Cultural Heritage Application for Historic Status

Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument Designation Application Felix Chevrolet Showroom & Sign / 3330 South Figueroa Street


by Jim Childs

The Felix the Cat neon sign and Chevrolet showroom at Jefferson and Figueroa are as well known an icon to Southern Californians as our City Hall, Disneyland’s Castle, the Queen Mary or the Hollywood sign. There is hardly a local child, since this landmark Cat sign was installed in 1959, that hasn’t eagerly awaited its magical appearance while traversing the Harbor Freeway. Ask any adult today who grew up in the Southland about Felix the Cat and the majority will first respond with a memory related to the Cat-sign; the animated films or the comic strip character are a distant second.

Over the decades the Felix the Cat sign has welcomed millions of arriving northbound motorists to downtown Los Angeles. It has also served as the last signpost of departure, offering those leaving a whimsical farewell smile. Like the Hollywood-land sign, which was conceived as commercial real estate advertisement, the Felix sign, a graphic pun, was erected simply to enhance automobile sales. Both signs however have transcended their commercial intent and have evolved into part of our cultural landscape and inheritance.

As stated on the “Application-Form” the Architectural Resources Group prepared an evaluation Report of the Felix Chevrolet showroom building and the Felix the Cat sign’s historic significance (see attachment No.04) . The Executive Summary (No.4, page 01) explains that the evaluation was done to determine if the structures qualified as historic resources under Section 15064.5 of the State CEQA Guidelines. Their conclusions were that both the building and the sign meet the level of significance necessary for individual listing on the California Register at the local level.

The report found that the Felix Chevrolet showroom building currently meets California Register Criterion-1 (Events or Patterns of Events) . “For its association with the re-introduction of consumer automobile sales following World War II” and Criterion-3 (Design / Construction) “As a rare local example of a postwar automobile showroom…The Felix the Cat rooftop sign “currently meets California Register Criterion-3, as an individual resource, as an iconic example of 1950’s commercial signage” (N0. 04, page 18) .

Their conclusions were formalized on the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation Form A-L series and assigned a Status Code of 4. This status code indicates a property, which appears eligible for the California Register as an individual property through an evaluation other than a survey and is included in our No. 4 attachment as an attached document “Appendix A”.

The ARG report notes that with respect to Criterion-3 the 1946 alteration “no longer embodies the distinctive characteristics of an early automobile showroom.” but it finds “However the showroom’s characteristic design has historical significance in its own right… The paring of highly modern canted glass showroom with the curvilinear canopy, executed in the tradition of the Streamline Modern style, embodies the basic characteristics of an early postwar automobile showroom” (No.04 page 12) . The evaluation found that “In terms of volume, massing, materials, and other design intent, the building is essentially intact…the automobile showroom and storefront retains sufficient integrity to convey its historic significance, The Felix the Cat rooftop sign is unchanged and retains all aspects of integrity” (No. 04 page 17 ).

The report’s evaluation regarding Criterion-1 explains “New civilian car production had ceased in 1942, by order of the United States government. New car sales began in 1945, launching a period of unprecedented consumer growth indicated in part by the quadrupling of American car sales during the period between 1946 and 1955”, and found therefore that “The 1946-47 showroom, now known as the Felix Chevrolet building, is significant at the local level for its association with the beginning of the post-war boom in consumer car sales, a period that marked the birth of a national car culture in the mid-20 th century.” (No.4 page 12 ).

In addition to the ARG report PCR Services Corporation has also prepared a Historic Resources Survey report (attachment No.05 / draft version) for the CRA/LA Exposition-University Park Redevelopment Project Area. The survey was undertaken “to update the previously completed survey that was conducted in 1985 and to identify, evaluate and document all potentially significant historic resources located within the Exposition-University Park Project Area.” (No. 05 page 01). “All properties were evaluated for historic significance in accordance with the methodology outlined in the National Register Bulletin, Guidelines for Local Surveys; A basics for Planning. And as stipulated in the Office of Historic Preservation’s, Instructions for recording Historical resources. Results of the survey work were recorded on the appropriate State of California Historic Resources Inventory forms (DPR 523 forms) and entered into a Microsoft database.” (No.5 page 02).

