Before Beverly Hills, Calif., could become what it is today—alternately the celebrated pinnacle of luxury or the denigrated epicenter of moneyed excess—it had the modest needs of any young city. Between its incorporation in 1914 and the late 1920s, the city had grown from 500 residents to more than 15,000, and locals decided they needed the basic staples of citydom: a city hall and a post office.
City Hall, designed by architects Harry G. Koerner and William J. Gage in the Spanish Renaissance style with a grand arched entryway and an ornately tiled dome, was completed in 1932, and became an instant landmark for Beverly Hills. When it opened, the Los Angeles Times noted that it was “the largest and most costly City Hall of any municipality its size in the country.” Two years later, architect Ralph C. Flewelling matched City Hall’s extravagance with a new post office in the Italian Renaissance style just across the street. A barrel-vaulted ceiling runs the lobby’s length, its walls lined in marble with ornamental plaster cornices.
These were elaborate projects for a country in the throes of the Great Depression. They foreshadowed the ostentation to come in Beverly Hills, but they were also an admission that even a city full of movie stars needed a civic center to house its public services. These public buildings validated Beverly Hills as a legitimate city.
And so it’s fitting that nearly a century later Beverly Hills is once again turning to its civic center to validate its identity. This time, the city is using the newly renovated and redesigned Beverly Hills Main Post Office to rebrand itself less as a center of consumption, and more as a center for culture, able to compete with the rest of Los Angeles.
In October 2013, after lying vacant for 16 years, the post office reopened as the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, better known as the Wallis. With a 500-seat theater, a 120-seat studio theater, and all the backstage requisites, the center is spacious enough to host the cast and crew of a big show but intimate enough to put the audience up close.
Instead of following the initial design brief and packing it all into the original post office building, Culver City, Calif.–based Studio Pali Fekete Architects (SPF:a) and its lead designer, Zoltan Pali, FAIA, added a new building to house the main theater. A back area of the old post office is now a walkway leading to a staircase that ducks below grade into the lobby of the newly added theater building. The subterranean connection is not evident from the outside, creating the impression that the interconnected buildings are completely separate structures.
Walking around the site on an unusually hot spring day, Pali ducks into the shade to point out the interplay between the two buildings, each T-shaped and perpendicular to the other, like Tetris blocks about to interlock. “That’s a part of the project I really like a lot, the part where the two different buildings almost touch,” Pali says. “It’s like walking through an old European city, like Genoa. You’re winding through alleyways with multiple different architectural styles.”
Pali says it was important to reflect the cultural history of the site, not necessarily its architectural history. In contrast to the old office, his addition is unabashedly modern, with a striking copper-toned façade of cement board panels shaped and spaced to suggest hundreds of opened envelopes. The color changes with the sun, but it continues to pair well with the terra-cotta of the historic post office and the oxidized copper overhang above the old loading docks. Now, instead of hosting idling trucks, that space is filled with glass-fronted classrooms that bounce reflections of the modern addition, superimposing the new on the old.
Zigzagging through the miniature alley, the site opens up to a terraced sculpture garden leading down to a patio outside the theater’s lobby. Inside, shades typically cover the floor-to-ceiling west-facing windows during daylight hours to prevent glare. The theater space itself seems deep for its modest size, and manages to fit in 350 seats (and a soundproof “crying room”) on the ground floor and another 150 in a balcony.
While the new building is certainly a highlight, the historic post office remains an important part of the $70 million project. Its main hall, once frequented by locals to buy stamps, now serves as a ticket counter and grand entrance, with its restored vaulted ceiling and original frescoes.
“Everyone was happy with that because the post office is really where the energy was,” says Lou Moore, executive director of the Wallis. “That was the impetus from the beginning, to save the post office and bring it back to life for the whole community.”
“I remember standing out there on opening night. It felt like someone took a little handful of culture dust and ‘Poof!’ It felt like, ‘Wow, there’s culture here now,’ ” Pali says. “Even though there’s people with a tremendous amount of money and art, it never really felt like there was a place in Beverly Hills that was striving for the highest aspirations of culture.”
When the post office was decommissioned in the late 1990s, the city was quick to buy the building, and, even then, city leaders already had a cultural center in mind. With the opening of the Wallis, the city has finally gotten what it wanted. —Nate Berg