Sunday, June 16, 2013

Tiki Modern

Humphrey's Restaurant
Humphrey's on Shelter Island in San Diego. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Tiki is a sub-culture of the Modernist era (1930s through the 70s) which really exploded in popularity with the return of many GIs who'd experienced Polynesian and Asian culture for the first time while fighting WWII in the Pacific theater, and fueled by popular novels and movies like South Pacific

Tiki Refuge
An example of authentic Polynesian culture, the Pu'uhonua o Honaunau refuge on the island of Hawaii.
Photo ©Darren Bradley
Of course, Tiki culture has very little to do with authentic Polynesian culture. It's a pop culture and a hodge-podge of iconic symbols borrowed from different regions and peoples, and also largely invented by the imagination of many people who'd never set foot there and didn't understand it. 
Tropical Drinks
The Tiki Ti has been Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles since 1961. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Don the Beachcomber
Interior of Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach, CA. Photo ©Darren Bradley
At one time, it seemed like every city and town in America had a tiki-themed bar or restaurant, complete with tropical decor, carved wooden statues, and wahines in sarongs serving flaming cocktails and Americanized Chinese food served up on pu pu platters. 
Harris Imperial House
Harris' Imperial House in Pompano Beach, FL (torn down). Photo ©James Forney
Tiki-style design even began to seep into housing tracts...
Tiki Tract Homes
Tiki-themed tract home in Clairemont Mesa, San Diego, CA. Photo ©Darren Bradley
... and churches...
Fletcher Hills Presbyterian Church
Fletcher Hills Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA by Robert des Lauriers (1968). Photo ©Darren Bradley
... and even non-Tiki restaurants... 
Coffee Dan's
Coffee Dan's Restaurant by William Krisel in Van Nuys, CA (1957), now demolished.
Photo by Julius Shulman, courtesy of the archives of William Krisel, Getty Research Institute, used with permission.
But like all trends, this one too eventually fell out of favor. It was largely reviled in the 60s and 70s by the more sophisticated crowd, and the younger generations who saw it as a symbol of ignorance and decadence in American culture. By the mid-80s, nearly all Tiki-themed bars, restaurants, amusement parks, etc. had either been torn down or disfigured beyond recognition. 

Today, while there is a strong revival and appreciation for Tiki culture, most people still consider it to be an embarrassing remnant of a time best left forgotten. Even many modernist preservationists tend to ignore or snub Tiki architecture. 

This bland, ugly strip mall is what is currently at the corner where that Coffee Dan's restaurant once stood:
Current View
Photo from Google Maps.
I guess we needed another parking lot and 7-11 more than we needed a beautiful, wooden A-frame building. 

But there are still pockets of Tiki architecture that developers seem to have forgotten about. They have remained preserved like time capsules. San Diego's Shelter Island is one such example, and is probably one of the largest collections of existing Tiki culture still in existence. 
Aloha E Komo Mai
Trader Mort's Liquor Store has been greeting visitors at the entrance to Shelter Island since the early 1960s.
Photo ©Darren Bradley
Half Moon Inn
The Half Moon Inn with its dramatic porte-cochere was built in 1960. Photo ©Darren Bradley

This wonderfully preserved time capsule that is the "Tiki Colony" on San Diego's Shelter Island includes a couple of dozen buildings from the late 1950s and early 1960s.  
Tiki Modern
A boat rental agency on Shelter Island. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Office Building
Office building and retail center on Shelter Island by Robert J. Platt. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Stan Miller Yachts
A yacht dealership on Shelter Island with a classic A-frame structure. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Shelter Island Inn
The Shelter Island Inn is now a Best Western. It features a recent addition that is, of course, Spanish Colonial in style. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Shelter Island Inn
Interior atrium of the Shelter Island Inn. The Tiki statues that once adorned this fountain and pond have been replaced by Balinese sculptures. More "classy", I guess. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The crown jewel of Shelter Island's Tiki collection, the Bali Hai Restaurant, recently underwent a complete remodel by the late architect Graham Downes. In the course of the remodel, the building lost some of its "tiki-ness" on the exterior - including an A-frame structure on the left side. But the iconic "goof" remains on the roof and "Mr. Bali Hai" still greets guests at the entrance. And the interior looks better and more Tiki than ever before. 
Bali Hai
Newly remodeled Bali Hai Restaurant. The original structure dates to 1955. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Unfortunately, even this unique enclave of Tiki architecture and culture is now threatened. The Port District of San Diego owns Shelter Island, and most of the structures on it. That's been one of the reasons so many of them are still intact today. The buildings are leased from the Port. But the current commissioners of the Port District see an opportunity for development of this piece of prime San Diego real estate. And they also have a complete disregard/disdain for Tiki, which they see as "dated" and "not consistent with the Point Loma style" (which they see as Streamline Moderne and Spanish Colonial). 

So many of the leaseholders have been informed by the Port District that their buildings are slated for demolition, and have been encouraged not to spend any more money on upkeep. The buildings are falling into disrepair. 

Several have already succumbed to the wrecking ball, including the Silver Gate Yacht Club (below), which is being replaced by a two-storey "contemporary" building with lots of stucco (at least it's not Spanish colonial). 
Silver Gate Yacht Club
The original Silver Gate Yacht Club, by Robert J. Platt (1962), has now been razed for a much larger building.
I took this photo peering over the fence, the day before demolition. Photo ©Darren Bradley.
If you care at all about what happens to this treasure of Tiki architecture, I would encourage you to express your feelings to the San Diego Port Commission. 

I would also encourage you to check out an article coming out in the upcoming Fall 2013 issue of the Journal of the Society for Commercial Archeology. My good friend Heather David and I collaborated on this piece (and by "collaborated", I mean that I suggested the idea and provided some photos and a tour of the place, and she did all of the actual research, writing, and other hard work). It's a great article and worth a read, so please take a look when it comes out! 


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