Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 16, 2018

Long Beach Post Office: Another Art Moderne Monolith

For as long as human beings have had the means and opportunity to build things for purposes beyond mere shelter and survival, we’ve been building to impress. At Stonehenge, Sacsayhuamán, Cahokia, Sri Ranganathaswamy — across the inhabited planet — individuals who themselves lived in mere mud, wattle or adobe huts constructed vast temples, palaces and monuments (perhaps not always of their own free will). It’s ingrained in all cultures: Important things should be massive, towering, impressive. Important things should look important.

Religions and powerful leaders build awe-inspiring temples, vast palaces. “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair,” said Shelley’s Ozymandias (although with trenchant irony). As states emerged, distinct from individual rulers of wealth and influence, they adopted the same architectural ethos, and government buildings everywhere loom above us citizens — presumably to reassure us. Interestingly, even postal offices are often cavernous, palatial structures. That’s true of the U.S. Post Office and Federal Building in Long Beach, California:

Long Beach PO hor corner Brad Nixon 8804 (640x515)

Completed in 1934, the building was under construction when a 6.4 magnitude earthquake destroyed or damaged hundreds of buildings in Long Beach and Southern California in 1933, but the project suffered only a minor interruption before work continued.

Long Beach PO vert full Brad Nixon 8767 sm

The building’s appropriately imposing, although somewhat austere, its decoration limited to fluted columns and a restrained degree of embellishment along the cornices and capitals.

Long Beach PO hor up Brad Nixon 8750 sm

Although the style is most commonly referred to as “PWA Moderne” (Public Works Administration), another delightful term is “starved classicism.” As you may have surmised, the project was carried out under the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.

“Austere” is also a word that suits the interior.

LB Post Office int Brad Nixon 2252 2 sm

While innumerable PWA/WPA projects are decorated with murals, sculpture, mosaics and frescoes sponsored by the PWA Federal Art Project, for some reason the Long Beach building has none.

LB Post Office hall Brad Nixon 2259 2 sm

There are terrazzo floors and marble wainscoting beneath plain plastered walls and modestly ornate ceiling moulding, which — by my count — is comprised of between eight and 11 elements.

LB Post Office crown Brad Nixon 2254 sm

There is some wrought iron on railings around the otherwise rather severe stairways.

LB Post Office stair Brad Nixon 2257 sm

Here are some other interior details, including a steam radiator and the ubiquitous bronze metal mailboxes. Click on an image for a larger view.

Dedicated students of architecture likely can draw some relationships between the streamlined styles of the ’30s, Bauhaus and International modes, leading to the modernists and Brutalists of the post-War era. Form doesn’t follow only fashion, though, but budget, as well. The subdued detailing of this building’s masonry exterior and the plainly outfitted interior may reflect the straitened circumstances of an economy that generated barely enough wealth to keep the population fed and clothed.

Long Beach PO vert rake Brad Nixon 8752 sm

The PWA produced thousands of public works, some of them quite extensive and even elaborate, but the focus was on providing employment for workers. The fact that the buildings, bridges and other works all displayed a style consistent enough to be typified as “PWA Moderne” bespeaks a significant effort at the top of the bureaucracy’s pyramid, where things must have been incredibly busy. It’s no surprise that a large, ambitious structure like the Long Beach post office is rather workaday in appearance.

Long Beach PO hor full Brad Nixon 8765 sm

The real testament to the designers, engineers and work crews is that it’s not only still standing, 85 years on, but that one can stand at the same window to buy stamps or mail a package*, because the post office still operates from there.

Visiting the Long Beach Post Office and Federal Building

The building’s in downtown at 300 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, California. Long Beach is reachable by Interstate 710, among other auto routes, but is also well served by the LA Metro light rail Blue Line, which travels on Long Beach Blvd.

Long Beach PO metro Brad Nixon 8770 sm

*The price of postage has increased since 1934.

Photographs in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018


  1. I love those long, shiny polished floors. Makes me want to roller skate in there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your asides and notes, including the rather prim “*The price of postage has increased since 1934.” And I like this building. I can’t quite figure out why it seems warm and welcoming, despite the austerity. Maybe it’s that the details that are there shine. In any event, if I’m ever in L.A. and need a stamp, this is where I’d go to purchase it.


  3. Very interesting! Love all of your pics as usual!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. They needed some of that Indiana limestone from down in Bedford, but otherwise they did all right (we just watched “Breaking Away” a few weeks ago — me for the umpteenth time).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Maybe I could learn to like it – eventually – but I can’t get there at this point. Too austere for my taste. Clearly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder for this monochrome monolith. It attempts to be monumental, but doesn’t quite make it. Art deco without the deco. PWA has done much better elsewhere.


    • Your point’s valid, and so is that of Linda — “Shoreacres:” art, design and style don’t have strict boundaries, or all abstract expressionism might look like Rothko paintings, and then where would we be? The sheer volume of works that fit into that extremely large “PWA Moderne” envelope (itself a rather loosely defined category) allow for a wide variety of interpretation and expression, as you rightly point out. I enjoy seeing them, documenting them and laying them out here for people who’ll never have an opportunity to explore L.A. as much as I do (although on any given day I might prefer to be exploring Bologna, Carcassonne or Hong Kong).


      • So how did you happen to visit this post office? It’s a bit off the beaten path for you.

        And, why all the extra stories for this building? What do they do with all that additional space? My city has several post offices, but they’re all single story.


      • I was on a roll of encountering depression-era P.O.s: Gardena, Compton among them. On a day when The Counselor was busy with a project of hers, I went to Long Beach specifically to shoot that one. It was a dual purpose mission: for the blog, but also to collect stock photgraphy images. If you go to and search “long beach california post office” you’ll see my photos there. The additional floors originally had a variety of federal offices. I assume that may still be the case, although I didn’t consult the directory.


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