McDonald's Hamburgers | Los Angeles Conservancy
Photo by Adrian Scott Fine/L.A. Conservancy

McDonald's Hamburgers

The 1953 McDonald’s drive-in in Downey, the oldest remaining example of the original hamburger stands conceived by the McDonald’s brothers, was threatened with demolition in 1994.

In the subsequent effort to save the World’s oldest remaining McDonald’s, each attempt by the Conservancy to work with the McDonald’s Corporation was rebuffed. But the process did keep the building standing and intact until McDonald’s was willing to preserve its history—demonstrating that keeping a building standing is sometimes all it takes to save it.

Perseverance, patience, leadership, and a multi-faceted strategy that focused on public education and public opinion were the hallmarks of the campaign.

Saving an icon of America’s car culture increased the public’s awareness of the historic resources of the recent past and gave legitimacy to preserving other popular culture resources, making preservation understandable and more accessible to the public.

Once a fixture in most American suburbs in the 1950s and ‘60s, the distinctive hamburger stands with twin golden arches and red and white tiled exteriors were being demolished or remodeled to near extinction due to changing branding and design requirements issued from the McDonald's Corporation. The Downey stand survived because the restaurant’s owner held an original franchise from the McDonald brothers, before Ray Kroc catapulted the corporation into world-wide prominence.  The hamburger stand received official recognition as a historic resource in 1984, at only 31 years of age, when it was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.  

When the longtime franchisees Roger Williams and Bud Landon retired and sold the franchise back to the corporation in 1992, the McDonald's Corporation began looking for ways to close the operation which they claimed was losing money.  In January 1994, the corporation closed the Downey restaurant citing damage from the Northridge Earthquake. An attempt to demolish the 40-year-old eatery was rebuffed by the Downey City Council citing its status as a National Register landmark. The lease was then terminated and the site reverted to Pep Boys, who owned the property.

The Conservancy, led by its volunteer Modern Committee, and the Downey Historical Society pressed for preservation by staging rallies at the site that helped generate international publicity.  A campaign encouraging people to write to the chairman of McDonald’s even prompted a response from state Governor Pete Wilson who urged the corporation to “preserve for posterity the home of the Golden Arches.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized the importance of the drive-in by designating it one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1994 and provided a grant to fund a marketing study.  For more than two years, the Conservancy waged a battle where it seemed nothing would work. Owner of the site, Pep Boys, remained a crucial ally as the company resisted market pressures to lease the land to another tenant and kept the building secure and clean.

The stalemate was broken when internal politics at corporate McDonald’s brought a new regime of leaders who took a fresh look at the Downey Golden Arches and realized that it had to be saved. In just two months after announcing in October 1996 that they would re-open the restaurant, McDonald’s restored the landmarked stand’s distinctive features and incorporated a new structure to house a museum, gift shop and restrooms. In December of that year, the Downey drive-in re-opened in a gala celebration.  The world’s oldest remaining McDonald’s, once claimed by the corporation to be losing money and threatened with demolition, is now thriving and capitalizing on its heritage and is celebrated by many McDonald’s fans.