rejectomorph (flying_blind) wrote,


Note: I began this as a reply to a comment on my previous post, but the reply grew rather large and filled up with links so I'm posting it as an entry.

Van de Kamp's loomed very large in the landscape for a few generations of Southern Californians, but I think it has vanished altogether now. The company began as a potato chip stand in Los Angeles in 1915. They'd branched into baked goods by 1920 and opened their first counter restaurant, on Spring Street in the downtown financial district, by 1921.

The same year they acquired a small building which, according to local legend, had originally been built as a set for a movie, and installed in it their first "Dutch Windmill" style bakery shop, at the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Western Avenue. The style proved effective at attracting customers, and the company began building windmill style retail shops all over town. Here's a picture of one of the more ornate branches, located a couple of miles east of downtown Pasadena. This branch included a good sized restaurant along with the more common retail bakery shop, and was still in operation in the early 1960s when I was going to school nearby.

By 1930, the company had been so successful that they opened a big new baking plant a few miles north of downtown, near Glendale. This plant was almost demolished a couple of years ago, but preservationists and neighborhood activists managed to convince the Los Angeles Community College District that the plant would be a good location for a satelite campus for LACC, and so the main building has been saved.

The Van de Kamp's company name still exists, as a division of Pinnacle Foods, making frozen seafood products. Van de Kamp's restaurants and coffee shops were known for their halibut dinners even back in the 1920s, so it's a fitting fate I suppose.

But it's a bit sad for Angelenos of a certain age that the big, neon-lined windmills (that one was on a mid-1940s drive-in restaurant near the company headquarters, expanded from an older bakery outlet and designed by architect Wayne McAllister) no longer loom on streetcorners, and the smaller windmill signs no longer appear on the facades of local markets which had Van de Kamp's Bakery outlets in them. The bakery outlets themselves had vanished by the mid 1960s, as the company retreated from retailing and concentrated more on its restauarants and its mass-production baked goods and frozen food wholesale distribution.

I have a vague memory from early childhood of having seen the bakery saleswomen dressed in the Dutch costume the company adopted early in its history, and I think the waitresses in the restaurants wore something similar into the last days. I can't remeber when the last retaurant closed, but I know the main bakery was closed in 1989, and the company filed for bankruptcy in 1990. As recently as 1951, the company had been so flush that they could hire noted architect Welton Becket to design a big new restaurant with stylized windmill sign on Wilshire Boulevard's fashionable Miracle Mile, a stone's through from Ohrbach's and Coulter's department stores (those companies both gone now, too.)

Even into the 1960s, the restaurant chain was expanding, with a new design that featured a folded white concrete roof reminiscent of the starched white hats the waitresses wore. One of these late buildings, with its windmill atop it, still stands at Huntington Drive and Santa Anita Avenue in Arcadia, though it now houses a Denny's coffee shop. All told, Van de Kamp's lasted about 75 years as an independent company. Things come and go quickly in Los Angeles, so that's actually a long time by local standards. Offhand, I can't think of any L.A. company famous when I was a kid that is still around. The Los Angeles of my childhood wasn't wiped out by earthquake and fire, but it doesn't exist much more than does the old San Francisco which was largely consumed in 1906. L.A. is a do-it-yourself disaster.

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