The Googie in the Gables

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a side of space-age architecture

You may well wonder — if you stop to look at its undulating roof line — how this one-story futurist restaurant ever landed in Coral Gables. But the structure we know today as Denny’s (originally a Sambo’s Pancake House) did indeed land in 1969 on the north side of Miracle Mile, just inside the Douglas Avenue entrance at the east end of the city. More than 50 years later, it still serves up a full plate of comfort food at affordable prices.

Back then, Futurism was in the air — literally, after Russia’s 1957 launch of Sputnik — and figuratively, with the introduction of the Unisphere as the symbol of the 1964 World’s Fair. America was infatuated with new lifestyle choices inspired by car culture, mass suburban migration, affordable air travel, rock ‘n roll, and even visionary animated TV sitcoms like “The Jetsons.” The future was here and now and much of it was quick and easy — and fun!

From Pancake House to Googie Icon

Change was already part of the game plan in 1949 when John Lautner designed a small coffee shop in West Hollywood, California called …wait for it… Googie’s Diner. Exuberant and a bit outlandish, Googie Architecture soon became part of the mid-century design aesthetic — and its first appearance in Coral Gables came when local architect O. K. Houstoun, Jr. conceived the bold yet unpretentious structure that now houses Denny’s.

Houstoun’s professional legacy also includes other significant buildings around South Florida: the sleekly columned Colonnade Plaza (formerly the Mutual of Omaha Building) at 1201 Brickell, designed in 1968 with H. Maxwell Parish, and 550 Biltmore Way, with its ziggurat stacking of floors, designed in 1986. Clearly, the man and his work confirm a long-standing architectural pedigree.

“One of the things about Googie Architecture,” says architectural historian Alan Hess, “is that it wasn’t custom houses for wealthy people. It was for coffee shops, gas stations, car washes, banks… the average buildings of everyday life that people of that period used and lived in.” And ate in.

The Googie in the Gables
Denny’s on Miracle Mile is a ‘Googie’

While today there may be a whiff of irony in knowing that a traditional diner-style restaurant chain was once on the leading edge of architectural innovation, we can also celebrate the end result of such dichotomy: One Miracle Mile still thrives as one of those places that never seem to go out of style.

The Mile’s east-end Googie restaurant anchors the street’s eastern flank, just as the 1928 Coral Gables City Hall anchors its western flank, each building steeped in notable design history and pioneering concepts of “City Beautiful” urban planning. Both buildings represent milestones in the ongoing development of Coral Gables, but only one of them can truly be called a “Slam” dunk.

Story written by Karelia Martinez Carbonell, the president of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables, and Bruce Fitzgerald. Photograph by Don Queralto.