The survey found that “Felix Chevrolet is one of the best remaining examples of an early Los Angeles automobile dealership that evolved to address the changing tastes of its customers in the early post-World War II era… The addition of the enormous three-sided Felix Chevrolet neon roof sign is characteristic of the exuberance of the late-1950s commercial architecture… the subject property is among the earliest automobile dealerships located on South Figueroa Street’s automobile row and is the site of the longest continuously operating auto dealership remaining in Los Angeles. As such the Felix Chevrolet building is highly reflective of the importance that the automobile played in the Broad economic history of Los Angeles.”

The Survey concluded that “Felix Chevrolet is an excellent example of vernacular Modern automobile showroom with monumental neon signage. Also for associations with early Los Angeles auto industry. Appears eligible for National Register and as a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument.” (No. 05 page 32 ).

Beneath the neon-sign artistry of the W. Heath Company’s giant triangular cats is an emblematic story of L.A. pioneers. The story of migrants coming to the Southland to fulfill their dreams is the very essence of our City’s history. The lives of the intertwined principals connected with the Felix Chevrolet showroom and neon Cat sign are of particular merit and indicative of the social and economic conditions of early and mid-20 th Century Los Angeles. The Felix Chevrolet story embodies classic Horatio Alger achievements by men who were visionaries, full of innovative ideas, determination and persistence. They embraced an American ideal, which has equated hard work with eventual success, and they made it happen (attached are brief biographies of each of the principals that are referenced here for the readers enhanced information).

The central figure in the narrative is that of Winslow Felix (see No. 10 / HCS-1bio). An Arizona native, he arrived in Los Angeles after serving in WWI. The L.A. City Directories of 1921 (see No. 19) list his occupation as just “Chevrolet salesman”. By 1922 he was the owner of a Chevrolet dealership. He rapidly gained success through his use of inventive merchandizing techniques, which created a formula that others in the embryonic automobile business emulated. He came up with a "trial purchase plan," founded the Greater Los Angeles Motorcar Dealers, organized the annual Southern California auto shows, staged midget-car races and used the Felix the Cat cartoon character to advertise his dealership. He even put his Felix the Cat Chevrolet logo on the side of early bookmobiles that also played music similar to that of the Good Humor ice cream trucks. His gimmick was conceived to remind children to check out a book and their parents to, hopefully, buy a Felix Chevrolet.

With Winston Felix’s business success came social advancement as well. Through memberships in fraternal organizations and clubs such as the Uplifters (Los Angeles Athletic Club) he interacted with the rising celebrity-stars of the fledgling motion picture business such as Will Rogers, Walt Disney, Spencer Tracy and Daryl F. Zanuck. It was his personal friendship with Pat Sullivan that enabled him to gain the use of the already famous cartoon character, with whom he shared the same name, as his merchandizing symbol. After his untimely death in a polo accident at the Riviera Country Club (1938) the Felix dealership continued under the ownership of his wife Ruth until she sold it to Nick Shammas in 1955. Winslow Felix gradually faded from our memory as Felix the Cat, himself, went on to become the personification of the Felix Chevrolet dealership.

The creator of Felix the Cat, Pat Sullivan, was an immigrant from Australia (see No. 11 / HCS-2bio) . After a succession of failed attempts to achieve prominence as a cartoonist at home and in England he came to Los Angeles in 1914. He turned his attention to animation and opened a small studio. After a few box-office flops, the Felix the Cat character was born and achieved immediate success. A meteoric rise established the Felix character as an international favorite. The success was so great that Sullivan was to produce over 100 more animated cartoons of the Felix character prior to his unfortunate death in 1933 (including the first sound cartoon and the first televised cartoon, in the historic NBC broadcast of 1930).

Setting an example for several of the Walt Disney creations who followed him (Mickey Mouse 1930, Donald Duck 1936) the Felix the Cat character stepped off the silver screen and into the funny pages. The King Features Syndicate approached Pat Sullivan with an offer to adapt the character into a comic strip that made its debut as a Sunday page on August 14, 1923, and a daily strip that followed on May 9, 1927. The Felix the Cat character is now imprinted on every product line imaginable from Aprons to Yo-Yo's with uncountable variations of coffee mugs, baseball caps and T-shirts. The worldwide merchandizing of the Felix icon began in 1920 and continues to expand today.

