By: Kendall Foreman
At the turn of the 20th century, Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles was nothing more than a dirt road through a barley field, but that all changed when A.W. Ross saw what could be because of the rising accessibility of the automobile. In 1920, Ross purchased the stretch of land following Wilshire Boulevard between what would eventually become La Brea and Fairfax Avenues. By 1939, he had developed that 18-acre area into a shopping district that was nicknamed the “Fifth Avenue of the West.” But, it eventually earned its own moniker: The Miracle Mile.
The ascent of car culture not only brought about the success of The Miracle Mile, but it also gave rise to a type of iconic Los Angeles architecture known as “programmatic architecture.” With this style, the building itself takes on the characteristics and structure of the item that is being sold within. This concept was born out of the idea that a building could serve as a giant, visible form of advertising as cars sped by storefronts. Also known as “California Crazy,” the vernacular design could be seen in places such as Tail O’ the Pup hotdog stand, The Donut Hole, and many others.
Another example of programmatic architecture was designed by architect Marcus P. Miller for a shop on The Miracle Mile. In 1938, the storefront located at 5370 Wilshire Boulevard was covered with sheets of black Vitrolite glass (a staple of 1930s Art Deco architecture); a round porthole window was inserted to resemble a lens; and features were added to look like a shutter speed indicator as well as rangefinders and a winder. These details combined to create a frontage that looked like a 35 millimeter Argus camera, which happened to be what was sold in the shop known as The Darkroom.
“The Darkroom” continued to shine in bright neon above the nine-foot camera façade for many years until it was finally removed and donated the Museum of Neon Art. The store stopped selling cameras decades ago, and has been home to a number of restaurants since then. None of these altered the iconic camera because it is registered as a historic site with the Los Angeles Conservancy. Unfortunately, that does not guarantee that the site will never be demolished, and with the recent sale of the stretch of land to a new developer, the Vitrolite camera could be in danger.
However, there is another place where the legacy of The Darkroom continues.
When guests visit Disney’s Hollywood Studios they are treated to a visual history of Los Angeles and its architecture as they pass down both Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. Combinations of Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, Mission Revival, and Programmatic Architecture line the paths and serve as both shops and dining locations. Some of these are understated homages to Los Angeles relics while others are virtual copies of their predecessors.
One such nearly identical recreation is The Darkroom. The small retail location can be found on the right side (when entering the park) of Hollywood Boulevard. It sits on the corner just past Oscar’s Super Service with the eye-catching camera facing the main thoroughfare. Observant viewers will notice that the camera façade with its glass blocks and neon sign is a spot on copy of the original, but the rest of the corner building looks different from what can still be seen in Los Angeles today. According to the Imagineering Field Guide to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, this is because it was set “into a different commercial building designed by J.R. Horn” that can be found on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Just like the shop that inspired it, the giant camera once served as a clue for guests hurrying past as to what could be found inside. The Walt Disney World version started out life selling cameras and film and offered photo processing, all under the sponsorship of Kodak. But as it did for its forerunner, time marched on, and the need for physical film no longer warranted space in a Disney park. The merchandise location now features a number of pins, MagicBands, and smartphone cases — perhaps these could be considered “camera adjacent” merchandise because phones have effectively replaced cameras for most guests.
Hopefully, both the original Los Angeles façade and the Walt Disney World recreation of The Darkroom will continue to survive as historical examples of Programmatic Architecture in spite of the fact that neither one continues to serve the purpose that gave rise to their architectural style.
Corner photo courtesy of Melanie Whitfield. Other photos from the author’s personal collection.
Kendall has been a member of the WDW Radio Team since 2013. Today, you can read her work on the WDW Radio Blog or hear her join Lou for a number of WDW Radio podcast episodes. Kendall’s affection for Walt Disney World began with her very first family visit in the 1990s and has continued with each magical vacation since. Follow her on Twitter @kl_foreman.