BLAST FROM THE PAST: Opening day of the Fifth Street post office in 1938. (Photo courtesy City of Santa Monica)

BLAST FROM THE PAST: Opening day of the Fifth Street post office in 1938. (Photo courtesy City of Santa Monica)

DOWNTOWN — The historic Downtown post office, which served Santa Monicans from 1938 until it was shuttered by the feds for cash in June of last year, is now a city landmark.

The New Deal-era building, noted for its representation of the Public Works Administration (PWA) Moderne Style, was officially added to Santa Monica’s inventory of protected structures Monday night by the Landmarks Commission.

Residents fought for nearly a year to keep the Downtown location, which was replaced by a new customer service center at the Santa Monica Carrier Annex on Seventh Street near Olympic Boulevard.

The U.S. Postal Service earlier this year sold the building to David Ellison, producer of films like  “True Grit,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “World War Z,” for a reported $25 million as part of a national effort to shore up the agency’s finances in the face of a multi-billion dollar budget gap as people steer clear of “snail mail” and pension and healthcare costs rise for postal employees.

The building is expected to become the home of Ellison’s Skydance Productions, which is based out of Paramount Pictures in Hollywood.

Landmarking the post office, which was built at a time when Santa Monica experienced a population boom thanks to the automobile and its reputation as a playground for wealthy tourists, adds another layer of protection against demolition or significant alterations.

Commissioners wanted to landmark the post office for years, and pushed to do so since December 2012 when the feds first announced they wanted to sell it, but they weren’t allowed because it was federal property. The sale to a private party opened the door.

Just to be on the safe side, the City Council in August of last year approved a preservation covenant before the sale which made City Hall the post office’s guardian during a transfer of ownership and beyond. That covenant remains in place into perpetuity and forces Ellison or any future owner to go before the council before doing anything that would affect the building’s historic features, and that includes the inside lobby, something that is not covered by the local landmarks law since the building is no longer open to the public.

Commissioners hope the council will consult them in the future if any changes are proposed to the inside lobby, which includes rich marble-work on the walls and varied color terrazzo flooring, as well as highly stylized geometric designs executed in wood on the walls and ceilings, all of which are indicative of the PWA Moderne idiom, according to a commission report.

The owner is in support of landmark designation, said attorney Ken Kutcher, who is representing Skydance Productions. So far there are no concrete plans for how the building will be renovated.

Some of the exterior features of note include the incised period lettering heralding the building’s form and function as a post office; the flat roof with parapet and tri-banded cornice lines; recessed, vertically oriented multi-pane woodframe windows; and monumental, elongated Art Deco inspired pilasters flanking the two entry portals, according to the commission’s report.

Los Angeles architect Robert Dennis Murray oversaw construction and local contractors were used to build it. The building was valued at $172,400, according to its permit from 1937, but it ultimately cost more than that, according to the report.

The site of the post office was purchased in 1934 for approximately $44,000, but because of the Great Depression and funding difficulties in Washington, D.C., it took careful negotiations to get the money to make it happen. The Santa Monica-Ocean Park Chamber of Commerce, city officials, the local postmaster and Congressmen Joe Crail and John Francis Dockweiler were said to be instrumental in getting the funds.

“The building was heralded in the local press as a major symbol of Santa Monica’s civic achievement,” according to the report.

The local landmarks ordinance states that a building has to meet one of six criteria to be designated a landmark. City Hall’s historic consultant found the post office meets four: it exemplifies and manifests elements of the city’s history, it has aesthetic or artistic value, it is identified with people of note, and has distinguishing architectural features that are valuable to the study of the time period, style and method of construction.

Other than City Hall, the post office is the only PWA building left in Santa Monica.

 

Never going out of style 

 

While most people today will refer to it as the Gap building, as it is home to the clothing retailer known for its classic fashions, its real name is the Junipher Building and it’s now a city landmark.

The four-story commercial building, located at the corner of the bustling Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica Boulevard, joined the post office Monday on the list of historic and protected structures in Santa Monica.

It was first assessed in 1983 but it took decades before it was officially recognized.

“Why did this take so long,” asked Carol Lemlein, president of the Santa Monica Conservancy. “I’m totally befuddled. … [But] thank you for finally getting to this.”

Commissioners didn’t have an answer for Lemlein, but they were pleased to be finally getting around to it. Commissioner Ruthann Lehrer, who studied the building before leading people on one of the conservancy’s Downtown Walking Tours, called the structure a “gem.”

“It’s one of the best in Downtown,” she added.

A consultant for the commission said the building, which was originally constructed in 1912 with three stories and five bays along Santa Monica Boulevard (an additional floor and more bays were added in the ‘20s), is “a rather classically inspired Vernacular Commercial style structure.” Buildings in that style had square or rectangular floor plans, were situated on or close to the property line and were usually made of brick. Ornamentation was simple with cast concrete detailing or decorative brickwork.

The building was one of the first to be located at the new commercial center of the city and contained the first elevator in an office building. It was featured prominently in newspapers for its design, modern features and association with Santa Monica’s economic growth.

Before its completion, most commercial development was focused in Ocean Park and further south to Venice.

The building is named after Ohio land owner and farmer Alexander A. Junipher, who would move to Santa Monica in 1904 to be closer to his daughter, Adelaide Junipher, who had married a doctor by the name of John S. Hunt. It was Hunt who actually oversaw construction of the building, which served as the office of his medical practice. Junipher died roughly one year after the building was constructed.

By deliberately tailoring the building to fit the needs of physicians, dentists and other medical professionals, Hunt “laid the critical groundwork to draw the medical profession to the city,” the commission’s report states.

One feature not mentioned in the commission’s report are the hooks which used to hold cables for the old electric street cars that once ran up and down Santa Monica Boulevard, Lemlein said.

The Junipher was initially designed and built by the Ye Planry Building Company of Los Angeles, a design and building firm known for residential bungalow designs from 1908 to 1910. Noted Los Angeles architect Albert C. Martin was brought on for the expansion. He helped design the Ventura County Courthouse, The Million Dollar Theatre in Los Angeles, St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Santa Monica and Los Angeles City Hall.

 

kevinh@smdp.com

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