The Tupman brothers, William and Thomas, migrated from their family home in Kentucky (see No.12 /HSC-3bio). In 1913 these wildcat oilmen were drawn to the Southland like thousands of others by the opportunity of self-advancement. They however saw the automobile rather than oil as their avenue for success. By 1920 when they opened their new Ford dealership at 3330 S. Figueroa at Jefferson, in a grand Beaux Arts Style showroom and garage, designed by architect Richard King, (see attachment No. 06) there were over 100.000 cars registered in Los Angeles. Their dealership’s high visibility location across from the University of Southern California became the anchor for the southern end of what would develop into the Figueroa corridor’s “Automobile-Row”.

The Spanish Colonial style headquarters of the Automobile Club of Southern California (designed by Summer Hunt, 1923 ), at Adams Boulevard became the virtual-reality center of the emerging Auto-Row as new showrooms, garages, service stations and associated facilities sprang up all along Figueroa. The magnificent residential Victorian mansions that once symbolized the bi-gone era of the wealthy turn-of-the-century carriage-trade were systematically demolished for new commercial buildings. Many of these were designed to create opulent sales and model showrooms dedicated to the growing middle class’s new status symbol, the AUTOMOBILE.

The Tupman brothers would continue their family business operations at their location through four decades of service. The 1920’s were very successful years for the growing automobile business and the Tupman brother’s were able to capture their share of the market place. The 1930’s and the Great Depression created new challenges but Tupman Ford survived and by 1939 they were able to introduce Ford’s new Mercury line and by 1941the luxury Lincoln Zephyr line as well as opening an additional operation at 3700 Wilshire. Unfortunately William Tupman died that year of a heart attack on his way to work leaving his brother Thomas to carry on. The onset of World War II brought the cessation of the civilian production of automobiles. America would become the “Arsenal of Democracy“ with all manufacturing committed to the war effort. The end of the war and the return of the troops created an immediate demand.

Thomas Tupman vigorously responded to keep his competitive edge and he had the aging showroom redesigned in 1946 by prominent architect A. Godfrey Bailey. The postwar modernization of the showroom included full-height canted glass “glare-free” windows, chamfered corners, curvilinear canopy and neon signage (No. 07) . The “Modern” design was particularly effective at accenting the showroom’s interiors at night with the illumination of the new car models highlighted like faceted jewels. Thomas Tupman continued operating the dealership until he retired at age 81 and sold the building to Nick Shammas in1958.

Tupman’s choice of A. Godfrey Bailey (see No.08/ AS-1bio) as the architect for the remodeling of his showroom was fortuitous. Bailey’s early career included several other auto dealerships executed in the same Beaux Arts vernacular style as the original 1920 facility, an experience that enabled him to effectively transform the auto showroom into the new “Modern” architectural idiom. The consummate professional architect Bailey’s career work embraced a multitude of styles (No.14) as exemplified in his 1927 Mediterranean Revival Style “Woman’s Christian Temperance Union home” in Eagle Rock (LA Historic Cultural Monument No. 562).

Nickolas Shammas, born in Pittsburgh (see No. 13 / HCS-4bio), started his career in Los Angeles after WW II as a car salesman, just like Winslow Felix. However by 1955 he was able to buy out the widow Ruth Felix and with the purchase of the Tupman facility in 1958 he began to transform the Felix Chevrolet automobile dealership into the centerpiece of an empire. In 1959 he had the Heath Co. install the now celebrated Felix the Cat neon sign that transformed the car dealership into a visual landmark.

