What We Talk About When We Talk About 11th-Hour Preservation

My friend Wes was talking about a burger joint. Wes is from Texas, so sometimes that gives him the right.

The Beef Burger Barrel, a barrel-shaped hunk of roadside architecture in Amarillo, closed last month after 60-odd years of hamburger heaven.

"It wasn't beloved until everyone heard it was closing," Wes told me. The Barrel started out selling A&W root beer on Route 66 in the 1930s and was rolled later to a less-traveled part of town. Now locals are trying to find a way to reopen Amarillo's quirkiest building.

Ain't it always the way? They're called 11th-hour preservationists, and their story goes something like this: White elephant languishes, city council votes to demolish it, and boom, you've got a crowd of protestors who fight until it goes down. Too little, too late.

Sometimes, though, a demolition can effect change.

In southern California, for example, someone demolished a 50-year-old Googie-style drive-in restaurant without a permit in January. Seems the owner wanted to build a mini-mall on the site of Johnie's Broiler, but the city of Downey, Calif., rejected his plan as incomplete in November. Somehow site-clearing began anyway. City officials were hopping mad, even suggesting jail time for the owner.

"It's easier to say you're sorry than ask permission," Scott Pomrehn, assistant city manager, told me. "It's the cost of doing business for some companies. The city council is not going to stand for that."

So a few weeks ago the council imposed an 11-month moratorium on building on the site, a "scorched-earth policy," Pomrehn says. Now the LA Conservancy's Modern Committee is trying to find an investor to rebuild the diner, the backdrop for films like Reality Bites and Short Cuts (note Raymond Carver theme here).

Downey, by the way, is the home of the oldest surviving McDonald's (1953). And Taco Bell (1962). The capital of fast-food history might make history itself by making an example of the guy who tore down an empty restaurant. At the very least, city officials want to rebuild Johnie's Broiler just to make a point.

Now I'm not saying I want to see anyone in an orange suit because he demolished a burger joint, but Downey's take-no-prisoners reaction might make the next guy think before he revs up the bulldozer.

Margaret Foster is the editor of Preservation Online.


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