For several decades a mural depicting the early history of Venice with the image of community founder Abbot Kinney at the center graced the foyer of a Works Project Administration-era post office.
Now that the former federal building has sold to a private owner, community members are working to ensure that the public’s ability to continue viewing the historic artwork is not threatened.
Created by renowned artist Edward Biberman, “The Story of Venice” mural was commissioned by the Section of Fine Arts of the United States and installed inside the post office in August 1941.
Along with the preservation of the building’s historic characteristics, the protection of the Biberman art piece has been the central focus of residents since the U.S. Postal Service announced plans to relocate the postal retail operations to a carrier annex across the street. They argue that the mural has been a part of the community for more than 70 years and the public should not be inhibited from seeing it despite the sale of the building.
“All historic post offices, including the ones done during the WPA period, as ours was, all share a single intent… promoting public appreciation and access to art and architecture equivalent to access that (the public) gets to mail,” said Jed Pauker, member of the Venice Neighborhood Council and the Coalition to Save the Venice Post Office. “These post offices were there to combine universal access to the delivery of mail… with universal access to art and architecture.”
The Postal Service had consistently stated that preservation of the Main Street structure and access to the mural inside would be conveyed in covenants attached to the building’s deed. With the closure of the post office building and subsequent sale to film producer Joel Silver, residents have not shied away from making sure those protections are in place.
Even as the entrance stairs and ramps were demolished, the effort waged on to see that the historic essence of the building was untouched.
Some had expressed doubts that an early draft covenant offered adequate preservation assurance, particularly if ownership changed hands. Some neighborhood council and coalition members believe the completed covenant does not reference public access to the mural and they want to ensure that access is specifically mentioned in documents related to the new ownership.
“The new owner does not have the right to lock up and hide this important publicly owned painting; it’s owned by the public and we have to be allowed easy access to it,” said Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Association, which has fought for protection of the post office’s historic features, including the artwork.
The neighborhood council addressed a motion at its Aug. 21 meeting that would allow the public to enter the building to view the mural, saying it is a publicly owned artwork. Following a proposal by the post office coalition, the council voted to support the recommendation that the mural be available for public viewing 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday – the same hours that it was accessible under federal ownership.
Plans have also been proposed for restoration of the Biberman artwork and neighborhood council members are in discussions on how the process will proceed, said Amanda Seward, chair of the council’s post office task force.
“Our concerns were public access to the mural, restoration of the mural and rehabilitation of the building,” Seward said of discussions about the new ownership.
The city of Los Angeles has agreed to manage the covenant to help assure the long-term preservation of the post office, Seward said. Silver, producer of hit films such as “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon” and “The Matrix,” has agreed to follow the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s standards for preservation, she said.
Silver said in a statement that the building will serve as the home of Silver Pictures once significant restoration and renovation work has been completed and he intends to respect the structure’s historic elements.
“As a longtime preservationist of architecture, I’m thrilled to move forward with the restoration and renovation of the former Venice Post Office,” said Silver. “While we are still in the very early stages of the process, I am committed to the rehabilitation of the building and its unique WPA features and the restoration of the treasured Edward Biberman ‘Story of Venice’ mural.
“I am also committed to being a good neighbor in the Venice community, whether through providing public access to the space or in developing programs for the community related to film, art and architecture.”
Some community members say they are encouraged that Silver, who has been involved in prior preservation projects, has from the start indicated a willingness to protect the historic building and address any community concerns.
While mural access may not be included in the covenant, it is expected that public viewing requirements will be attached to the lease agreement for the artwork, Seward said.
The renovation project, which includes the restoration of the Biberman mural, is expected to be completed in 2014. ¤