Federal Aviation Administration West Coast Headquarters | Los Angeles Conservancy
Photo by Adrian Scott Fine/L.A. Conservancy

Federal Aviation Administration West Coast Headquarters

The Federal Aviation Administration’s West Coast Headquarters are housed in a building that is practically programmatic: a rounded, glass-and-aluminum-skinned, six-story office that looks to be clad in the aerodynamic skin of some experimental aircraft.

Designed by Cesar Pelli and Anthony Lumsden of Daniel Mann Johnson & Mendenhall (DMJM) in 1966, the building was the first-designed Southern California building to have a mirrored skin. It was not the first built, though, as it was not completed until 1973. The mirrored glass skin would become ubiquitous on corporate architectural designs of the 1970s and 1980s, but it fittingly saw its start here in the world of aerospace.

Pelli and Lumsden’s Late Modern design features a rectangular plan with rounded corners and a recessed first floor to give the main volume a lightweight feel. Reversed mullions keep a low profile, staying out of the way of the spectacular glass skin. The glass reflects the sky, making the large building seem airy and fragile, even bubble-like. It seems to hover over an expanse of rolling lawn. The FAA building is a lovely embodiment of Pelli’s desire to use his late 1960s – early 1970s glass skin designs to create a delicate, organic style of architecture that de-emphasized mass.

To learn more about the Federal Aviation Administration’s West Coast Headquarters and the Conservancy's work to preserve it, check out our blog

In 2015 at age 43, the FAA was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Its contribution to the field of architecture is more than worthy of this level of recognition. Though still relatively young, a significant seismic retrofit and reinvestment was also identified at this same time. Ultimately after considering options the General Services Administration (GSA), who manages the FAA and a massive portfolio of buildings owned by the federal government, decided to close and sell the building. Due to its status as a historic building, the planned sale prompted a federal historic review process called Section 106, established as part of the National Historic Preservation Act. This ensures that any significant historic building passing from federal to private ownership is afforded adequate, long-term protection. In this case the best tool to accomplish this goal is a conservation easement.

The federal government officially closed the building in 2018, relocating its office workers and leaving the building empty. For more than a year the Conservancy worked closely with the GSA to put in place the necessary provisions before a sell of the FAA could proceed. This included valuable assistance from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. On May 3, 2019 the GSA issued bids for the purchase of the FAA, with an online auction beginning on June 3 and ending on July 9.

Often it is a younger generation that sees value in these later, newer buildings that are just emerging as historic landmarks of the future. Now that the 1970s era built environment is crossing the fifty-year threshold, enough time has passed to start understanding, recognizing, and protecting these places too.

It is why we are excited to share the Federal Aviation Administration Building (FAA) in Hawthorne -- one of the nation’s most significant examples of 1970s Late Modernism -- is now protected through a conservation easement held by the Conservancy. As an easement-holder, we ensure that any proposed changes to the building conform to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation (nationally-recognized preservation standards).

The FAA will soon take on a new and old use as an office building once again. In late November, 2019 ownership of the FAA transferred to the winning bidder, Worthe Real Estate Group, based in Santa Monica. Plans are to rehabilitate the FAA and continue its original use as offices. The conservation easement was officially placed on the building as a condition to the sale.

The Conservancy is already working closely with Worthe as they begin planning for tenant improvements, restoration of the glass skin of the building, and a seismic retrofit. We all are very excited to see this building rehabilitated and put back into its original use, demonstrating again how old can indeed become new again. This also marks the Conservancy’s first postwar historic building, let alone from the 1970s, to join our growing portfolio of conservation easements!

To learn more about the Conservancy’s easement program, visit laconservancy.org/easements. 

To place this into some context, when the FAA was completed in 1972 the nation was in the middle of a presidential scandal, the first-ever digital watch made its debut, and NASA’s Space Shuttle Program was officially launched. The FAA and buildings like it at the time represented a stark architectural departure, with a rounded, taut glass-and-aluminum-skinned façade. It looked more like a piece of monumental sculpture rather than a building intended to house federal office workers. From certain angles the reflective glass building appears to hover above ground as if an experimental aircraft. This is fitting given Los Angeles’ role in the early aerospace industry.

Despite its eventual construction in the 1970s, the design for the FAA actually dates to 1966, by architects Cesar Pelli and Anthony Lumsden of Daniel Mann Johnson & Mendenhall (DMJM). It is considered the first-designed Southern California building to have a mirrored skin, though not the first-built. Peli and Lumsden collaborated on experimental developments with new types of exterior cladding or “skin.” The idea was to wrap a building’s structural frame in a glass curtain wall façade that appeared as one continuous, uniform surface.

In 1976, Progressive Architecture quotes Lumsden saying the FAA was “the first building in the country, I believe, that tried to do a lightweight sculptural surface, where the building goes over the top…under the bottom, and also around the corner.” The article also describes the FAA as an “anti-gravitational mass, not unlike a dirigible airship.” Its progressive design represented a significant step in the evolution of continuous, flexible membrane facades, leading to numerous examples being built throughout the U.S. and world.

Anyone driving past the FAA and its busy intersection at 15000 Aviation Boulevard likely notices how this building stands out from others. It is set back from the corner with a large open landscape and sited as if a “machine in the garden.” It is thoroughly futuristic, even today, nearly fifty years later. In 2010, Lumsden noted how important and integral the open landscape was to the design of the building. It frames the FAA with flat open lawn areas and undulating earthen berms intended to extend the sculptural effects of the building, and serve a practical purpose of concealing surface parking. The Conservancy’s conservation easement will protect both the FAA building and its landscape setting.

Photo courtesy Architectural Resources Group

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