On February 19th, the second outing of our 2011 Googie Coffee Shops Bicycle Ride Series took us to Mel’s Drive-In, formerly known as Ben Frank’s, at 8585 West Sunset Boulevard on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood.
Ben Frank’s was designed by architects Lane and Schlick and built in 1962. In form it follows neither the standard Googie formal language of Armét and Davis’s coffee shops, nor the traditional feel of the A-frame International House of Pancake restaurants, but rather exhibits a kind of kinky Googiefication of the A-frame.
Alan Hess in Googie succinctly described the overall form and expression of this kinky A-frame:
Ben Frank’s, by Lane and Schlick, built in 1962 not far from the first Googie’s on the Sunset Strip, takes the A-frame structure – popular in 1950s vacation homes and churches – and adapts it to the coffee shop. It injects a forcefully dynamic line first by making the A-frame asymmetrical, and then by breaking the frame’s back at the center, causing it to slant dynamically upward to the front and to the rear. Conspicuous A-frame ribs reinforce the rhythmic design and add a hint of Tiki-style architecture (113).
Mel’s naturally bollocksed it up when they took over and remodeled, as you can see by comparison with this vintage photograph: http://www.charlesphoenix.com/2007/04/ben-franks-los-angeles-1962/ But nevertheless it retains a lot of charm. Alterations include the addition of the awning in the front, extending the window openings at the parking-lot side of the A-frame, and the addition of an attached outbuilding in back. The pylon-shaped sign standard with its radiator-like fins is original.
The dining room is a truly great environment, spacious and dynamic, with pleasant natural daylight thanks to the fully glazed gable-end wall facing south to Sunset Boulevard. A suspended soffit on the east, steeper side of the A-frame enhances the feeling of comfort – it’s the age-old technique of creating a cozier, smaller-scaled space that is ancillary and open to a larger volume. This soffit is supported by the slimmest possible posts, to give it an appearance of floating within the volume. The edge of this soffit is chamfered to give it a thinner aspect, and to complement the angled roof above. The soffit also serves to contain and conceal the mechanical system’s ducts and supply registers.
Despite the unwelcome addition of glass blocks and other retro diner junk, the spare elegance of this space remains. All you see on the Open Ceiling (a counterpart to the modernist Open Plan) are the industrially plain light fixtures, which are unfussy, effective, and cooperate with the A-frame.
The biggest surprise of all at Ben Frank’s was the discovery that the exposed ribs of the A-frame visible from the exterior are actually a load-bearing, tubular-steel frame that literally holds up the building. No beams are visible from the inside, only the wood tongue-and-groove planks that span from frame to frame, and a continuous cleat that connects these planks to the frames above. The super-scaled lap siding on the exterior is supported by these planks.
At first glance, one would have reasonably expected that the tubular steel ribs were purely ornamental, like the ribs atop the backwards-bent mansard of the standard 1970s McDonald’s restaurant. On the contrary, Ben Frank’s incorporates a remarkable and unexpected structural system, a relative of Mies van der Rohe’s use of exposed girders above roof level at Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Can we have more buildings like this one?
Actually, we can’t, which is why McDonald’s turned out to be a far more influential architectural model.