Art Deco, fondly ad­dressed

Mail­boxes get the stamp of ap­proval from lovers of the dec­o­ra­tive style ‘The aes­thetics of … util­i­tar­ian ob­jects’ is ‘un­for­tu­nately be­com­ing a lost art.’ — Mar­got Ger­ber, Amer­i­can Cine­math­eque and the Art Deco So­ci­ety of L.A.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - NITA LELYVELD nita.lelyveld@la­times.com Fol­low City Beat @la­timesc­i­ty­beat on Twit­ter and at Los An­ge­les Times City Beat on Face­book.

Who even thinks about mail­boxes any­more, when so few peo­ple send the kind of mes­sages that re­quire en­velopes and postage stamps?

That a small crowd turned out re­cently to learn about mail­box his­tory may speak to the zeal of L.A.’s ur­ban ex­plor­ers.

They are a grow­ing bunch, hun­gry to dis­cover the city’s his­tory — the more ob­scure, the bet­ter.

About 70 peo­ple were at the Egyptian Theatre in Hol­ly­wood to hear from the au­thor of a book de­voted to mail­boxes, though not the stan­dard blue, street-cor­ner va­ri­ety.

Th­ese are re­splen­dently dec­o­rated, metal mail­boxes that gleam. They fea­ture bald ea­gles, un­furl­ing ferns, ris­ing suns peek­ing through clouds.

They still can be found in the lob­bies of Art Deco build­ings in New York, Los An­ge­les, Chicago and other big cities — but get­ting in to see them can be hard, said Karen Greene, au­thor with Lynne Lavelle of “Art Deco Mail­boxes: An Il­lus­trated De­sign His­tory.”

The New York clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, for whom mail­boxes are a hobby, said she en­coun­tered many a skep­ti­cal se­cu­rity guard and “was be­gin­ning to feel like a mail­box pervert” as she re­searched.

Her talk was pre­sented by the Egyptian’s non­profit over­seer, Amer­i­can Cine­math­eque, and by the Art Deco So­ci­ety of Los An­ge­les. Mar­got Ger­ber, who rep­re­sents both, thanked the gath­er­ing for for­sak­ing a sunny af­ter­noon to ex­plore “the aes­thetics of us­able, util­i­tar­ian ob­jects.”

“It’s un­for­tu­nately be­com­ing a lost art. Some peo­ple might ar­gue that the iPhone is a work of art but, come on, it’s not re­ally,” she said, drawing laughs from an au­di­ence nos­tal­gic enough to in­clude a few ladies sport­ing smart 1940s dresses and curls and a cou­ple of men in short, fat ties and wingtips.

Such cos­tumes are com­mon within the Art Deco So­ci­ety, which rev­els in the styles of the ’20s through the ’40s, and holds a monthly event called Cock­tails in His­toric Places, where mem­bers dress up to drink at old-time wa­ter­ing holes.

Greene said her in­ter­est in the mail led her to the first lobby mail­boxes, patented by an ar­chi­tect named James G. Cut­ler in the 1880s in Rochester, N.Y. Mail ser­vice as we know it was still quite new then, she said. Postal de­liv­ery to in­di­vid­ual ad­dresses was about two decades old. Pre­vi­ously, mail had trav­eled only from post of­fice to post of­fice, where peo­ple had to pick it up.

Cut­ler formed the Cut­ler Mail Chute Co. to get the jump on the next big changes, Greene said. Of­fice build­ings were grow­ing taller, mean­ing work­ers had far­ther to go to mail let­ters — un­til his sys­tem of chutes feed­ing lobby mail­boxes let en­velopes sail swiftly from a build­ing’s top floor to its bot­tom.

The first mail chute was in­stalled in Rochester’s El­wood Build­ing in 1884. Then came rail­road sta­tions, gov­ern­ment build­ings, ho­tels and sky­scrapers. The Cut­ler com­pany, which for a while had a mo­nop­oly, took a proud bald ea­gle as its sym­bol to ex­ude trust­wor­thi­ness.

But as the num­ber of mail­box lo­ca­tions ex­panded, de­signs grew more var­ied and ar­chi­tects of­ten matched the fa­cades to build­ing themes — be they robed gods or un­der­wa­ter scenes.

Greene said that in the Art Deco era, roughly the time be­tween world wars, Amer­i­cans were ea­ger to put the grim­ness of the war years, an in­fluenza pan­demic and a stock mar­ket crash be­hind them and cel­e­brate tech­no­log­i­cal progress and moder­nity and change.

On the screen in the dark­ened theater flashed mail­boxes of bronze, steel, alu­minum. One from New York fea­tured a lo­co­mo­tive, a sleek ship and a U.S. mail plane slant­ing for­ward, zigzags of steam and waves and air con­vey­ing speed. Oth­ers showed flashes of light­ning and long rays of sun­light.

Some lobby mail­boxes still are in use. Oth­ers are dec­o­ra­tion, Greene said. One hand­some New York Art Deco mail­box now stores lobby clean­ing sup­plies. At least it’s still there, she said. Oth­ers are gone.

Her trip to Los An­ge­les was short. Peo­ple asked whether she’d checked out the Wil­tern and the Eastern Columbia Build­ing; they made plans to do their own mail­box spot­ting.

One man said that Greene’s talk had made him re­mem­ber stand­ing in his grand­fa­ther’s of­fice build­ing, trans­fixed by en­velopes fly­ing down the glass chutes. A woman said she re­called mail get­ting jammed in the chutes, and “the mail boys” say­ing the next day’s let­ter would be sure to dis­lodge what was stuck.

Dar­ren Spinelli was too young for such mem­o­ries. The 48-year-old Long Beach res­i­dent said he dis­cov­ered Art Deco in Tim Bur­ton’s “Bat­man” movie.

“It just seems like that was the peak of man’s de­sign, and it went down­hill from there,” he said. “Now ev­ery­thing’s too sim­ple and stripped down.”

‘The aes­thetics of … util­i­tar­ian ob­jects’ is ‘un­for­tu­nately be­com­ing a lost art.’ — Mar­got Ger­ber, Amer­i­can Cine­math­eque and the Art Deco So­ci­ety of L.A.

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

KAREN GREENE shares the his­tory of mail­boxes, many de­signed in the Art Deco pe­riod of the 1920s through the 1940s, to a group at the Egyptian Theatre.

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