The Santa Monica City Council has approved a covenant that is intended to ensure adequate protections are in place to preserve the historic character of the former post office building in downtown.
The council voted 5-1 Aug. 27 to support the preservation covenant, which will be attached to the deed for the Works Project Administration building at 1248 Fifth St. and will prohibit the buyer and any future owners from taking any action that would affect the historic features of the property without first seeking approval from the city government. With the covenant in place, the U.S. Postal Service, which has placed the property on the market, is allowed to proceed with the sale of the 75-year-old building once a buyer is selected.
The preservation contract additionally paves the way for the post office building to be designated as a city landmark, as the city previously lacked the jurisdiction to landmark the structure while it was owned by the federal government.
Retail postal services were relocated from the WPA-era building to a carrier annex facility at 1653 Seventh St. after the Fifth Street site closed in late June. While many community members and city officials had objected to the relocation, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said the city has expressed an interest in doing whatever it can to preserve the historic structure, which has served customers since 1938.
The building is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, but Postal Service spokesman Richard Maher has said the federal agency considered the property to be historic whether it was on the registry of historic places or not.
The preservation covenant was prepared with recommendations from the city Landmarks Commission and received the support of the Postal Service. The federal agency followed the same procedure when it sold another of its WPA-era properties in Venice, which contains a historic 1941 mural by Edward Biberman.
Landmarks Commission chair pro tem Margaret Bach told the council that the covenant process marked a “rare instance of consensus” between the federal and local governments on how to protect the building.
“This is a critically important step that paves the way for the sale of the building for adaptive reuse while ensuring the preservation of its character-defining features as identified in the covenant language,” Bach said.
According to the covenant, the interior historic features that can not be altered without permission from the council include the hanging light fixtures, horizontal wood wall paneling and ceilings, metal staircases, terrazzo flooring and original tall tables. Among the historic exterior features are the main façade, poured concrete exterior siding, the Art Deco-style lettering reading “United States Post Office,” the dedication plaque and original wood frame windows.
Landmarks commissioner Roger Genser urged the council to support the covenant, saying the former post office is an important building in the city’s history.
“This is one of the very instances where we have an opportunity to save a real bit of the historic fabric of our downtown,” Genser said.
Carol Lemlein, president of the Santa Monica Conservancy, has said the conservancy wants to make sure everything is in place to be able to landmark the building.
Resident Jerry Rubin said that while he and others had hoped for the post office to remain in downtown, he supports having the Fifth Street structure incorporate an adaptive reuse or cultural use after it is purchased.
Mayor Pam O’Connor, the lone council member to oppose the covenant, said she is in favor of protecting the historic building but does not believe the covenant is the right way to preserve it and believes the process could create problems for the city in the future.