Seymour's Darkroom: Shaped Buildings


In 1976, Seymour Rosen’s photographs were exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. That groundbreaking exhibition, commissioned by SFMOMA as part of their bicentennial celebration, titled “In Celebration of Ourselves,” included over 700 photographs as well as materials from 34 California art environments.


Most of the images and objects on display illustrated events, people, and arts that had never before received museum exposure—including shaped buildings. Rosen later published a book with the same title (1979) that documented the range of works included in that noteworthy exhibition - in this book, Rosen highlights the cultural atmosphere that made these buildings possible.

In the aftermath of the Gold Rush, a period marked by newfound wealth, a curious trend emerged in architecture: buildings shaped like objects. Reflecting the spirit of innovation of the era, these structures took on whimsical forms, ranging from giant fruits to oversized animals. Each building served as a testament to the creativity of its time, capturing the imagination of passersby and embodying the aspirations of a society on the cusp of modernity and bolstering the fantastic stories of paradise created by realtors and others to attract people to the western United States. This trend peaked in the '30s and the decline had less to do with disinterest and more to do with building codes and costs.  


a black and white photo of a bunch of concrete buildings that are shaped like tipis.

Rialto, 1973

California, circa 1970s

A building with an entrance shaped like a piano. the piano is red!

Los Angeles, 1971

World Famous Stump House in Eureka, California.

Hoot Owl Cafe, Long Beach Boulevard in Southgate, CA.

From "@TheFolkArchive"

Hoot Owl Cafe, 8711 Long Beach Boulevard, Long Beach, California.

‘The head rotated; the eyes, made from Buick headlamps, blinked; the sign: Hoot hoot, I scream, used elements of a theater marquee. For over 50 years, Tillie Hattrup ran this L.A.-area refreshment spot designed and built by her husband, Roy in 1926-27. It was demolished in 1979.’


La Puente, 1975.

From the LA Conservancy

"Designed by an unknown genius person, the shop is a wood-and-stucco one-story commercial building split into two halves with a driveway in the middle, bracketed at each end by an enormous fiberglass donut. The driveway allows customers to drive right through the center to place and pick up their orders, and the donuts obviously serve to advertise the shop’s product while delighting all who pass by.

This store was the second of five Donut Hole locations, but the only one that actually had donuts as part of its architecture. It is perhaps no coincidence that it is the only Donut Hole that survives intact."

"The Tamale" East Los Angeles, 1971.

From Curbed LA: "The Tamale opened in 1928. Shaped in the form of a wrapped Mexican tamal, it served “Spanish delights,” including “hot tamale pies,” along with standard American fare, including hamburgers and malts. It has changed hands (and colors) many times over the decades." 

Bakersfield, CA 1976

Deschwanden's Shoe Repair, also knowns as Bakerfield's Big Shoe, still operates as a shoe repair shop today.


From the iconic roadside diners to the quirky gas stations, these vintage structures not only tell stories of the past but also serve as vital links to our cultural heritage.

Preserving these architectural gems isn't just about maintaining their physical presence; it's about safeguarding the narratives they carry and honoring the pioneering spirit that brought them to life. As we marvel at their unique designs and functionalities, let us also recognize the importance of cherishing and protecting these historic treasures for generations to come, ensuring that their legacy continues to inspire and enrich our lives in the ever-changing landscape of our architectural tapestry.

Post your comment


lillian April 7, 2024

Great article Jen, I saw it as a repost on SCA's weekly newsletter. I used to stop at "Mammoth Orange" in Chowchilla, CA, they made a fresh squeezed lemonade that beat the desert heat!