Renowned architect César Pelli dies at 92; one of his first buildings was a post office

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On Friday, the world-renowned architect César Pelli died at age 92.  According to the NY Times obit, his iconic buildings include “the World Financial Center (now called Brookfield Place) at Battery Park City in New York, famous for the glass-roofed Winter Garden at its center; the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, known for its bright blue glass facade; and Ronald Reagan National Airport outside Washington.”

While it’s not mentioned in any of the obits, one of Pelli’s very first projects was done for the Department of the Post Office in 1967: the Worldway Postal Center at 5800 Century Boulevard in Los Angeles, designed with Anthony Lumsden for the architecture-engineering firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson, and Mendenhall (DMJM).  (The Center is listed as his first project in Wikipedia.  In some sources, it’s called the Worldwide Postal Center.)

The Preservation Plan for the Los Angeles International Airport (Sept. 2016) described the structure like this:

The Regional Post Office Facility, also known as the Worldwide Postal Center, was constructed in 1967 as part of LAX’s new air mail and freight facilities, an eight-and- one-half acre complex known as “Cargo City.” The building, the first post office located at a major U.S. airport, was designed to handle air mail and cargo and thus relieve congestion at the downtown Terminal Annex.  The two-story building is Late Modern in style. It is of expressed concrete frame construction with concrete masonry infill, and features a sculptural circular automobile ramp leading to a rooftop parking deck. It retains a high degree of integrity.

The building was designed by the prominent architecture and engineering firm of Daniel, Mann, Johnson, and Mendenhall (DMJM) under the firm’s then-Director of Design, Cesar Pelli, FAIA, and Principal for Design, Anthony J. Lumsden, FAIA.17 Both architects had previously worked in the office of Eero Saarinen and Associates, and each later gained prominence as principal of his own firm…

The Regional Post Office Facility is significant under National Register Criterion A and California Register Criterion 1 for its association with the dramatic increase in air mail and freight, and the growth of LAX, in the 1960s. It is also significant under National Register Criterion C and California Register Criterion 3 as an excellent example of Late Modern architecture by the prominent firm of DMJM, under the direction of Cesar Pelli and Anthony J. Lumsden. The building is not yet 50 years old and therefore is not eligible at this time for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. However, it is eligible for listing in the California Register, and as a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.

In 1969, the Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects gave the Center an Honor Award.

According to An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles by Robert Winter and David Gebhard, “This building’s character is created by the vertical and horizontal units of its two-story frame, left open in parts and filled in others. The exposed concrete frame, thin infills, and rounded corners sug­gest that the building is some type of fancy machine, housing not postal workers but computers.”

In this podcast, Pelli himself explained the program for the building (the audio makes it difficult to make out everything he says): “We had to use these mushroom colors . . . with flat slabs and no beams so they could cut holes anywhere they wanted to be able to send mail up and down on conveyer belts.  We carried those things to the edge and just  . . .  that gave this beautiful hyperbolic shape.  We did this brick cast to the roof so I pulled the ramp as far away as we could and that’s the ramp that takes you to the roof.  That was the basic idea.  That was the whole point.   With the brick infill and mechanical systems.  Very cheap.  Most of the jobs I did with DMJM were very very cheap.”

You can see how the roof connects with the ramp in this view from Google Maps:

A rendering of the building appears in USPS Nationwide Historic Context Study: Postal Facilities Constructed or Occupied Between 1940 and 1971.  In the report it’s not exactly clear what the image is intended to illustrate, but the context suggests that the design is an example of the fact that “the Post Office Department frequently engaged private architects to design the larger facilities, or regional staff engineers and architects collaborated to design special projects. Annual reports provide important clues to the stylistic preferences of the period for larger post office buildings such as processing and distribution centers, self-service post offices, and airport processing facilities. All were unilaterally constructed according to the Modern predilections of the period and overwhelmingly represented the International Style.”

in 2000, the Postal Service relocated the retail postal services from the facility (at that time it was called the Worldway Air Mail Center) to a new building three blocks away at 9029 Airport Blvd.

At some point, the Postal Service appears to have sold the property to the City of Los Angeles, and it now leases about 370,000 square feet from the City.  According to the USPS Leased Facilities report for 2015 (back when the USPS still shared lease costs), the annual lease cost was $1,860,650.

(Images: Google Maps)