From the Big Donut to the Giant Orange

Taschen’s new book California Crazy documents the state’s legacy of bizarre roadside buildings, fuelled by Hollywood’s anything goes philosophy

During the early 20th century, peculiar pieces of architecture sprung up across California which, under the influence of the movie industry, was “a perfect incubator for the outrageous and amazing”.

With locals rejecting convention, many businesses constructed fabulously weird buildings – selling chilli dogs from a giant dog, ice cream from an oversized owl, and tights from a store topped by an enormous disembodied leg. And it didn’t stop at huge recreations. Others invested in massive signs and statues, or added lavish details reminiscent of bygone architectural styles.

“California was not only ripe for programmatic architecture but provided a template that emboldened people in other states and countries to thumb their noses at the status quo and build the impossible—or at least the highly improbable,” says author Jim Heimann.

The author traces the roots of these architectural oddities back to director DW Griffith, whose Bablyonia set, placed in the streets of Hollywood, “set the tone of the intrusion of Hollywood fantasy on the urban landscape”.

Business owners keen to attract the attention of passing cars hired movie set builders to create far-fetched, and often absurd, roadside structures. An influx of new arrivals to the state also meant architectural heritage from around the world was brought together, and developers were happy to experiment. In 1934 Fortune magazine dubbed California “the land of the bizarre” for its burgeoning set of weird buildings.

Heimann’s book delves into the phenomenon, exploring some of the stories behind the most idiosyncratic structures – many of which have since been demolished, having been dismissed as “a blight on the landscape” by architectural critics.

Images have been painstakingly sourced through long searches of newspaper microfilm, and stories retrieved from the last remaining building owners – including the tale of the failed hooting owl ice cream stall, which languished at a rubber plant for 50 years, and the Hollywood Flower Pot, which was converted into a one-room home.
“These stories are evaporating and historical importance of the structures is in constant flux,” concludes Heimann. “New buildings continue to rise, carrying on the tradition with a twist, but once a structure is demolished it often is only recalled in the pages of a book.”