013. Lomo Featured Project: La Villa Basque. Introducing Endangered Lomo.
by James Black.
La Villa Basque is a sprawler, comprising coffee shop, restaurant, bar, and banquet hall in one big boxy building. Named in honor of the Basque heritage of City of Vernon founding father John Leonis, La Villa Basque was built by his grandson, owner Leonis Malburg, next door to the Leonis Malburg Building at the corner of Soto and Leonis Boulevard. According to one source, when it opened in 1960 it was the only restaurant in the city of Vernon, a fascinating municipality-as-tax-dodge right next to downtown Los Angeles that gobbles up a good portion of the metropolitan area’s industrial tax base. The evocatively named Leonis Malburg was mayor of Vernon from 1974 until 2009, until he resigned the office shortly before his conviction on corruption charges.
What unspeakably seedy dealings must have transpired within the walls of La Villa Basque! Its design provides a unique insight into the mind of Malburg, who liked it enough to keep it essentially unmodified for fifty years. Whereas men of lesser means might have a basement to serve as their man cave, Malburg maintained this entire restaurant/bar/banquet center for his personal and business use, and it is a tremendously masculine place, “swinging” in a rat-pack, and not a 1970s, sense of the term. I am speculating a little here, but this is the story that I infer when I read the architecture. Seeing La Villa Basque makes me like the convicted Malburg more, because his restaurant is so endearing.
As a piece of architecture, La Villa Basque is not in the same league as the masterworks of the Googie coffee shop designers, who usually succeeded at achieving some level of daring or original structural configuration. LVB, on the contrary, is structurally a boring one-story square box; its decoration is where it shines. The “La Villa Basque” channel letter sign on the wall facing the street corner is a beautiful early 1960s typographic expression, full-on Jaunty.
This sign exemplifies two of the basic principles of the Jaunty Tendency as exercised in typography: the letters are staggered up and down from their baseline; and their baseline slants upwards. They seem to dance playfully across that concrete panel. The thing that looks like a Googie swastika is a “Lauburu,” or Basque cross, a symbol that represents Life. It is nicely positioned with respect to the channel letters.
A group of friends and I visited La Villa Basque for the first time on the evening of February 25, 2011, shortly after the Los Angeles Conservancy announced that la Villa Basque is officially on “preservation alert”; of course I couldn’t resist once I saw the photos. New management intends to update the place with a new look and new identity. La Villa Basque, sadly, is slated to become “Vivere”. I would urge the new management not to do this thing, and in particular to retain the “La Villa Basque” signage.The new management does claim to have sympathy with the look of the place and say they are making only the updates that are necessary. This means that you should go see it as soon as possible.
It is not my intent that the Lower Modernisms project be a preservationist organ – such a mission would contaminate my objectivity as well as engender fun-killing earnestness, so I shall be forced to pursue my conservation goals elsewhere.
To describe a project as “Endangered Lomo” is nearly a redundant statement. Living in danger is the status quo for the Lower Modernisms. The degree to which a building is a candidate for preservation is an index of its acceptance as legitimate architecture, and therefore recognition on the part of a preservationist movement represents a disqualification from the canon proper of the Lower Modernisms. This constant state of endangerment just makes the LoMos more awesome, as is the case with most forms of danger. The content of that danger is irrelevant – whether it is vapid extreme sports or heroic acts of political revolution, defying death is bad-ass. The true Lower Modernist architecture sleeps with a switchblade balled up in its fist, steeling itself for what it knows is coming.
Next to the entrance to the coffee shop from the eastside parking lot are this series of superthin concrete canopies, offset in elevation. One of these thin slabs is perforated with trapezoids through which the branches of a pine tree grow, out of a planter built from “flagcrete”, a classic Lomo material: a masonry construction of rough-cast, solid concrete slabs designed to resemble flagstones. This image illustrates the ways in which La Villa Basque is a decorator’s architecture – while no expense was spared on materials and fancy touches, LVB remains in its essence a decorated box.
At the coffee shop’s service entrance out back, a volume is composed of masonry units stacked in a random pattern made up of four different sizes of block. There is a limited number of viable patterns for stacking masonry, but this is the first time I have encountered this one. Dogged pursuit of the Intentional Random is another habit of the Jaunty Tendency.
The trianguloid shapes left over in parking lots with angled stalls are in the parking-lot design trade nicknamed “pork chops”. This one protects the stair at the low-slung parking garage behind the Leonis Malburg Building with some excellent Palm specimens.
Don’t get the bends, these interior shots were taken at nighttime.
The coffee shop interior, still and empty, looks like something from a museum of defunct American culture, or perhaps a scene from a zombie movie where everything is too quiet until somebody comes to eat your brain. It is well preserved. Warm color tones dominate. The angled shape of the soffit over the counter is echoed by the hourglass-section of the wall panels behind. The contrasting texture and color of the panels in the soffit, the perforated light fixtures, the stools cantilevered from the counter curb, the glued-on acoustic ceiling panels – this room is all classic Googie in style and detailing, but it’s Googie in a box, bereft of the True Googie’s soaring rooflines and expanses of glass tearing down the barriers between inside and outside.
Past the coffee shop lies the restaurant’s dining room. On the night we visited, it was as empty and forlorn as the coffee shop, but it is a classy room, its large space deftly broken up into smaller scale by the ostentatious chandeliers and wood roof beams that might be purely cosmetic, as they do not align with the columns in the walls, but there is no telling.
