Some of Southern California's shuttered post offices are coming back for a design-worthy second act.
When Hollywood producer Joel Silver ended his contract with Warner Bros. last spring, the entertainment mogul had to look for alternate workspace. Gone were those swanky Burbank offices, but where to set up new digs for Silver Pictures, which had produced such mega franchise hits as The Matrix and Lethal Weapon?
Answer: A shuttered, and much beloved, Venice Beach post office. For Hollywood types, the decision to set up headquarters in a 1939 Works Progress Administration building might not have been the most intuitive choice. But Silver, who has proven himself committed to restoring significant structures (he bought the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Storer House in Hollywood in the ‘80s, and spent $250,000 restoring it under the supervision of Wright's grandson, Eric Lloyd Wright) saw a chance to preserve a much-beloved Art Deco institution. Located on Windward Circle two blocks from the beach, the 24,000-square-foot building is, in many ways, an apt reflection of its community: Its faded elegance fits right in with the neighborhood, where the vibe easily toggles between funky and fancy. (Although Silver did not disclose the amount he paid for the building, the U.S. Postal Service had it listed for $7.5 million). Primary among its standout design details is an intact interior mural by Edward Biberman that puts all of SoCal’s disparate roots – images of beachgoers, men in overalls, the area’s canals and oil derricks – into one piece of large-scale art. The mural is just one of many of the building’s details, all of which are being carefully restored by Silver and his team, which includes Boto Design Architects.
Welcome to a post-post office world. As many as 3,700 postal centers could be set to close in the coming years as the U.S. Postal Service shrinks. Up to 1,100 of those were built in the 1930s and are considered architecturally important. So what will become of them as the government contemplates such things like ending Saturday mail service? While Luddites, architectural preservationists and others continue to fight the tide, that shrinking postal power may come with an unexpected silver lining: Many of the buildings are attracting the attention of some of Southern California’s most accomplished architects, who are treating the structures with care, concern, and best of all, curiosity.
When Zoltan Pali was hired to transform the Beverly Hills Post Office into the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the architect was already familiar with the location. As a child, he frequently accompanied his engineer father to the 1933 Renaissance Revival Building designed by Ralph C. Flewelling, designer of buildings at UCLA and USC, in concert with Alison & Alison architects. Later, in his 20s, Pali says he returned to the same post office “to send my checks to the government to pay back my student loans.”
Now Pali has been tasked with turning the 35,000-square-foot building, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 before it closed in 1993, into a state-of-the-art performance center set to open this fall. And central to his plan is to integrate as many of the building’s original elements into the new design as possible.
“They had several architects working on the project before, and the idea originally was to put the big theater inside the post office building and then add a wing that would have an administrative wing, education wing,” says Pali. “I decided to flip that, so now the original post office will be the Grand Hall.” He’s repurposing those marble counters as the box office area, the original U.S. Post Office relief carving will remain above the front door and many of the building’s original shelves and cubby holes will be integrated into the café and store. “Even the loading docks turned out to be perfect for classrooms,” says Pali. “Kids can hang out on the edge of the docks near the courtyard. They’re the perfect size.” New construction on the site is mostly focused on the 25,000-square-foot theater.
And while the Annenberg project is one of the grandest post office overhauls, it certainly isn’t the only one going on in Southern California. In Manhattan Beach, architect Stephen Francis Jones transformed one of the beach community’s defunct postal centers into a culinary hot spot, M.B. Post, in 2011. Two years later, a dinner reservation amid its salvaged wood and industrial chic interiors, which cleverly play off beach and postal themes, is still one of the toughest seats to get in town.
L.A.’s beloved upgrade to the notion of a deli, Joan’s on Third, is reportedly opening a second location in Studio City in a former post office on Ventura Place. And just last month in San Diego, Matthew Segal, son of architect Jonathan Segal, completed his adaptive reuse of a 1960s shuttered post office in Golden Hill. The designer converted the space into three rental units, and built a fourth that connects visually and physically with the existing building. The units range from 1,100 square feet to just over 1,200, and rent for between $2,600 and $3,200 a month. Three out of the four were rented out in the first month.
Key to Segal’s vision was to keep as many original details intact, right down to those U.S. Postal Service stickers on the front door. One original feature that particularly captured Segal’s eye were those “Mad Men”-era metal letters that spelled Post Office above the door. The designer planned to preserve those, but someone got to them first. During construction, the letters were stolen.
A postal service in decline, with a collector’s passion rising in its wake: The post office’s second act as a design icon has arrived.