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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Photo Essay: A Close Encounter of the 'Jet Age' Kind at LAX

No matter which gate or terminal your airline directs your arriving flight to at LAX, there's something you're sure to see—the Theme Building.


circa 2019

It's at the center of it all at LAX—hovering like a space ship while all the rental car and hotel shuttles and taxis and rideshares encircle it on World Way, bobbing and weaving around the parking structures and the ill-marked exits that simply have you return to the airport instead of heading to your destination.


circa 2019

Situated on an island of sorts between West Way and East Way, the Theme Building is the kind of beacon—day or night—that makes you say "What the heck is that?" and then become obsessed with it. I don't think that's just me. I think it's pretty much everybody.


circa 2019

Completed in 1961 as a joint venture between architects Charles Luckman, William Pereira, Welton Becket, and Paul Revere Williams (though some say Williams has been given more credit than he deserves on this particular project), the "new terminal facilities" were dedicated by none other than Lyndon B. Johnson, the sitting Vice President of the United States at the time (and future POTUS 1963-9).


circa 2019

And the Theme Building was an essential part of the plan to bring LA's international airport into the "Jet Age" with state-of-the-art facilities and a futuristic, Googie vibe.


circa 2019

LAX had come a long way from its first iteration as Mines Field—a mere landing strip built in the late 1920s out of a clearing in the bean and barley fields of the former Mexican land grant, Rancho Aguaje de la Centinela.


circa 2019

And in keeping up with the new jet set, there was no telling what new heights this flight facility could reach.


circa 2019

Also known as the "Theme-and-Arch Building," the LAX spaceship (whose initial design is credited to draftsman James Langenheim of the Pereira-Luckman firm) ultimately became nothing more than a symbolic center of the airport—and not a functional one.


circa 2019

In fact, it's kind of hard to get to on foot, especially with luggage in tow. And there's not much reason to go there if you're not flying in or out of LAX.


circa 2019

There used to be, however, an exception—the circular Encounter Restaurant and Bar.


circa 2019

Encounter closed permanently in December 2013, but its signage persists on the tiled wall outside the (now locked) glass entry doors...


circa 2019

...and outside the elevator that would take you to the top while playing some Star Trek theme-inspired soundtrack (or a copycat version thereof, listen at the bottom of this post).


circa 2015

Standing under those stuccoed arches, encircling the flying saucer like the rings of Saturn, visiting is truly an "out of this world" experience.


circa 2010

I had the foresight to go out of my way to get up in there back in October 2010. Although Encounter had originally opened in 1997, the building itself later needed renovations in 1999 and seismic retrofitting and other structural reinforcements in 2007. It didn't reopen until July 2010.


circa 2010

I was living in NYC at the time but had ramped up my West Coast visits in anticipation of moving here. And after flying back and forth so many times over the course of that year, I just had to visit that UFO-shaped restaurant suspended in the air.


circa 2010

The Jetsons-like interior was accented by the spaceship's exterior lighting design—contributed by Michael Valentino of Disney Imagineering, circa 2000. The lava lamps on the crater-shaped bar were a bit much, as were the laser-beam bar guns and alien beer taps. And the themed menus—except the one for "junior space cadets"—offered cocktails like "The Black Hole" and the "Bossa Supernova."


circa 2010

And at the time, I didn't appreciate that much of the spacey-chic I was witnessing was the work of other Disney imagineers, too—like Eddie Sotto (who designed the textured walls to look like the moon's surface) and Ellen Guevara (who worked with Sotto on the flowing carpet patterns).



But oh, what I wouldn't give to ride that elevator again—and listen to that kooky sci-fi music—and get a good look at all the crazy design elements inside—and watch all the planes taking off and landing on the runways outside.


Encounter website circa 2007 (Screenshot via Internet Archive)

I did actually dine at Encounter one more time—that same year, in fact, when I'd returned to LA to interview for the job that ultimately moved me here. I was staying at a hotel near LAX and my future boss met me at the airport for dinner.

Considering the business nature of our meeting, I didn't get the chance to take any nighttime photos of the Theme Building or its restaurant. But to be honest, I was so obsessed with collecting new experiences from 2010 to 2014 that I didn't really feel the need to go back. I thought I'd been there and done that.

In fact, it didn't occur to me to go back to Encounter ever again—until it was too late.

Nothing has replaced the Encounter Restaurant in the Theme Building, although there's been talk of how it might be reimagined—especially with the success of the newly reopened (and preserved) TWA terminal at JFK. The observation deck is even closed. The only signs of life are the Bob Hope USO operations on the ground level.

So what could be next?

If I had endless amounts of money, I'd try to open a tiki bar there. I'd probably even keep the space theme. Outer space and underwater are strikingly similar sometimes.

Aesthetically, there's not a huge difference between the the bottom of the sea and the surface of the moon.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Retro Digestion in LA's Most Futuristic Restaurant Designs (Updated for 2019)
Photo Essay: The Triforium, A Disco Spaceship Gone Dark

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