You may not already know the term Programmatic Architecture, or its other names, Roadside Vernacular or Mimetic. But you know it when you see it. All over California, and other places to be sure, there have been buildings shaped like elephants, dogs, ice cream cones, body parts, or the big donut you see above. There can be no mistaking these buildings for the cube across the street. Such structures flourished during the 1920s and '30s in California, and since they are buildings, they lasted a long time, often becoming landmarks. Jim Heimann grew up near Los Angeles in the 1950s and was quite impressed with these buildings, although he didn't come across the term Programmatic Architecture until around the time he graduated from college. A magazine article revived his childhood interest, and he hasn't looked back.
Over the next few years, Heimann began researching Programmatic Architecture in earnest. To that end, he became a regular at the Rose Bowl flea market and other local swap meets, an activity he pursued diligently over the next 50 years, only coming home empty-handed twice. At the Rose Bowl, Heimann occasionally found a snapshot of an example of Programmatic Architecture, but he found hundreds of match covers, postcards, menus, and other paper ephemera for places like the Brown Derby, Tam O’Shanter, Pig Stand, Toed Inn, Giant Orange, and Big Cone, which was a building in the shape of a giant ice cream cone turned upside down. The match covers, in particular, were instrumental in finding addresses and locations for various structures. The flea markets led to postcard shows and antiquarian book fairs, where additional material was collected. In this way, Heimann built one of most impressive private collections of photographs and ephemera in California, if not the world.
Heimann became an expert in such buildings, and has written three books with titles containing the phrase "California Crazy." His research, his ephemera collection, and his general knowledge of those buildings are important as they continue to be demolished in favor of cubes that can be rented to any kind of business. Heimann tells us the short version of the history of Programmatic Architecture, or buildings that are shaped like things at Collectors Weekly. The article includes a short documentary on Heimann's work.