For many years, whenever I passed by the Department of Water and Power Distributing Station No. 59 on 11071 Venice Blvd. on my way to the Mar Vista Public Library,I always wondered if it was an Art Deco building. Solidly built, but elegantly simple, it beckoned me from the car and bus window to come and check it out up close.
Finally, one afternoon after picking up some books from the library, I walked the long city blocks down to its location.Using both my I-Phone camera and a small 35mm camera I battled the overhead sun and photographed the framed door, the striated line details, the rectilinear lights, and the period typography of the sign.
Accentuating the structure with equally sparse loveliness was the landscaping in the front that brought a touch of naturalness to its gray minimalism.
Backstory of the Building
Constructed in 1940 out of “smooth stucco” this particular building is a prime example of PWA (Public Works Administration) Moderne or Depression Moderne Art Deco. Representative of the “public works projects” Franklin Roosevelt proposed through his New Deal”it is one of a number of buildings in the United States overseen by the Office of the Supervising Architects. In addition to civic structures like the “Department of Water and Power”, from 1933 to 1944 “schools, hospitals, post offices, libraries and banks” were also built in the PWA Moderne style.
Sturdy and reliable, the goal of the style was meant to “depict permanence, stability and authority”. That doesn’t mean there isn’t grace and elegance in their classicism, it just means their characteristics are more subdued. So instead of the splashy effects that traditional Art Deco was known for in the 1920s, this time there is a more sombre hand at play rendering quadrilateral justification to “symmetrical exteriors and recessed windows organized into vertical panels”.
The Great Depression
To understand why this type of architectural image was so important, during its heyday, you need to know a little about The Great Depression. Since its start in 1929 until its end in the late 1930s, there was such an economic downturn, unemployment was out of control, and the overall morale of the people was at a low point. To turn this around the buildings designed as PWA Moderne personified the security society was seeking in their lives then.
In 2021, during the midst of our own crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to minimize the effects of The Great Depression if we didn’t live through it or know others who did. Still, regardless of this, the fact that we continue to appreciate such an important part of our past through architecture is encouraging and a great way to face the future.