There’s a strange landmark in Huntington Beach, CA: a black granite tombstone at Springdale Street and Warner Avenue, in the bushes behind the ARCO station. Its text reads: “In recognition of Lloyd Wright’s 94-foot-high sign tower that was to have been erected on this spot. Its defeat is symbolic of the democratic process in which we live. The people did not wish this sign tower to be erected as they felt it was not needed and would blight their community. Their wishes were heard and adhered to by the developer, Stanley Fann. 1970″
A sign tower? Lloyd Wright, (aka Frank Lloyd Wright Jr.), son of arguably our country’s most famous architect, and designer of the Hollywood Bowl and Wayfarers Chapel in Palos Verdes, among other Southern California treasures – here?
From the June 8, 1969, Los Angeles Times: “A shopping center … will be constructed on the northwest corner of Springdale and Warner Sts., Huntington Beach, with completion scheduled for late 1969 … Designed by architect Lloyd Wright, son of the late Frank Lloyd Wright … Atlantic Richfield Co. will also build a service station, also designed by Wright, on a site at the apex of the center.”
So this wasn’t just a sign tower project? Wright was to have designed the entire center and gas station? I visited the site to investigate. I’ve passed it many times without noticing any details, but now what emerged (blunted by the store signage) were unique geometric shapes, angles and other nuances that seemed suspiciously – Wright-ous. Could it be?
Does anybody know the story of this landmark?
Meanwhile, up near L.A., performance artist Patrick Tierney coincidentally did a web search on the shopping center. About 25 years ago, Tierney, an avid architect student with a keen interest in Lloyd Wright, had found the tombstone, too. Now, he checked occasionally to see if the landmark beguiled anyone else out in the universe. Stunned, he found my posting. He sent a response saying he had the story. Pay dirt.
Several days later, Tierney explained how a friend showed him the marker and how it set him off on a quest. After years, he tracked down the center’s developer, Stanley Fann. Amazingly, Tierney was able to procure from Fann the architectural renderings of the “Westfair” center, as it was called. He treasures these plans, he said. After all, Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. designed them.
It was true. Both the center and the ARCO station were Wright’s.
As for the tower, Tierney explained that locals vehemently protested the idea of a 94-foot behemoth in their neighborhood, thwarting the plans of the great architect. The tombstone was placed, in Tierney’s words, as “A 500-pound, permanent proclamation of victory of the People’s will over art – a landmark stealing the same spot of earth where Wright’s landmark would’ve stood.”
Tierney’s assessment of Westfair is impressive. “There are several giveaway gestures that ring of (Wright’s) influence. The center breezeway connecting the parking on both sides of the building. Then there are the telltale patterned staccato rows of ‘Wright kite forms’ (30-degree by 60-degree diamond forms) I call them, perching like gargoyle geo-solids on the roof edges, and serving as the center’s leitmotif. Wright loved the 30-degree by 60-degree diamond shape because, he said, those angles are commonly found in nature.”
He adds that despite Wright’s original blueprints being somewhat compromised, the ARCO station is “Still a gem … the custom-fabricated steel wings over the pumps are similar to the cantilevers on many of his residential projects and I feel those could have been inspired by his work in the Los Angeles warplane factories during WWII.”
Eventually, Tierney wants to write a long-form piece about the center and organize a walking tour at the site. Of course, he’ll show off his original Wright rendering and a model of the original service station. When he does this, we should all be there.
Years ago, I spoke with 80-year-old Stanley Fann, now deceased, who hired Wright. Back then, Fann confirmed Tierney’s facts, and then some. The tower controversy, as it turns out, was akin to a modern-day range war.
“Folks didn’t want their community disturbed so they fought back hard. Mr. Wright was just looking to create something grand and dramatic to help draw people to the center. And it had a heck of an unusual design.” Fann adds that Wright also desired an ornate fountain, but that it was too expensive. Though he planned on teaming up again with Wright to create another center (at Lakewood Boulevard and Carson Street in Bellflower), the project never materialized, making this the only Wright-designed shopping center. Fann still has the original tower plans, so who knows? Perhaps someday it will find a rightful (and welcome) place here.
And that tombstone? Fann said it illustrates the epic battle between residents and Wright, “Though I still wish the tower had survived,” he said, chuckling.
Eric Lloyd Wright is the architect’s son. Eric, who has his own architectural firm in Malibu, apprenticed for eight years with his grandfather, Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as working with his father on Westfair. He told me he remembers the tower saga well, and that the edifice was deemed too visually overwhelming by the most vocal locals. And despite the challenges of building in a marshy area, he recalls the positives of the final product. “When Westfair opened, it had a very good look to it, some very nice touches, as did the gas station.”
Westfair may not have reached its own soaring potential. But it is Wright’s. And if you’re ever in the area while traveling, I think it’s worth a visit. See you next week!
Chris Epting is an author, award-winning journalist/photographer and dedicated road tripper. His best-selling books including James Dean Died Here (the locations of America’s pop culture landmarks), Roadside Baseball, and The Birthplace Book, along with many others that remain popular with many travelers and RVers throughout the country and world. He is excited to be contributing to RVTravel.com and looks forward to helping to lead you places you may not have discovered otherwise. You may learn more about Chris at his author’s site, www.chrisepting.com.