Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 10, 2017

Depths of Depression, Heyday of the Moderne: San Pedro Post Office

It’s nearly time. More than half a million employees at an enterprise are bracing for the crunch. Work schedules are being set, with lots of long hours looming. The world’s largest civilian vehicle fleet is being prepared to drive some untold thousands or perhaps millions of miles.

It’s the holiday mailing season, and the United States Postal Service will be inundated with greeting cards and packages. The impact will be felt in gigantic distribution centers and local post offices alike. Perhaps the crush won’t be too enormous at the post office in McCoy, Colorado, population 24:

McCoy PO Brad Nixon 9513 (640x480)

It’ll be more intense in large city post offices, like this one:

SP PO ext full Brad Nixon 8601 (800x616)

No, this article isn’t about the volume of mail distributed between now and the end of the year. It’s about that building above, representative of a large number of other public structures built across the U.S. during and just after the Great Depression, in the 1930s and ’40s. Here’s the entrance of the structure, the San Pedro, California U.S. Post Office and Customs Building, from 1935:

SP PO door Brad Nixon 8598 (640x469)

As you can see, it’s a large-scale expression of the Art Deco/Beaux-Arts/Streamline Moderne styles current in its day. At that time, with banks shuttered, unemployment rampant and millions living on the edge of starvation, there were no jobs, tens of thousands of closed businesses, and no funds in the private sector to generate any new jobs or cash. The federal government established an ambitious series of programs to undertake thousands of building projects that would provide labor constructing roads, bridges and public works, including a large number of post offices.

Whenever you see a bank, school, bridge or dam — large or small — built under the program, you’ll find they almost invariably share an aesthetic similarity. It’s commonly referred to as PWA Moderne after the Public Works Administration, responsible for many of the projects.

Clearly, there was some period zeitgeist at work, but almost certainly the supervising designers and architects in Washington, D.C. had a bent for the moderne mode.

The interior of the San Pedro building is just as imposing as the outside…

SP PO int R Brad Nixon 8586 (800x600)

… as are the details, like this writing desk in the lobby, one of several originals still in place, complete with bronze lamp:

SP PO desk Brad Nixon 8585 (458x640)

Also intact are the banks of bronze and glass letter boxes, familiar to Americans in hundreds or perhaps thousands of post offices…

SP PO boxes Brad Nixon 8581 (640x493)

… and I like the style of the lettering above the service windows, mounted on dark granite or marble (click either image to enlarge).

Although the bulk of the employment on projects went to the people laboring with shovels, hammers and tools of nearly every trade, there was also an artistic aspect.

A large number of the public buildings featured murals, stonework and other decoration commissioned for the sites. The San Pedro building has a 74-foot long mural depicting — what else? — mail delivery, featuring hardworking people delivering mail on foot, bicycle and via rail, ship and airplane in a distinctive period (Social Realist?) style:

SP PO Mural R5 Brad Nixon 8575 (640x356)

SP PO Mural dock Brad Nixon 8577 (504x640)

The artist was Fletcher Martin, also credited with some of the building design.

The building also accommodated the operations of the U.S. Customs office serving the Port of Los Angeles. It’s situated on the eastern edge of San Pedro on a bluff overlooking the main channel of the harbor, which today is part of the country’s busiest container shipping port.

SP PO ext vert Brad Nixon 8599 (640x526)

The window air conditioning units spoil its full impact, but the building is an impressive example of PWA Moderne (I suspect that the monolithic mass of the very large structure hasn’t lent itself to a modern HVAC system … or maybe it’s a budget issue).

The Post Office and Customs Building is located at 839 South Beacon St. San Pedro, approximately 25 miles due south of downtown L.A., on the western side of the Port of Los Angeles.

There are PWA Moderne projects all across the U.S. Have a favorite in your town? Please leave a comment.

Most of the photographs in this post and select images from Under Western Skies are available on CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2017


  1. I’ve seen a lot of post offices, but none this ornate. I think I’d rather live by the McCoy, CO one though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point. No ocean near McCoy, but it’s right by Rocky Mountain NP. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. On my trip through Arkansas last year, I visited and photographed post office murals in a dozen towns. It was quite a revelation to me. None was as striking architecturally as this one, but that was part of the charm. There were some real gems hidden away — and many of them hadn’t even been noticed by the local p.o. patrons. They’d see me photographing and say, “What are you looking at?” Isn’t that so often the case, for all of us.

    I really enjoyed this. The doors and the writing desk are knockouts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good for you. An excellent tale. Nothing like a curious traveler to discover the extraordinary hiding in the everyday. You prove the point that the PWA art isn’t just in big cities like LA. Thank you.


  3. You are fortunate to have some genuine treasures so close to your home. When one ulives in a city less than 50 years old, as I do, one must travel to find such rare gems. My city may be very organized, clean, and neat, but it lacks the kind of character that can be acquired only over time.

    Thanks again for sharing.


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