Wayne E. Heath (see attachment No.09 AS-2bio), the innovative designer of the Felix the Cat icon sign arrived in Los Angeles in 1948 from Chicago as a skilled sign painter. He quickly perceived the need to capture the attention of motorists speeding past traditional roadway billboard signs and began creating other possibilities. He used geometric shapes, bold colors, Plexiglas and neon to fashion eye-catching graphic statements. His distinctive designs brought him visionary Southland clients such as restaurant entrepreneur Harold Butler, the founder of the “Denny’s” chain, and Verne Winchell, the doughnut shop king. His success also brought him to the attention of Nick Shammas. Long time Heath sales representative, Jack Lloyd, is quoted about the Felix sign “Nobody had ever put that big a sign on top of a roof. It was so big and unique you couldn’t help but see it.”

Nick Shammas patiently continued his expansionist' vision throughout the 1960’s 1970’s and 1980’s by buying out a successive series of competing dealerships along the Figueroa-Corridor as they began to abandon downtown L.A. for the suburbs. In addition to the original Chevrolet dealership his holdings would include: Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Volkswagen, Porsche, Nissan, Cadillac and Dodge. He also acquired the Petroleum building on Olympic Blvd in 1969 and expanded into the insurance business with the purchase of Workman’s Auto Insurance Group. Upon his death in 2003 the business passed on to the Shammas Corporation under the direction of his son-in-law, Darryl Holter, who is currently constructing additional new facilities at Figueroa and Washington Boulevard.

Los Angeles after WWI was a bourgeoning metropolis. The population in 1900 was, 102,479; by 1920 it had quintupled to 575,480; by 1930 it had reached 1,238,048. The good weather, promised health cures, comfortable retirement with unlimited economic investment potential that brought the first great wave of upper and upper middle class immigrants from the east and mid-west in the 1880’s continued to do so. However with development of a port, a secured supply of water, the harvesting of oil resources and the creation of the film industry another group of immigrants arrived. The dream of sunshine and success drew people from not only around the country but also from around the globe. Middle and working class people sought the freedom to self achieve which they believed was available in the Southland and denied to them at home. Simultaneous with this population explosion was the maturation of a new industry which would change history and revolutionize not just Los Angeles but the world; the AUTOMOBILE INDUSTRY .

Architectural Historian Diane Kane has stated: “ Los Angeles is the most auto-dominated city in the world, the one whose distinctive lifestyle has been inextricably involved with the automobile, and one whose urban form has been most dramatically structured to accommodate automobility” (Harbor Freeway / Historic Property Survey, California Department of Transportation, May 1990). Los Angeles Times feature columnist, Patt Morrison, proclaimed “ The car is belief and it is art… It is our Id and our Superego. We will do without a job. We can do without a home. But not without a car.” She also has codified the relationship through allegory in her article (see attachment 14-B) “Dearly Beloved, repeat these words, ’I Los Angeles take thee the internal combustion engine… for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.’… What a long blissful marriage it has been. We’re still as much in love as we were at the beginning: from the 2 o’ clock hour one May morning in 1887 when the first car hit the downtown streets, to tomorrow when the latest one rolls off the dealer’s lot, bright as a bride. This marriage has endured because we need each other. And we will do just about anything to make our partner happy. Dairies or wedding chapels, just drive on through. Los Angeles grandest Art Deco department store - The Bullock’s Wilshire – was designed not for the shopper on foot but, with its elaborate porch--cochere and parking lot for the shopper on four wheels.”

The Tupman brothers and Winslow Felix were among the earliest pioneers and the highest achievers in the auto sales industry. Through Pat Sullivan’s inventive animation in the film industry, they were destined to be linked together in the future. Because of their own abilities in fulfilling their dreams they unknowingly combined to leave a legacy that provided: 1) the business, 2) the location, and 3) the identity. This triptych legacy would latter enable Nick Shammas to complete his own vision and create an automotive empire unequaled. The crown jewel of his empire is Felix Chevrolet with its’ showroom’s modern redesign by Bailey topped off by Heath’s remarkable FELIX the Cat signage.

The individual accomplishments of any of these men are remarkable in-and-of themselves. Their collective experience moreover meets the threshold for Critera-2 as “people important to local history.” The Felix the Cat sign can be viewed as a 20 th Century totem-pole to not only the efforts of these visionary men but to the evolutionary transition of Los Angeles from an agrarian village to an automotive megalopolis.