Department of Water and Power Distributing Station No. 59

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

Department of Water and Power Distributing Station No. 59

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.

PWA Moderne

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.

Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza (Inspiration: Art Deco)

While growing up in South Central Los Angeles, I visited Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza many times with my mother and my grandmother on various shopping trips. Besides the ultra-chic window displays, salespeople, and merchandise I also remember going to the May Co. regularly to get my hair done at the African American beauty salon Soul Sisters.Over the years I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the architecture of the mall, so one sunny day while I was visiting, I grabbed my iPhone and took a few photos outside. Remembering the tips my teacher Ford Lowcock gave me in my iPhone Photography class at Santa Monica College I shot from a variety of angles.

Background:

Later while researching my photos on the internet I discovered the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza was built in 1947 and officially opened on November 2, 1947. Known as one of the “first regional shopping centers in the U.S. that was built specifically for the automobile” it’s still a popular neighbored destination.

Secured on both sides by two Art Deco buildings, that still remain excellent representations and retain their Streamline Moderne characteristics, are the Broadway Department Store and the May Co. Department Store.

Streamline Moderne is an international style of Art Deco architecture and design that emerged in the 1930s. It was inspired by aerodynamic design and emphasized curving forms, long horizontal lines, and nautical elements. In industrial design, it was used in railroad locomotives, telephones, toasters, buses, appliances, and other devices to give the impression of sleekness and modernity.”

The Broadway Department Store:

The designer of the Broadway Department Store was Albert B. Gardner, and it’s located across the street from the May Co. Department Store.

The May Co. Department Store:

The May Co. Department Store opened as a “free-standing store” and was designed by Albert C. Martin and Associates. It was officially completed in October 1947.

Changes to the Mall:

During the 1980s a bridge was built to connect the two stores and “form a walkway for shoppers to the mall”. Today, in addition to a diverse group of stores occupying the mall, the two anchor stores are Macy’s and T.J. Maxx.