 square foot parcel beneath the Norms on Pico was sold 21 months ago for $8.25 million. The land has been combined with an adjacent parking lot and is now being marketed as a development site.
Norms Westwood opened in 1969, replacing the Rancho Car Wash and a Shell gas station dating to 1957. It was probably the 15th location of the chain that Norm Roybark started in Hollywood in 1949. Today there are 18 restaurants stretching from to Van Nuys to Riverside.
Most of the Norms locations built in the 1950s (including La Cienega, Huntington Park, and a former store in Inglewood) were designed by architects Armet & Davis and became icons of the googie style, an exuberant movement defined by open, lively spaces under bold roofs. The architecture was meant to catch the eye of drivers and entice them to stop for a sizzling top sirloin priced at $1.49.
In the 1960s, roadside architecture became a lot quieter. Designers still wanted to catch eyes, but they used more natural-looking materials and recessed buildings into the landscape. David Jacobson, a lesser-known architect who built a lot of quiet-looking office and commercial buildings, designed the Norms on Pico with heavily textured blocks, smaller windows, and an unusual latticework pagoda-type structure on the roof. The task of creating a coffee shop (and giant neon sign) with such an oversized reputation must have rubbed off on him.
A decade later, with offices in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, Jacobson became an expert in the design of casinos, adding crystal, mirrors, brass, and chrome to gambling halls in Nevada and New Jersey. “You wouldn’t make a casino look like a bank, Jacobson told the Los Angeles Times in 1979. “A casino is more playful: it’s supposed to beckon to you, to look like a place to have fun”—exactly like a good coffee shop.
“I don’t know if the Norms on Pico has the same architectural pedigree or constituency to protest,” Roderick wrote for LAObserved. It probably does not. Architectural historians have not yet examined Jacobson’s California buildings. Preservationists have to pick and choose their battles and will probably not act on behalf of this building. Jacobson’s body of work is mostly unknown and destined to be forgotten, except perhaps by the most dedicated casino enthusiasts.
Coffee shops have become cultural institutions and something will be lost when the generations of regulars at the Westwood Norms have no place to go. The neighborhood will change when it no longer attracts the mixed clientele drawn to Norms. “We have the blue collar workers, white collar workers with ties getting a quick lunch, ethnic diversity at every table,” Norms’s new owner Mike Colonna told me last year. “We get late night millennials, and our base of baby boomers.” The listing for the property touts the neighborhood’s “new apartment and retail developments” in a “highly desirable” area with “excellent demographics.” That’s all fine and good, but there’s also got to be a place for the demographic that continues to search for a six-dollar breakfast in the middle of the night.