Cities & Towns

Giant Donuts + Derby Hats: California's Pop-Architecture Gems

Words By Wildsam StaffIllustration by jas mowgood



9 Jan 2024

Reading Time

4 minutes

Novelty Structures in Southern
California Catch Attention

In the early days of roadside culture, California drivers could spot oversized coffee pots or donuts—buildings advertising products in the most literal way. Often called “pop,” “programmatic” or “mimetic architecture”—even “duck buildings”—its heyday ran from the 1920s through ’60s. 

Santa Monica, 1920s

Toed Inn

Frog-shaped, with turned-in toes, this restaurant first loomed in Santa Monica, then moved to Wilshire Boulevard after 1938 flood damage.

West Los Angeles, 1949

Sanderson Hosiery

A 30-foot leg outside a hosiery factory, reminiscent of the lamp from A Christmas Story (though in nude nylons, not fishnets)

Culver City, 1920s

Pup Café

Diners could enter this restaurant by walking under the chin of a droopy-eyed pup, with chili hot dogs and burgers waiting for them. 

Los Angeles, 1920s

Wilshire Coffee Pot

This circular walk-up served Ben-Hur brand coffee from underneath a giant, gleaming pot with handle and spout. 

Further Reading

Jim Heimann’s 2018 book California Crazy charts the history (and whimsy) of the architectural phenomenon.

Los Angeles, 1926

The Brown Derby

Shaped like a derby hat, the restaurant became an emblem for the golden age of Hollywood. Domed structure still survives as part of a Wilshire Boulevard shopping center. 

Los Angeles, 1920s

The Cream Can

Stools lined the open-air perimeter of an oversized cream can that served all things dairy—ice cream, shakes, buttermilk, cottage cheese. 

Los Angeles, 1960s

Tony’s Transmission

Classic example of the “muffler man,” oversized characters made of fiberglass which could hold an object as advertisement.  

Malibu, 1960s

La Salsa Man

Twenty-plus feet tall, this muffler man originally presided over a Frostie Freeze while holding a burger. He stands on, with mustache, sombrero and serape. 

Inglewood, 1953

Big Donut Drive-In/Randy’s Donuts

Giant pocked donut originally from a Big Donut Drive-In now goes by Randy’s—the star of many music videos and films. 

Los Angeles, 1928

 Bull Dog Cafe

Similar in shape to the Pup Cafe, this dog smoked a pipe and sold tamales, barbecue, ham, coffee, ice cream. 


Field Guide

Southern California Coast

Surf town travel, interviews with chefs, marine biologists, and skaters; surf culture history and stories.


Read more like this




Glam Retreats in California’s Low Desert


The Cubbies Hat You'll Cherish Forever