The fundamental challenges facing the U.S. Postal Service as an agency are beginning to trickle down to our local post office buildings, creating ripple-effect challenges for preservationists across the country. The New York Times ran an article last week highlighting the issue (with great comments), and the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed “Historic Post Office Buildings” on its Most Endangered List last year. Apparently the agency has identified nearly 3,700 buildings as likely candidates for closure, about 200 are soon to go on sale, and eleven are on the market right now. There are several concerns from the preservation perspective: not only do these buildings serve as community centers, but that they are often the most architecturally significant structure in many towns. And like so many federal buildings, many post offices are also surviving legacies of the New Deal policies designed to put Americans back to work during the Depression. The adaptive reuse of these buildings is the logical answer, but that is always a tricky business, and even if the exteriors of those buildings with landmark status are preserved historic interiors remain threatened: murals, marble, and metals could be ripped out and sold to the highest bidder.
Three photographs of the 1915 Renaissance Revival Berkeley, California Post Office, on the short list for closure: interior murals of by Suzanne Scheuer, exterior, and protester Josh Kornbluth in character as Benjamin Franklin, the first Postmaster General. Jim Wilson/New York Times.
I checked out several of the post offices that are on the market now (on this great blog) and was immediately drawn to two in particular: another Renaissance Revival building in Gulfport, Mississippi and the beautiful Greek Revival post office in the Georgetown section of Washington, DC. The DC building has been sold to a developer who is apparently going to adapt it for office space while retaining the post office on the first floor; this deal seems to have been years in the making and illustrates just how difficult the redevelopment process can be.
The Gulfport, Mississippi Post Office today and shortly after its construction in 1910, postcard courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History; the Georgetown Post Office, built in 1858, and a 1856 rendering by architect Ammi B. Young, Library of Congress.
I must admit that I have never really appreciated Salem’s Post Office, which I walk by nearly every day with little more than a passing glance. It is a classic WPA project, designed by local architect Philip Horton Smith and constructed in 1932-33 in the Colonial Revival style. It definitely has presence, but I always thought it was a bit boring, until I recently started noticing the details, inside and out: there certainly is a lot of marble and bronze in there, and the tables and radiator grates–even the mailboxes–are really lovely, as I now can see. To emphasize its centrality–as well as its connection to the outside world–this building was sited right across from Salem’s grand and gothic railroad station, whose destruction in 1954 is lamented to this day.
The Salem Post Office today and in the 1940s, downstairs interior and mailboxes, the former Post Office in Salem, adapted for reuse as shops in the 1930s and still serving in that capacity.