The Story Behind Los Angeles International’s Theme Building

If you’ve ever passed through LAX, you’ll probably have noticed the rather futuristic-looking structure in the middle of the airport. Sometimes mistaken for some sort of control tower, the ‘Theme Building’ is actually not much more than a grandiose observation deck, but it wasn’t always that way.

Los Angeles Theme Building
Have you ever wondered what that strange building is? Photo: Getty Images

It should have been so much more

Back in the 1950s, the atomic Space Age was all the rage. Googie style abounded in Los Angeles, and so, it was only natural that the city’s busy airport wanted in on the action. Enter Pereira & Luckman, a leading mid-century LA-based architectural firm. With clients ranging from Hilton Hotels to NASA, they had some grand designs for an icon at LAX.

The architects sketched out ideas for a jaw-dropping glass dome in the heart of the airport. It would connect all the airport’s terminals and parking facilities, and would essentially become the hub of LAX. But that, sadly, was a dream with would never be realized.

Los Angeles Theme Building
Pereira & Luckman had bigger ambitions for the project. Photo: Los Angeles Airport

The project was scaled down somewhat, and in 1961 emerged as the structure that has become so familiar today. Described by some as a ‘spider’ or a ‘spaceship’, the design was iconic of the mid-century-modern era. Built at a cost of $2.2 million, it housed a glamorous restaurant 80 feet above the ground, with a glass walled viewing platform on top.

The Story Behind Los Angeles International’s Theme Building
It was still an impressive structure once complete. Photo: Los Angeles Airport

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An avgeeks dining dream

In the center of the two parabolic arches is a glass fronted, flying saucer-esque building. Inside of this, a restaurant that was every avgeeks dream. For many years, families could enjoy a delicious meal with 360 degree views of Los Angeles and the airport. Visitors were also welcomed to head up to the observation deck above to watch the planes take off and land.

Los Angeles Theme Building
The restaurant offered views across the city. Photo: Sam Howzit via Wikimedia

While it wasn’t all it could have been, had the architects had their way, it was still a graceful and eye-catching building that paid homage to a formative period in design. For this reason, in 1992, the city declared it a Historical-Cultural Monument, affording it some protections from demolition and alteration.

Los Angeles Theme Building
The iconic building has become part of LAX’s landscape. Photo: Getty Images

As the restaurant became outdated, a helping hand arrived in the form of the Disney Corporation. A team of ‘imagineers’, including Eddie Sotto – creator of the Main Street Show at Disneyland Paris – got to work reinventing the interior of the restaurant. Embracing the Space Age theme of the building itself, they transomed the interior into an out of this world experience for diners to enjoy. The restaurant was renamed ‘Encounter’.

Los Angeles Theme Building
Disney’s ‘imagineers’ brought a dab of drama to the restaurant. Photo: Sam Howzit via Wikimedia

Closing for good

Sadly, the wonders of Encounter were to be short lived. The attacks of 9/11 meant security at the airport was heightened, leading to the observation deck being closed to visitors. In 2007, a half ton chunk of stucco from one of the arches fell onto the restaurant. Following eight months of work, the restaurant reopened, and in 2010, the observation deck was opened to visitors on the weekends.

Los Angeles Theme Building
The building had to undergo extensive repairs after pieces began falling from the arches. Photo: Getty Images

But the damage had been done. The Theme Building was in a nonsecure area of the airport, meaning it could only be visited before passing through security, or by leaving the airside area and having to go through the checkpoint again to fly. It was unsustainable, and the restaurant permanently closed in 2013.

Los Angeles Theme Building
The building is largely unused today. Photo: Los Angeles Airport

Could the future be better?

LAX is undergoing some fairly major renovations right now, and there are discussions underway to reopen the building as part of the project. There have been talks of turning it into a conference center, or perhaps as part of a hotel development. For now, though, the iconic building is nothing more than a grand monument, but perhaps in the future passengers will be able to enjoy the views from the spaceship once again.

Did you ever visit the Theme Building? Let us know about your memories in the comments.