Historic Post Offices: An Inventory of the Legacy
June 14, 2012
Last week the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Historic Post Office Building to its annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
The historic post office faces an “uncertain future,” observes the National Trust in its press release. The Postal Service has been closing post offices at an unprecedented pace, announcing one downsizing plan after another, and selling off its properties. At least forty historic post offices have been sold or put on the market in the past year.
Among the Trust's main concerns is the way the Postal Service has been handling the sell-off. "The lack of a transparent and uniform national process from the Postal Service — one that follows federal preservation laws when considering disposal of these buildings — is needlessly placing the future of many historic post office buildings in doubt," says the Trust. Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust, says she hopes to work with the Postal Service to develop a process for adapting and reusing the historic buildings.
Asked about the announcement from the National Trust, USPS spokesperson Sue Brennan told the Associated Press — in an article that appeared in over a hundred news outlets — that of the 31,500 post offices nationwide, only 55 are officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
That didn’t sound right, so I contacted Ms. Brennan. She explained that the number 55 probably referred to how many National Register post offices were among the 3,700 post offices being studied for closure last year, and she graciously provided a very thorough USPS list that inventories all the Postal Service’s historic post offices.
As it turns out, about 440 currently operating post offices are on the National Register, and as many as 1,800 others are eligible for the Register. Here are a list and a map of the 440, complete with photos and links to more information, like the National Register nomination documents. More tables and maps are listed at the end of this post.
The Postal Service’s Real Estate
The Postal Service is obviously having cash flow problems, and it clearly likes to poor mouth when it suits its purposes. But its deficit problem is primarily and unnecessarily caused by the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), which requires the Postal Service to pay $5.6 billion annually into a fund for the health care of future retirees. The payments aren't just for retirees. They were mandated by Congress so it could avoid refunding overpayments to the postal pension fund, which would have added to the federal deficit.
The Postal Service isn't really going broke. It's actually incredibly wealthy. If you ignore the health care prepayments, it is basically breaking even, in spite of the weak economy and diversion to the Internet. (For FY2012 year-to-date, the loss is $275 million, about 0.7% of revenues.) The Postal Service generates $65 billion in annual revenues, and it is sitting on a mountain of assets — 8,600 properties, 214,000 vehicles, $326 billion in retirement funds, and much else, like intellectual property and an experienced, knowledgeable workforce. No one knows how much the Postal Service is worth.
The Postal Service has not released any numbers about the value of its real estate holdings, and it may not even know the total itself. According to an OIG report issued last year, the Postal Service does not maintain fair market or assessed tax value records for its properties. It does, however, keep track of purchase prices, and in its 2011 fiscal summary, the Postal Service reported holding over $24 billion (in purchase price) for property such as buildings and land. The OIG figured that the assets were worth at least twice that due to appreciation, but on its books, the Postal Service goes the other way and depreciates them by half.
A significant portion of the Postal Service’s $25 to $50 billion in real estate resides in just a few buildings, like large processing plants, which can be worth $50 or $100 million a piece, sometimes more. According to the OIG’s report, L’Enfant Plaza is probably worth $115 million.
On today’s market, a typical post office can go for anywhere between a half million dollars to several million, as you can see on the USPS Properties for Sale website. This site, by the way, is the product of a partnership between the Postal Service and CB Richard Ellis, the world’s largest commercial real estate firm, which is now handling sales and leases.
Figuring a rough average of a million dollars per post office, the 2,200 historic properties could be worth something like $2 billion.
Even if the Postal Service were to sell every one of these treasures, it wouldn’t add up to one annual payment to the retiree health care fund, which could be eliminated by a simple act of Congress. That means Congress must ultimately bear responsibility for the dismantling of the country's rich legacy of historic post offices.
Selling these post offices doesn't even make much financial sense. The buildings are owned outright, and they just require maintenance. When one closes, the Postal Service has to lease space instead. The Postal Service sold the New Deal post office in Palm Beach, Florida, for $3.7 million; now it's renting space in a high-end strip mall for something like $10,000 a month.
The sales don't bring in very much money either. According to the 2011 10K report, the Postal Service took in a total of $137 million from the sale of property and equipment. That’s 0.2% of revenues for 2011.
While the proceeds from selling a post office aren’t even pocket change for the Postal Service, the sale always represents a terrible loss for a community. The post office gives pride of place, and it’s impossible to measure the cost of what happens when a historic post office turns into a real estate office, restaurant, or clothing boutique.
As the National Trust puts it, “Local post office buildings have traditionally played an essential role in the lives of millions of Americans. Many are architecturally distinctive, prominently located, and cherished as civic icons in communities across the country.”
Inventory of the historic properties
Just to get a better sense of the Postal Service’s historic properties, here’s a quick inventory of the list provided by the Postal Service, updated and corrected as best as we’ve been able:
- The list contains 2,530 properties that date back to before 1962 — they're at least fifty years old, a general rule of thumb for the National Register.
