Southern California’s Roadside Architecture in All Its Glowing, Midcentury Glory

In the new book ’Gas and Glamour,’ photographer Ashok Sinha celebrates the region’s most wonderful—and functional—architectural oddities
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Text by Chris Nichols ❉ Photography by Ashok Sinha

Ashok Sinha racks up a lot of miles on his rental car when he comes to visit his
family in Los Angeles. For the last four years, the New York-based photographer has been hunting for L.A.’s midcentury roadside architecture and going to great pains to capture the sparkling neon and stucco motels, coffee shops, and gas stations for his new book, Gas and Glamour. “I had this idea of Los Angeles as sort of a dream city,” Sinha says. “In my fantasy, there should be a certain kind of a glow to it. That’s where I got the title.”


The Donut Hole

1968 | La Puente

Ashok Sinha

Everybody loves Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood, but what if the doughnut was even bigger, and you could drive through it? The Donut Hole in La Puente dates back to 1968, a few decades after California first fell in love with programmatic architecture like the Brown Derby and the Tail O’ the Pup. Sinha also captured the enormous beer barrels of the Idle Hour bar in North Hollywood, and the Fleetwood Center in Tarzana, a minimall shaped like the front end of a 1970 Cadillac.


Jack Colker’s Union 76

1965 | Beverly Hills

Ashok Sinha

There has been a gas station on this corner for almost 100 years, but when it got a space-age upgrade in 1965, sales skyrocketed. The eye-catching design was by Gin Wong of William Pereira & Associates, the designers behind CBS Television City and the theme building at LAX. Writer Tom Wolfe described the shape as a “spherical triangle whose swooping lines and upthrust ends reach for the sky.”


McDonald’s

1953 | Downey

Ashok Sinha

Richard and Maurice McDonald had just completed their plans for a food revolution and needed a distinctive and recognizable building that would show it all off. Architect Stanley Clark Meston created an exciting glass fishbowl to showcase all that modern efficiency, wrapped it in festive red and white tile, added a pair of giant golden arches with flashing neon—and a legend was born. The world’s oldest McDonald’s was restored in 1996 and features a museum and gift shop.


Bowlium

1958 | Montclair

Ashok Sinha

This is one of the last survivors from an era when bowling alleys grew ever more lavish as operators competed to build larger and more luxurious complexes. Some midcentury pin palaces had cocktail lounges, fine-dining restaurants, and plush nightclubs that appealed to young couples in the new suburbs, with supervised playrooms for their baby boom kiddos. Bowlium was designed by Long Beach-based Powers, Daly & DeRosa, the undisputed kingpins who reinvented the modern bowling experience.


Saga Motor Hotel

1959 | Pasadena

Ashok Sinha

The baroque script of backlit letters floats in white above the lean and low walls of this sleek roadside lodging built in 1959. Travelers along Route 66 can stop in to enjoy the same giant swimming pool, breeze blocks, and dozens of soaring palms you might see in Palm Springs, plopped down in genteel Pasadena. The motor hotel, by architect Harold Zook, has been designated a Pasadena landmark.


Driftwood Dairy

1961 | El Monte

Ashok Sinha

Drive-in culture didn’t end at movies and restaurants. Midcentury banks, doughnut shops, and even churches allowed you to conduct much of your life from behind the steering wheel. Why trudge to the market to pick up milk when you could glide through the market, which was more of a space-age pavilion, and eager clerks would bring you all the bread, eggs, and ice cream that the milkman forgot? The unique glue-laminated beams create an enormous open span large enough to shield an entire fleet of tail-finned cars from the warm California sun.

Excerpted from the book Gas and Glamour by Ashok Sinha.


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