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Author sends mailbox enthusiasts and Art Deco lovers back to the past

Have you ever wondered about the history of the mailbox? @latimescitybeat meets some who have

Who even thinks about mailboxes anymore, when so few people send the kind of messages that require envelopes and postage stamps?

That a small crowd turned out recently to learn about mailbox history may speak to the zeal of L.A.'s urban explorers.

They are a growing bunch, hungry to discover the city's history — the more obscure, the better.

About 70 people were at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood to hear from the author of a book devoted to mailboxes, though not the standard blue, street-corner variety.

These are resplendently decorated, metal mailboxes that gleam. They feature bald eagles, unfurling ferns, rising suns peeking through clouds.

They still can be found in the lobbies of Art Deco buildings in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other big cities — but getting in to see them can be hard, said Karen Greene, author with Lynne Lavelle of "Art Deco Mailboxes: An Illustrated Design History."

The New York clinical psychologist, for whom mailboxes are a hobby, said she encountered many a skeptical security guard and "was beginning to feel like a mailbox pervert" as she researched.

Her talk was presented by the Egyptian's nonprofit overseer, American Cinematheque, and by the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles. Margot Gerber, who represents both, thanked the gathering for forsaking a sunny afternoon to explore "the aesthetics of usable, utilitarian objects."

"It's unfortunately becoming a lost art. Some people might argue that the iPhone is a work of art but, come on, it's not really," she said, drawing laughs from an audience nostalgic enough to include a few ladies sporting smart 1940s dresses and curls and a couple of men in short, fat ties and wingtips.

Such costumes are common within the Art Deco Society, which revels in the styles of the '20s through the '40s, and holds a monthly event called Cocktails in Historic Places, where members dress up to drink at old-time watering holes.

Greene said her interest in the mail led her to the first lobby mailboxes, patented by an architect named James G. Cutler in the 1880s in Rochester, N.Y. Mail service as we know it was still quite new then, she said. Postal delivery to individual addresses was about two decades old. Previously, mail had traveled only from post office to post office, where people had to pick it up.

Cutler formed the Cutler Mail Chute Co. to get the jump on the next big changes, Greene said. Office buildings were growing taller, meaning workers had farther to go to mail letters — until his system of chutes feeding lobby mailboxes let envelopes sail swiftly from a building's top floor to its bottom.

The first mail chute was installed in Rochester's Elwood Building in 1884. Then came railroad stations, government buildings, hotels and skyscrapers. The Cutler company, which for a while had a monopoly, took a proud bald eagle as its symbol to exude trustworthiness.

But as the number of mailbox locations expanded, designs grew more varied and architects often matched the facades to building themes — be they robed gods or underwater scenes.

Greene said that in the Art Deco era, roughly the time between world wars, Americans were eager to put the grimness of the war years, an influenza pandemic and a stock market crash behind them and celebrate technological progress and modernity and change.

On the screen in the darkened theater flashed mailboxes of bronze, steel, aluminum. One from New York featured a locomotive, a sleek ship and a U.S. mail plane slanting forward, zigzags of steam and waves and air conveying speed. Others showed flashes of lightning and long rays of sunlight.

Some lobby mailboxes still are in use. Others are decoration, Greene said. One handsome New York Art Deco mailbox now stores lobby cleaning supplies. At least it's still there, she said. Others are gone.

Her trip to Los Angeles was short. People asked whether she'd checked out the Wiltern and the Eastern Columbia Building; they made plans to do their own mailbox spotting.

One man said that Greene's talk had made him remember standing in his grandfather's office building, transfixed by envelopes flying down the glass chutes. A woman said she recalled mail getting jammed in the chutes, and "the mail boys" saying the next day's letter would be sure to dislodge what was stuck.

Darren Spinelli was too young for such memories. The 48-year-old Long Beach resident said he discovered Art Deco in Tim Burton's "Batman" movie.

"It just seems like that was the peak of man's design, and it went downhill from there," he said. "Now everything's too simple and stripped down."

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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