Almost a decade after they first submitted a proposal to renovate the Beverly Hills Post Office, Culver City-based SPF:architects on January 22 received EIR approval from the Beverly Hills City Council to begin work on transforming the building as the centerpiece of a new cultural center. The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts will use the original 1933 post office for administrative, exhibition, and workshop spaces, while a separate building will contain a contemporary performance center. The firm is midway through schematic design and hopes to start construction on the estimated $35 million project within a year.
The Italian Renaissance Revival building, originally designed by Ralph C. Flewelling with Allison & Allison Architects, was built as a Works Progress Administration project on a trapezoidal lot facing Beverly Hills City Hall. It was in danger of being demolished after the U.S. Postal Service vacated the building in 1993. But eventually it received landmark status and was sold to the City of Beverly Hills, which in turn leased the building to the Beverly Hills Cultural Center Foundation, with the intent to preserve and restore it.
SPF:architects has entered a total of three proposals for renovating the post office as the anchor of a new performing arts center: one in 2001 when they were not shortlisted, and a year later when they were, although their proposal was not selected. In 2006 a third competition selected SPF:architect's concept. The proposals selected previously—by Barton Myers and Pfeiffer Partners—focused on gutting the post office to make room for a 400-seat theater, and designing a separate building for education and administration, according to SPF:architects principal Zoltan Pali.
"I just reversed that," he said. "I put all the little pieces—the little offices and classrooms—that fit into the building very perfectly, without having to do any structural renovation, and then we built a brand new state-of-the-art theater."
The new building, which will be called the Goldsmith Theater, will be rectilinear in form and fronted with a patterned and textured facade. It will have 500 more seats than those of the two other proposals. A three-story glass bridge will connect the theater to the post office, which will house the box office, rehearsal rooms, classrooms and other offices. A courtyard and sculpture garden will provide landscaped public spaces around the buildings. To include enough parking for events, the plan calls for removing the lawn of City Hall to add submerged parking, then restoring the lawn.
SPF:architects' design will also play on many elements of the post office's former use. The Grand Hall includes two WPA-era fresco murals depicting the birth of the U.S. mail service and life during the (now a little familiar) Depression, both of which will remain. The cages where stamps were once sold will, appropriately, be the box office, and the old mail sorting room is due to become a rehearsal space and studio theater. "I never really saw this building," said Pali. "It's a great example of that period of architecture and is a very respectable building, but I don't think it responded to the site as well as it could have." Pali sees it as a chance to invigorate this busy corner in Beverly Hills in a way that will allow it to interact with City Hall across the street as well as with the bustling business district nearby.