188 - Fast Food and Radical Rooflines: Helen Fong Shapes Los Angeles Coffee Shops

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Helen Fong, one of the few women practicing architecture in the US in the 1950s, is best known for her “Googie” California coffee shop architectural style. Pann’s Coffee Shop, Denny's, Bob's Big Boy— those bold, iconic, futuristic restaurants of the 1950s and 60s— there are thousands of them, not just in Los Angeles, where they were born, but across the country. These family restaurants are core to how America defined itself after World War II. Cars, families, space flight, modernism....the new world order. Pioneering architect Helen Fong helped define that futuristic look.

Helen Fong was born in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1927. One of five children she grew up working in the family’s laundry business. In 1949 she received a degree in city planning from UC Berkeley, moved back to Los Angeles and got her first job working as a secretary for architect Eugene Choy. Two years later, she began working for Armet and Davis, well known for its work in the “Googie” architectural style.

Modern, wild, whimsical—some of Fong’s most famous projects include Pann’s Restaurant, Johnie’s Coffee Shop, and Holiday Bowl, created to catch the eye of America’s fast growing car culture of the 1950s and 60s.

This story was produced by New Angle: Voice of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation with host Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, AIA. Podcast production by Brandi Howell.

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