Preservation and Post Offices

The fundamental challenges facing the U.S. Postal Service as an agency are beginning to trickle down to our local post office buildingscreating 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.

berkeley_ext

Berkeley PO Jim Wilson NY Times

08POSTOFFICEjp5-popup

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.

Gulfport PO

Gulfport_Post_Office

georgetown_post_office

Georgetown post office by Young

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.

Post office 2 049

Post Office PC 1940s

Post Office Interior

Post office 2 003

Post office 2 004

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.


9 responses to “Preservation and Post Offices

  • markd60

    Very historical. Our George Town post office was built by a boat builder and the ceiling inside is like looking up at the inside of a boat. Very fancy woodwork.

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    It’s interesting that a government works program produced such an intriguing structure. On my own blog I’ve decried the decline of craftsmanship in areas such as masonry, sculpture and metalwork over the past 75 or so years. Even if one had the money and desire, I’m not sure that there are enough craftsmen with the skills today to build a structure like the Salem Post Office.

    You’re certainly more of an expert on the subject than I am, but it’s my belief that utilitarianism in architecture essentially eliminated the need for many of the talented artisans whose abilities were what enabled structures to stand out. As a result, we’re left with the monstrosities of the past 50 or so years, and the master craftsmen who could be found in cites and communities of almost any size of a century ago no longer exist because there’s no longer a need for them to spend the years and decades it takes to master those skills.

    • daseger

      Totally agree. I am hardly an expert on architecture, especially 20th century architecture, just a “buff”. And I certainly agree with you–the major reason why I am an ardent preservationist is that I KNOW if you take something down, even if it’s not that great, that something far worse will go up in its place! It seems to me that the architecture of the pre-WWII era was both utilitarian and (often-) elegant, and contemporary architecture is neither.

      • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

        I think your assessment is right on the mark. It’s bad enough when an historical structure is taken down; but adding insult to injury is usually the fact that an extremely unattractive building often takes its place.

  • C. Swift

    A technical note: it couldn’t have been a WPA project if it dates to 1932-33. The WPA started in 1935.

  • Anonymous In The Crowd

    Dear Daseger,

    I am reading your blog and truthfully like it. In regard to the Post Office Buildings and architectural features, to soon be parted from their original purpose, I do not have any hope. USA is not the best place to save old buildings. The Federal Government will be as inflexible as ever in giving up any rights on these buildings even when in utter ruin. I have been a public works construction manager all my adult life and I can tell you that one thing hearts like hell: bad architecture. What do I mean bad architecture? Just everything in what makes a building great; appearance, in-and-out, usability, plan etc.

    Just like you I feel down to see here in L.A dozens of magnificent buildings closed, abandoned and in decay.

    I forgot to mention that the Post Office wasnt my preferred company; too many times their resistance to innovation and just plain renewal led them where they are today. They missed the Internet train and now they will be shadow of themselves.

    Back to the commanding architecture of these buildings we can today say: beautiful but from now on we are going to make it cheep..CHEEEP!

    Anonymous in the Crowd

    Date: Wed, 13 Mar 2013 12:32:10 +0000 To: dragon53@msn.com

  • paper doll

    Basically the idea of public services is being phased out….schools and libraries are also under simular attack. Chicago is closing 60 public schools this year and had closed schools last here. In my own city, one in ten schools will be closed in June…and a good many were closed last year( in the poorer sections of course)

    PO buildings and as I say, eventually public libraries, as well will continue to be underfunded until they crumble and then closed while we will be told it had to be as they no longer worked. Whatever is replaced will be on a for profit bases.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: