The Tamale Building

The Tamale Building — Los Angeles Explorers Guild

The Tamale Building

In East Los Angeles you can visit a building that’s shaped like a tamale.

Along Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, nestled between Montebello and Commerce, sits the Tamale.

Although the oddly shaped structure is somewhat unassuming these days, it is one of the last standing relics from the great age of programmatic architecture, Los Angeles’s unique contribution to world of structural engineering where the building itself acts as a sign for the product sold within.

This architectural phenomenon is a direct offspring of car culture. It grew along with the rising popularity of the automobile in a bid to make the business appeal to motorists. At one time, the Los Angeles roadsides were filled with giant hot dogs, ice cream cones, tea kettles, coffee pots, and hats. Most of them are gone today. But a few — like the legendary Brown Derby on Wilshire — have been incorporated into new construction (usually in an unflattering fashion).

The Tamale: From Icon to Vacancy

The Tamale today. Photo from the author’s collection.

The Tamale was built in 1929 (according to Los Angeles County Assessor; however some reports put it at 1928) as a roadside restaurant that served hamburgers, hot tamales pie, chili, Spanish delight (which is either a broad food category or a forgotten delicacy), and tamales — as well as malted milk.

The Tamale in its heyday. Photo via the Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific National Bank Collection.

Along with a handful of other unusually shaped buildings along Whittier Boulevard, it existed to serve traffic to and from Los Angeles from Montebello and Whitter. But as the Los Angeles freeway system developed, providing a faster and more expedient route (allegedly) into Downtown Los Angeles, traffic along Whittier Boulevard steadily declined.


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But the Tamale persevered, at least until 1984 when it ceased being a restaurant. At some point after that the interior was split in half, and for years a beauty shop operated on one side and a dental lab in the other. For a while, the building was painted green (which was a bit unsightly and didn’t do it any favors), but these days it’s sporting a neutral beige stucco exterior.

But, even though the former beauty parlor’s fading sign still sits atop the beleaguered building, it’s been vacant since 2016. In recent years, it has even gone into tax default. There were plans for it to reopen in 2020, but those seem to have stalled.

The Tamale stands vacant on Whittier Boulevard. Photo from the author’s collection.

The Fight for The Tamale

Not everyone loves The Tamale. Some people find it charming while others just think of it as an ugly eyesore. There are also people don’t even realize it’s supposed to be a tamale, guessing it’s shaped like a piece of wrapped candy — probably due to the wrapper-like ends of the building, which run right up against its neighbor on either side.

One of the end “wrappers” of the Tamale. Note how close it is to the adjacent building. Photo from the author’s collection.

Other people think it looks like a fish (which is a bit baffling) or a chili (equally confounding). But no matter what people think it’s supposed to be, the Tamale has opened a deep rift between the preservationist and real estate development communities in Los Angeles.

In fact, the Tamale has become something of a poster child for preservation efforts throughout Los Angeles. The building sits outside of the L.A. city boundary, so it can’t be protected under city’s robust Historic-Cultural Monument umbrella. And Greater Los Angeles County doesn’t have any kind of blanket preservation program.

Many sites claim that the Tamale is classified as a California Historical Resource, but it’s not listed on the California Historical Resources Page for Los Angeles County. But even if it is included on this list, such protections at the state and national level are somewhat toothless when it comes to preserving the existing structure from development.

Right now, the current owner seems to be keen on preservation, but if the building can’t attract tenants (which can be difficult for programmatic architecture), they may be forced to sell or develop the property to something more … modern.

I think most people who want the Tamale to stay tamale-shaped hope it can be a restaurant again one day. Personally, I’d love to eat a tamal from a tamale-shaped building.

But that’s not a guarantee. Nor is it certain how long the Tamale will remain standing. In the meantime, if you like seeing buildings that look like other things, then the Tamale is worth a look.

If you care about preserving the Tamale as the piece of historical architecture it is, then follow the regular updates at Esotouric’s Our Beloved Whittier Boulevard Tamale in Peril.


The Tamale Building


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Tom Fassbender is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. When not exploring Los Angeles, he’s been known to enjoy a cup of coffee or two. You can find him at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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