- About 2,100 of these 2,500 properties are currently operating post offices; the other 400 have been sold or "disposed" of.
- About 440 active facilities are on the National Register (430 post offices and 10 processing plants and administrative buildings).
- Another 1,440 active post offices, perhaps as many as 1,800, are eligible for the National Register
- The 2,100 active post offices break down roughly as follows: 425 post offices were built before 1933; 1,400 built during the New Deal era (1933 – 1944); and 250 since WWII.
- For the 2,100 active offices, the average square footage is around 17,000, and altogether, they add up to 36 million square feet of interior space. Much of this square footage is due to the 30 largest facilities; remove them and the average is 12,000 square feet, and the total, 26 million.
The list of 2,500 historic properties contains almost 400 post offices that have been sold, but there are many others that don't show up on the list. The National Register contains 869 post offices and former post offices. As noted, about 440 are currently in operation, so around 430 National Register post offices have been sold. There are probably many other historic post offices that have been sold over the years that never made it to the National Register.
These former post offices have been “repurposed” in a variety of ways. Sometimes local governments purchase the post office, and many now house a town hall or police department. Others have been converted into museums, law offices, real estate offices, restaurants, apartment buildings, and other kinds of private businesses. You can see the fate of many of these former post offices by searching the Waymarking website.
The Trust, the ACHP, and the Register
There are many organizations and government agencies interested in the fate of historic post offices. Aside from the countless local, state, and regional organizations involved with historic preservation, three are worth noting for their efforts on the national level:
The organization that put the post office on the endangered list is the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is a private, member-supported organization that was founded in 1949 by congressional charter to support preservation of historic buildings and neighborhoods.
The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) is an independent federal agency that promotes the preservation, enhancement, and productive use of our nation's historic resources. Established in 1966 by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the ACHP advises the President and Congress on national historic preservation policy.
The National Parks Service administers the National Register of Historic Places, which was also created by the NHPA in 1966. The Register is an official list containing over one million districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects deemed worthy of preservation. About 80,000 are listed individually, and the rest are contributing resources within historic districts.
There are four main criteria for getting on the National Register: (A) the property makes a contribution to the “major pattern of American history”; (B) a significant person is associated with the place; (C) the building has distinctive characteristics in terms of its architecture and construction, including having great artistic value or being the work of a master; and (D) the property has yielded or may be likely to yield information important to prehistory or history.
Being on the National Register sometimes translates into tax incentives to compensate property owners for the expenses involved with preserving an historic property, but for the most part, the National Register is symbolic. It means the property has gone through a nomination process, been evaluated by experts, and been deemed worth preserving. Groups like the National Trust for Historic Preservation use the Register to identify and protect historic sites.
The National Historic Preservation Act that created the National Register also protects historic properties in another way. Section 106 of the Act requires federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties. The agency must also share its plans with the ACHP and give it an opportunity to comment. The agency isn’t required to follow the ACHP’s advice, but the ACHP can be influential, and if it finds that the federal actions will have an “adverse effect,” it can also recommend mitigation measures.
The sale of postal facilities is thus subject to review under Section 106, and the Postal Service is supposed to be following the various procedures outlined by the Act. For example, when it disposes of an historic property, the Postal Service often places protective covenants on the property before sale. It’s usually left to state historic preservation offices (SHPOs) to monitor these covenants. There are also standards for rehabilitating, altering, and remodeling historic properties, often subject to SHPO review
As noted by the National Trust in its announcement about the Most Endangered Places, one of the problems right now is that there does not seem to be a transparent plan and procedure for the sale of post offices. It’s not just the Trust that sees it this way. The ACHP has also expressed interest in working with the Postal Service to develop a “programmatic agreement” between the USPS and the ACHP that would outline standard operating procedures for resolving adverse effects.
Last fall, in its Case Digest report about Section 106, the ACHP stated that is “has encouraged USPS leadership to develop a programmatic approach to satisfy its Section 106 compliance responsibilities.” The ACHP and USPS have met to discuss strategies, like developing a nationwide context study of post-WWII post offices, training USPS staff on Section 106, and paying special attention to properties on the National Register and National Historic Landmark listing.
Protesting the sales
With the National Trust and the ACHP taking an interest, the outlook for the future of the historic post office may improve. The past year has certainly seen a lot of controversy, and Section 106 does not seem to have been in full force.
For example, when the Postal Service decided to close the historic New Deal post office in Venice, California, attorneys for the community invoked Section 106. But the Postal Service dismissed its relevance, saying that the building had not been sold yet, even though the post office was closing and the postal retail business relocating a block away. According to the Postal Service, closing the post office did not constitute an alteration of its character, and Section 106 would only come into play when the Postal Service made plans to dispose of the property. That day is coming soon, as there's news this week that the fomer post office is being purchased by Joel Silver, co-inventor of Ultimate Frisbee and producer of Die Hard and The Matrix. The post office is going to become offices for his production company.