Past the dining room is a main foyer at the Leonis Boulevard entrance, where visitors are greeted by what would be the maitre’d’s desk. The materials here are dark, earthy, sumptuous and masculine. The textures are rich but varied. The glossy terrazzo contrasts with the black-painted flagcrete wall and extra-bumpy cement plaster ceiling. These sound-absorbing materials and the sectional variation of the spaces create cozy and appealing areas within the larger open space of La Villa Basque. The angled ceiling soffits make shapes in the room. This is where LVB starts to get really awesome.
The bar proper is the culmination of this Googie-meets-Playboy aesthetic, and it is a wonderful room. A scene from TV’s Mad Men was filmed in this room, as I learned in the article on La Villa Basque in the March 24, 2011, Los Angeles Times, in a rare and unexpected case of my being scooped on a Lomo story by the mainstream media.
There is a great and rare variety of rich materials and tactics employed to make this room. The leatherette booths and padded button-tuck bar are matched in comfort by the club chairs. The walls beyond, decorated with Basque-izing coats of arms, are covered in a coarse woven fabric of red hue. The acoustic-tiled ceiling with its faux-or-real wood beams is a background for two angled soffits that delineate figural shapes within the room – a perimeter soffit of heavy-textured plaster that jaggedly defines the zone of the perimeter booths, and a central soffit that follows the line of the bar. This soffit, painted black, alternates flat panels with tight ribs little more than one inch on-center. All of these bumpy and sound-absorbing materials create an environment that feels private and congenial despite its expansiveness, a perfect place for conducting business and/or pleasure for the Modern Political Machine Boss cum Playboy.
The black-painted flagcrete with its rich and craggy texture also makes a fantastic backdrop for La Villa Basque’s special wall sconce fixtures. This medievalizing lamp in the foyer makes effective use of expanded metal.
Around the bend on the way to the washrooms is this linear strip fixture with a wood veneer front bent into a kind of boomerang profile, bringing the best out of that rich flagcrete wall.
I like your blog – wonderful pictures. Have you considered riding the next city east of Vernon to the City of Commerce and check out Steven’s Steakhouse?
Thanks, Elisabeth! Great suggestion, I think that Steven’s will be worth a visit. I have only seen the outside.
I’m going to have to spend some time trawling the wealth of tasty content on your blog.
Stevens has been an integral part of the community in the City of Commerce, I think still family-owned. A handful of years ago it was very active with salsa dancing; and Friday and Saturday nights were loud and bustling. Nearby in the 1950s into the early 60s was the Great Western Exhibition Center, filled with livestock pens.
Just discovered this today. Will be reading more soon. Thanks!
I’ve never heard the term “Lower Modernism,” but it really does apply in some instances. I don’t find the term demeaning. It seems to describe a style that incorporated the elements of Modernism in a more casual, swingin’ 70s sort of way.
During the mid 70’s I had the good fortune to eat many meals at the ‘Villa’ whoch is how people who frequented called it. I cannot recall the names of any of the dishes, I only remember that this was a very swanky and stylish place and the food was always delicious and the staff and service stands out in my memory.
Most as I recall the patrons were management and executive types from in and around Vernon. It was also a very private sort of atmosphere and had an air of mystery and intrigue. Anyone who knew anything was aware that the City of Vernon was as crooked and corrupt as possible. However there was enough money floating around to keep a lid on the many financial and political shenanigans many of which were hatched and grew to fruition at “La Villa Basque”
I worked about 2 miles North on Soto St. and it was always enjoyable to be able to take a long late lunch that everyone knew no one was going to return from. The bartenders had very strong wrists and never put their thumb on the vent of the pouring spout.
As a side thought talking about a great old place which was closer to where I live was Woody and Eddy’s Bar many people thought it was in San Marino but it was actually in San Gabriel because San Marino was a dry town. The posh San Marino folks needed a watering hole so one was built right across the street from the city limits. We alwayas joked if you saw a man in Wood and Eddy’s wearing deck shoes it wasn’t because he was a poor dresser but that he just got off his yacht. Woody and Eddy’s is now a strip mall with a Starbucks
Anyone remember the King’s Arms in Toluca Lake or the Queen’s Arms in Encino?
I wonder if when I’m ready for my last good meal in a great old restaurant there will be one left.
Thank You for your interesting site.
I’d like to comment on the sign. The offset sign letters have what’s called a “Bounce” in sign man’s jargon (I know a few, and am myself an artist who uses a lot of lettering in my work). I’d call the letters more accurately “Gothic” but they have fluted serifs albeit inconsistently. It looks to me what is called a “Brother-in Law” design in the sign painting practice due to it’s poor, amateur-looking design.
What I’m missing here is a revue of the food there.
I once was co-publisher in the Eighties and Nineties of a small zine called Lounge Los Angeles and we not only reviewed the architecture and design of Mid-Century restaurants in Los Angeles (and County) but the food of different cuisines as well. I’ve observed that the greatest number of Roadside design fans don’t often spend money (if so, not much)in these places; money which would otherwise help sustain a well-designed but endangered institution.
Thanks for your comments – I would be glad to learn more signman’s jargon!
I agree with you about the value of supporting as a customer the businesses that one admires. In the majority of my posts on restaurants I have mentioned the food or included a photo, but in the case of Villa Basque’s food, I followed the policy of having nothing nice to say and saying nothing at all. I visited LVB with a group of about 10 friends for cocktails and dinner:
Given the quality of the food and the unfortunate remodeling that they undertook shortly after my visit, I probably won’t be returning.