The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is a model of adaptive re-use, and a much-needed cultural resource for Beverly Hills. For lack of an effective preservation ordinance, the city has lost several of the few treasures it once had. But the 1933 Italian Renaissance Post Office was too good to lose, and when its functions were transferred to a new facility in 1993, the city agreed to buy the building from the Federal Government, soliciting proposals for its re-use. Several ideas and architects were considered before philanthropist Wallis Annenberg’s foundation gave $15 million to launch the project that is named for her. Other donations covered the project cost of $70 million. Studio Pali Fekete architects (SPF:a) have been working for the past six years to remodel the old building and add a new 500-seat theater to the south.
Ralph Flewelling and the firm of Allison and Allison (best known for UCLA’s Royce Hall) designed the post office. It was a product of the Great Depression, a decade when the Feds turned adversity to advantage by commissioning some of the best civic buildings in America. Along with its neighbor, the Spanish Renaissance City Hall of 1932, it exemplifies craft and confidence; qualities absent from the city’s post-modern civic center, and the inept mimicry of period style in the commercial district. SPF:a’s Bram Goldsmith Theater subtly references the old building, and its sharply etched facades complement the swooping canopy of Pereira and Luckman’s Union 76 station across the street.
The juxtaposition of old and new adds distinction to each building. The low-key facade and marble concourse of the post office have been meticulously restored. Acoustic plaster has been added to the arched ceiling of the concourse to dampen the echo that plagued the original, and the PWA murals sparkle anew. A shop and donor wall replace the mailboxes, and the box office occupies the counters where stamps were sold. It is an inspiring overture to the spaces that lie beyond. An earlier proposal to gut the interior and incorporate the main theater within the shell was, happily, rejected. Instead, SPF:a have respected the original plan, turning the double-height mail sorting room into a studio theater that can accommodate 150 on retractable seating and be used for rehearsals and intimate performances. The original clerestory has been retained to pull in natural light, but it can be blacked out. The former loading dock contains three classrooms, which open onto a plaza. A broad corridor, indirectly lit from LEDs set into overlapping hoods, links the concourse to the steps leading down to the foyer of the Goldsmith Theater.
The steel-framed theater block is sunk 30 feet to minimize its height. It is clad in copper-toned cement panels that pick up on the terracotta trim of the brick-faced post office and the copper-roofed loading dock that extends from its rear. Wings sheltering mechanical equipment to the north and south of the theater are treated as hoods, open at the base, and the trapezoidal cladding panels are pulled apart to reveal the equipment and City Hall to the east. SPF:a principal Zoltan Pali likens it to a peek behind the scenes and explains that the panels evoke the envelopes that were loaded here. The rhythm of open and closed imparts a quality of lightness to the new structure. The west-facing facade of the theater is fully glazed, turning the two-level lobby into a vitrine that opens up to a sunken plaza. A detached glass cube encloses escalators and elevators serving three levels of underground parking.
The theater seats 410 in the gently raked orchestra and 90 in a shallow balcony. It is the same size as the Broad Theater in Santa Monica, but much simpler. Walnut-finished slats on the sidewalls form an acoustically transparent, backlit screen. Chevrons in the drywall diffuse sound and pocketed curtains can be drawn to absorb it. Above are walnut-veneered plywood reflectors. Drama, music, and dance are included in the first season and the theater is also equipped for projection. It is a bold and welcome project, marred only by the selection of artificial turf for the landscaped areas that surround the buildings.