In terms of the larger context, the Postal Service discussed Section 106 in its Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PAE) for the Network Rationalization plan to consolidate processing plants. Not only are several of the processing plants located in historic buildings, but the PAE is also supposed to consider related USPS plans, like closing post offices.
The PAE acknowledged that some of the post offices and processing plants being studied for closure and consolidation are historic buildings, but the Postal Serviced decided that its plans for closing and consolidating would have “no significant impact” on historic properties — or any other aspects of the environment for that matter.
The PAE simply says that if a historic structure is transferred to private ownership, “the Postal Service will ensure that the significant historic, architectural, and cultural values are preserved through measures such as protective covenants. Therefore, cumulative impacts to historic structures would be less than significant on a local and even on a national level."
Unfortunately, no organization or federal agency challenged the Postal Service's "Finding of No Significant Impact" (FONSI), so the Postal Service was able to avoid going through a more thorough environmental impact review that might have led to more rigorous safeguards for protecting historic post offices. Hopefully, the National Trust and the ACHP will have better luck.
The lists and maps
The list provided by the Postal Service contains over 2,500 post offices — basically all of its facilities that were built before 1962. That’s the cut-off year because, as noted earlier, there’s a general rule of thumb (not an official criterion) that a building should be at least fifty years old before it’s put on the National Register.
The list is described as “ad hoc,” and it hasn’t been updated lately. Many post offices listed as active have been disposed of, some long ago. So, with the help of the USPS facilities lists (which are themselves a couple of years old) and news reports over the past year, we’ve updated the USPS list and made some maps as well. The list still has errors, but for now, it looks to be the best available inventory of the Postal Service’s historic properties.
The list and maps come in different versions, so here’s a list of the lists:
- Map of post offices on the National Register: This map contains the 440 post offices still in operation that appear on the National Register. If you click on a marker, the pop-up window has a photo of the post office, a link to the photo source (where you’ll often find more information), and links to the National Register nomination documents, if they’re available. (Many have not yet been digitized.)
- List of 450 active post offices on the National Register: This table contains the data used to make map #1. It can be filtered, sorted, aggregated, etc. This table is also good for just looking at photos of historic post offices. It can also be viewed as a map, which can be filtered like the table
- List of the 2,500 post offices: This table updates the one provided by the Postal Service (#5). It contains properties both active and sold, on the National Register or eligible for it. You can filter for these factors, as well as others, like a state, a date range, etc. You can also use the aggregation feature to tabulate calculations.
- Map of the 2,500 post offices: If you click on the “visualize” tab on table #3, you can view a map. As with the table, the map can be filtered by states, date ranges, etc. The markers are color coded by date range: red = pre-1920; yellow = 1920-29; green = 1930-39; blue = 1940-49; purple = 1950-62.
- The USPS ad-hoc list. This is the list kindly provided by the Postal Service. (You can visualize the list as a map, but it maps by 5-digit zip code, so it’s not as useful as the other maps, which use street addresses.)
- Post offices on the National Register: This list of 869 places was made searching for "post office" on the National Register (#7). The list doesn't indicate whether the post office is operating or not, but about half are active and half are former post offices.
- National Register: This table contains the 80,000 historic places on the National Register. It can be sorted, filtered, etc. If you go to the Trust’s download site, you can get the list in various ways, some with location geocodes.
For further research
In addition to the National Register and the USPS list of historic properties, several resources proved helpful in doing our inventory. They are also the sources for most of the photographs of post offices that are used in the map of the National Register post offices.
- The Living New Deal is an invaluable source for information about all types of buildings constructed during the New Deal. It’s an elegant site, with excellent maps, photos, and other information on over 150 New Deal post offices.
- Waymarking is a vast database of facts and images about all kinds of places, and you can search for building types and National Register properties. It’s also an helpful source if you are interested in old post offices that have been converted to other uses.
- Wikipedia was the source of half the photographs on our map. There’s a category page of “post office buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.” It contains a state-by-state list of about 300 post offices, not all of them active. There's also a very helpful listing here.
- The Post Mark Collector's Club has a collection of over 4,000 post office photographs, many of them represented on the map of National Register post offices.
- PostalMag.com also has a great collection of photos.
- Flickr is a terrific source for photographs of post offices. A search for “post offices” and “national register” produces a great gallery.
- Finally, no discussion of Flickr and post offices can pass without mentioning photographer Jimmy Emerson, aka jimmywayne, who has generously shared his unbelievable collection of post offices photos, especially historic New Deal post offices and murals.