By Greta Cobar
The heart of our community was hurt this past month as bulldozers tore down the stairs leading to what used to be our historic post office.
New owner Joel Silver, big-time Hollywood producer behind movies like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, The Matrix and Predator, started work both outside and inside the building without permits from the city.
“Our inspector stopped the job since the work done was not covered under the active permits,” wrote Bob Steinbach, Chief, Inspection Bureau, Department of Building and Safety in an email message sent out August 8. However, it took only a few days for Silver to resume the demolition.
The worst of it we don’t even know about, as it is taking place inside. And we won’t know for two years, because that’s how long Silver said it will take to finish the renovations and re-open the building.
The Coalition to Save the Venice Post Office, which includes a wide spectrum of citizens and virtually all Venice organizations, found that an early start permit to demolish non-bearing walls at basement and ground floor was issued August 3. According to Michael King, an architect living in Venice, “early permits are the curse of historic preservation. The developers demolish stuff under these early permits before they submit plans for the real construction permit to avoid addressing a multitude of clearance issues with the demolished elements.”
Silver also applied for a permit to demolish the interior, but has not received approval yet. Those of us that were able to secretly peek into the building can attest to the fact that things are being demolished. All historical postal furniture was secretly disposed of by the USPS before escrow closed.
Overall business with the United Stated Postal Service representatives has been shady, but one thing we have been told is that the 1941 Story of Venice mural by Edward Biberman will remain the property of the USPS.
Meanwhile Silver took it upon himself to remove the mural and restore it against the advice of Suzanne Zada, Executive Director of the Biberman estate, Deborah Padilla, Executive Director, Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), and Emily Winters, Venice muralist and Chair of the Venice Arts Council.
If the mural does not belong to Silver, why does he have the authority to decide that it needs to be restored, when Zada, Padilla, Winters and others do not think so at all. And why is he to decide who restores it in spite of experts’ conflicting suggestions?
With the building expected to be closed for two years, Silver plans to move the mural to an undisclosed location. The mural can be damaged if not stored properly. It is also likely to be damaged when removed from the wall.
Although renowned mural experts have remarked that the mural is in excellent shape and that it is dangerous to move it, Silver has been unresponsive to community and expert input.
The Venice community would like to keep the artwork available for public viewing. Although David Williams, Vice President of Network Operations with the USPS, stated that “the Postal Service will include measures to ensure the mural will remain available for public viewing in any plan for reuse or disposal of the Post Office property,” such measures have not been made public.
“The purchaser and the Postal Service entered into a loan agreement in which the purchaser has agreed to allow access by the public to view the mural,” Williams wrote in an August 13 letter to the Coalition. Although the original covenant for the building mentioned the mural and public access to it, the current covenant does not mention either one.
Cecilia Castillo, from Bill Rosendahl’s office, told the Coalition that USPS attorney Maria Infanger mentioned that there is a lease agreement regarding the mural. However, when Castillo asked for a copy, there was no reply. The Coalition then asked Natalie Rogers, in Janice Hahn’s office, to request a copy, which she did on August 17. With no reply from the USPS, the Coalition might have to get the document through a Freedom of Information Act request. Currently we do not know if the loan agreement enables removal of the mural from its intended location.
The City of Los Angeles decided to accept being the beneficiary of the covenant protecting our historic post office even though it has never assumed such a role in the past. Furthermore, the city does not require public access to its cultural monuments, and would not normally make this a requirement.
At the August meeting of the Venice Neighborhood Council a motion was approved requesting that the public continue to have access to the mural and the historic foyer “for the same hours and days that the historic post office was open to the public before the sale of the property.”
Because the public is not likely to have a presence in Silver’s production company as much as it did in the post office, and because Silver is planning to remove the mural, an obvious question is: why not move the mural to another public space? Although the “Story of Venice” mural was made specifically for the southern wall of our historic post office, we might choose not to lose the mural with the building. Especially since at the present time there is no provision for public access to view the mural. Moving it to the library is something that the community might wish to consider.
Another important factor to remember is the bargain that Silver got with this purchase. Not only is the building huge and it includes a large basement, but it is also in the heart of Venice, it is a historical building, and it sits on a large parcel of land. All of that for $7.3 million? What a steal! And then he gets a mural by a world-renowned artist as a bonus? WOW! It shows that the USPS is not all that interested in making money.
Although the mass media has not covered the killing of a service provided for in the Constitution, the Beachhead has covered it in almost every issue for the past 18 months. Under a prerogative of losing revenue is actually a manufactured crisis caused by the demand that the USPS be the only business in the country to pre-fund the health benefits of its retirees for the next 75 years in a 10 year period. USPS also over-paid $75 billion into its employee’s pension fund. And with the planned sale of historical buildings, most of which happen to be in California, the USPS has been a cash cow for the government.
The Coalition to Save the Venice Post Office has contacted and asked for help from every politician with jurisdiction. Aside from Bill Rosendahl and Janice Hahn, who wrote letters sympathizing with our efforts, there was a lot of silence and lack of responses. Senator Diane Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, happens to be the chair of the Board of Directors of USPS property consultant CB Richard Ellis, which might explain why she chose not to speak against the USPS’s plan to sell our historic post office.
“We really have a government that’s just going to the highest bidder, which is all these private interest groups that are hovering around like vultures trying to pick the Postal Service, which actually is one of the strongest services that our government provides,” said Dennis Kucinich (Dem-OH) in an August 1 interview with Nermeen Shaikh. He went on to say that “every time you privatize something, the cost goes up to the public. It may profit the private sector, but it certainly doesn’t benefit the public.”
Here in Venice, we should “let the fate of the post office be a warning of what can happen to the rest of Venice,” said Jim Smith, who suggested that we create an oversight committee that will keep tabs on our post office and other historic buildings.
“Some of the best buildings from the Abbot Kinney era were demolished by the city, including St. Mark’s Hotel, the block-long colonnade on Windward, not to mention the Pier and the Canals. In Venice, we seem to have organizations for everything except protection of our common heritage,” Smith said.
It is the opinion of many that it is a violation of intent to change the purpose of a Works Project Administration building, such as our historic post office, and allow it to move into private ownership.
“There would be a distinct loss to the spiritual and patriotic relation between the citizen and the government if its activities were carried on in bare warehouses without architectural significance or dignity and constructed as cheaply and as shoddily as the average speculative structure” – Southwest Builder & Contractor, 9/13/1935.