The city of Beverly Hills puts its stamp on cultural programming with an opulent new complex.
When the City of Beverly Hills decided to repurpose its 1930s marble-clad post office, officials had no idea they were embarking on a nearly 20-year quest. “First, it was to be a cultural center; then, there was some interest in a children’s theater like in Seattle or Minneapolis,” says Lou Moore, the future center’s no-nonsense executive director and former managing director behind the Geffen Playhouse. Coupled with the permitting and permissions processes, the project sometimes seemed like it was perpetually in a state of limbo.
No longer. On October 17, a star-studded gala will launch the Wallis Annenberg Center For the Performing Arts. Cool arts patron Robert Redford, philanthropic doyenne Jamie Tisch, the elusive Brad Pitt, and powerhouse donor Wallis Annenberg will host the glittering event in partnership with fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo.
The once-imposing post office at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and North Cañon Drive has now become a gateway to a 2.5-acre campus. In the grand hall is a box office. The old mail sorting room is reborn as a small, 150-seat Studio Theater. A grand stairway leads to the lobby and the modern 500-seat Goldsmith Theater; cars are tucked away in an underground garage; and surroundings include a sculpture garden, terrace and an indoor-outdoor bar. A theater school will open in the summer of 2014. “What makes this especially significant for L.A.,” says Moore, “is that you can come, park, see a show, have dinner afterward, shop, and your kids could be in theater school—all within walking distance.” Moore has programming planned across all arts: music, dance, opera, theater, children’s programs and lectures.
It’s no surprise that the media and entertainment worlds lobbied for the building’s revitalization. During the Great Depression, architect Ralph C. Flewelling and Allison and Allison—the same firm behind the ornate Edison building downtown and UCLA’s Royce Hall—designed the Beverly Hills post office. Funnyman-cowboy Will Rogers was honorary mayor at the time; he sent a letter to Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury, to secure funding for the structure. It read: “We are getting a lot of mail out here now, and they are handling it in a tent. It’s mostly circulars from Washington with speeches on prosperity, but it makes awfully good reading while waiting for the foreclosure.”
Fast-forward 60 years, to 1993, when the post office finally outgrew its home. Mayor Vicki Reynolds negotiated with the federal government for its sale to the city in 1998 and asked various community groups to present proposals for a new use. The winning group, Beverly Hills Cultural Center Foundation, invited Moore to join the project in 2000. Six years later, members Bram Goldsmith and Reynolds brought in Wallis Annenberg, who raised her children in Beverly Hills. Her initial gift of $15 million got the project on the fast track. Zoltan Pali of Studio Pali Fekete Architects (SPF:a) was selected to design the complex.
Pali had already revamped the Pantages Theater and Greek Theatre, and the firm had other major projects on its résumé. For him, the Renaissance Revival-style building was something he wanted to honor. “We wanted to be as minimally invasive to the original building as possible,” he says. Abstracting the notion of an envelope into a pattern, Pali created a paneled exterior to the Goldsmith Theater that loosely evokes its original use. People outside are able to view its inner-workings while audiences are surrounded by modular walnut pieces that allow for variable acoustics and under latticework on the ceiling that gives the feeling of being “in a wood basket.”
So far, the space has been received with enthusiasm. “The entertainment people are looking at it as an opportunity as well,” Moore explains. “It’s a place where they can see new talent and at the same time their own ideas can develop.” thewallis.org.
Written and edited by Elizabeth Khuri Chandler