Dream approaches reality for Beverly Hills arts center

Times Staff Writer

After years of ups and downs, including a switch in purpose and a change of architect, the instigators of a long-brewing ambition to convert Beverly Hills’ 1933 post office building into a cultural center foresee about a year of design work by architect Zoltan Pali and two years of construction before a projected opening in 2009.

As described at a conference last week for media, donors and community leaders, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts will include the repurposed post office building, plus an adjoining contemporary-style building that will be constructed to house a flexible 500-seat theater.

Pali, a principal in SPF:architects, the executive architects of the Getty Villa, joined the project in February after the center’s previous architectural firm, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, dissolved, says the center’s executive director, Lou Moore.

And the facility’s previous mission -- to become California’s first venue solely dedicated to children’s theater -- changed last year as well, because of Beverly Hills’ enthusiasm for a more broadly defined performing arts center.

Several hurdles remain to be cleared, including persuading the city to provide parking at the site, at Crescent and Canon drives and Santa Monica Boulevard, between City Hall and a Jimmy Choo store.


But the center board has raised $35 million of the $51 million total cost. (The continued capital campaign will build an endowment and pay operating costs for the center.) Because of a $15-million gift from the Annenberg Foundation in 2004, the center is named for TV Guide heiress Wallis Annenberg.

If all goes as planned, the center will bring a mix of theater, dance, music, opera and children’s productions to the space, a sumptuous and well-maintained Italian Renaissance-style building with vaulted ceilings, marble interior walls and a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Moore, the center’s executive director, says local donors were interested in establishing “a little Lincoln Center on the Westside.” Although the center will be more modest than that -- it will comprise the 500-seat Goldsmith Theater, a 150-seat rehearsal hall and several classrooms and studios -- it will fill an important gap in the city of about 35,000, she says.

The center will be a presenting house for acts from all over the world, she says, and plans are for it to be open to local performers and artists as well.

The post office was built in the 1930s to accommodate a burgeoning city associated with show business, after an appeal by then-Mayor Will Rogers to U.S. Treasurer Andew Mellon. Appropriately enough for its Depression-era birth, the lobby was decorated with Works Progress Administration-style murals by Charles Kassler Jr. and dedicated to “communication, cooperation, enlightenment.”

But in the ‘90s, the post office was shut down because its infrastructure could not keep up with volume or technological demands, and the building was bought by the city. The center’s board goes back to 1994, when community leaders came together to save the structure and create the arts complex the city had never had.

Pali, of SPF:architects, which also worked on restoration of the Greek and Pantages theaters, says it was difficult at first to simultaneously respect the original building and accommodate the theater’s demands.

“A high-quality, acoustically correct, well-shaped house,” he says, “was simply not going to fit in the existing building” without somehow ripping it apart. The need for backstage space, wings and fly space complicated the plan further.

He solved the problem by moving the Goldsmith Theater, with its standard 90-foot-by-40-foot stage and wings, out of the original post office and into the new adjoining building. “Once that move was made,” he said, “everything solved itself. It was like a Rubik’s cube that fell into place.”

Because the project was going to include major construction anyway, this didn’t increase costs. “You actually save money, and it makes the project quicker,” Pali says, and opens up the outdoor spaces as well.

Patrons will enter through the post office lobby, which will retain the murals, and walk through the original building into the new theater, which will be sunken slightly to provide fly space.

A glass promenade will connect the two buildings and will overlook a sunken sculpture garden. Other outdoor gathering spaces, including a terrace and new landscaping, will be added, and a restaurant or cafe may be considered.

“I look at history a lot differently than most Americans do,” says Pali, the L.A.-born son of Hungarian immigrants. “With a family that comes from Europe, you have a longer view” and a sense that the new building will someday be part of history too.

Thus, he didn’t try to emulate the post office’s original style in the new building: “You don’t want to fool the person looking at it: You want to do something that makes sense for today.”

Pali says the new building will reference the post office’s origins whenever possible. Exterior brick walls modeled on the serrated edges of postage stamps, Pali says, will have “a lightness and heaviness at the same time, and an ancient quality.”

Moore, the founding managing director of the Geffen Playhouse, acknowledged that fundraising for the center was initially difficult because other arts groups, many with decades-long track records such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had recently led capital campaigns.

“We don’t exist,” she joked about the center. “Would you give me a million dollars?”