Photo: Roadsidepictures, Flickr
Architectural preservation goes through various stages. In 1959, New York's glorious Pennsylvania Station, which was modeled after the Bath of Caracalla in ancient Rome, was ingloriously torn down to make way for what could best be described as a sub-par sports arena and bland office tower -- an act of cultural vandalism of the highest order. Some 50 years later, the idea of tearing down the magnificent Beaux-Arts hulk that if Grand Central Terminal, just across town, would be unthinkable. In fact, Grand Central now sports a market that is chock-a-block with stalls representing some of the finest purveyors in Manhattan, including Murray's Cheese, Penzey's Spices, and Wild Edibles.
But what about a golden arch? Or, to get right to the icon in question, a retro coffee shop that just happens to symbolize the free-wheeling car culture of the Fifties and Sixties, when America was at the top of its game. Would that be worth preserving? The city of Portland isn't sure.
The place in question, now the Galaxy Restaurant, is not especially distinguished, but it opened as the city's first Denny's, in 1963. Preservationists argue: "Why tear it down to replace it with another restaurant?" Others don't see why it's such a big deal. But, hey, it's an example of Googie Architecture, a term I'd never heard of (have you?) but discovered I know only too well what it meant: that irresistible, outrageous Fifties style full of arches, angles and vaguely Deco design, heavy on colors like turquoise and pink -- poodle skirt rendered in concrete. It seems that Seattle landmarked its original Denny's, but under very different circumstances, ones so complicated they're hard to follow but ultimately bring up the point that Portland's Denny's might not be that much of a retro jewel in the first place. Still, this is a tough call, and depends on your point of view.
Tearing down a Denny's isn't going to destroy America's retro culinary culture (that's mostly been done already). But let's fast-forward for a moment to the raising of a grand food market that did exactly that, destroyed the historical heart of one of the greatest city's in the world, ripping out a piece of its soul. Like an amputee with an artificial limb, Paris has never fully recovered from the damage done by tearing down the centuries-old Les Halles market, with its lattice-work pavilions where trucks used to unload produce and goods from all over the country in the middle of the night, spawning a de facto café culture of after-midnight supers with onion soup and platters of pig's feat that disappeared in a flash exactly 40 years ago. Today, Les Halles is a dreary concrete wasteland with a cheerless underground shopping mall surrounded by fast-food joints and T-shirt shops.
Preservation is always a tricky call. Saving a Denny's isn't going to change Portland they way the demise of Les Halles affected Paris. And maybe it would be nice to ponder the idea of paving over every strip-mall that blots our highways on the edge of every city and town in America. But what about the old car-hop restaurants? As a teenager growing up in suburban St. Louis, we used to cruise back-and-forth between the Parkmour, Steak 'n Shake and, St. Louis being a beer-loving German city, a place called Schneithorst's -- places that younger generations came to know in such films as American Graffiti. (Steak 'n Shake, a big Midwestern chain, and Schneihorst's, by the way, are still there, sans the curbside service.) And what about the great drive-in theaters where on-screen adverts between movies urged everyone to get out their cars and get to the refreshment stand for burgers, popcorn and hot dogs slathered with mustard and dripping with grease? Who ever wanted to lose them? (All that remains of one of my favorites, the Skyway, in Greenport, NY, is the roadside marquee, now used by its new owners, St Peter's Lutheran Church, to post light-hearted, and often rye, religious messages to be enjoyed by all passers-by, regardless of affiliation. Bless them for preserving that sign, a priceless chunk of bygone Americana.)
So be careful, America. A Denny's is a Denny's is a Denny's. Just make sure the road to ruin doesn't start outside its doors and lead -- maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually -- to a disaster like Les Halles.