Dismantling a Legacy
During the New Deal, the federal government built over 1,100 post offices, and many of them are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. According to the National Register website, during the decade of the New Deal the government built three times the number of post offices it had built in the previous 50 years. Many of these post offices were built by the Public Works administration, and while there was a strong desire to complete projects quickly, "the PWA also stressed the importance of high quality in order to ensure 'public works of an ensuring character and lasting benefits, according to its 1939 report. That's partly why so many of these post offices are now on the National Register.
The New Deal also commissioned murals and sculptures for many of these post offices, as well as for libraries, schools and other public buildings. A thousand post offices in the country "continue to house this uniquely American art for people to enjoy as they go about their daily lives" (US Postal Service website).
As Marlene Park and Gerald Markowitz write in Democratic Vistas: Post Office and Public Art in the New Deal, "The New Deal sought to make the national government's presence felt in even the smallest, most remote communities. . . The post office was 'the one concrete link between every community of individuals and the Federal government' that funtioned 'importantly in the human structure of the community.'" The post office "brought to the locality a symbol of government efficiency, permanence, service, and even culture."
The US Postal Service is dismantling the institution of the community post office and the rich legacy of the New Deal. The USPS has announced that it will be closing as many as 2,000 of its 32,000 post offices and auctioning off the buildings. As of May 2011, about 200 post offices have found themselves on the closing list, Many of them, like the Century Post Office in Raleigh, are significant historic buildings. At least 12 of them were built by the New Deal.
At this rate, something like 120 historic New Deal post offices could be closed and sold. They will be converted to real estate offices, retail showrooms, and restaurants. Most are not likely to remain public spaces, and they will certainly not continue to remind citizens of their link to the federal government. Moreover, while they are almost all located in downtown areas and serve people on foot, their services will usually be consolidated to annexes and office parks on the outskirts of town and require a car.
The director of the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum once said that the New Deal murals "constitute a great national treasure . . . and the buiidings that house these works represent a vaulable and important American asset" (quoted in Preserving the People's Post Office by Christopher Shaw). It's one thing to close a small, underutilized, retail post-office outlet in a shopping mall, but closing downtown post offices and selling off valuable architectural resources that belong to the public is a shame, and it shouldn't be happening.
Below are stories about some of the New Deal post offices that have already closed or that may be closed and sold off.
(Photo credits: "Waiting for the Mail," by Grant Christian, 1938, in the Nappannee, IN, Post Office; "Legend of James Edward Hamilton--Barefoot Mailman," byStevan Dohanos, 1940, West Palm Beach, FL, Post Office)
May 5, 2011
The post office in Modesto, California, was built by the New Deal in 1933, under the supervision of James Wetmore, who was responsible for "designing" hundreds of public buildings in the 1930s. As the Modesto Bee relates, the post office contains nine original wall murals in the lobby, commissioned by the Treasury Relief Arts Project. The oil paintings were done in 1937 by Ray Boynton, with the assistance of several local artists, and they depict agricultural scenes: plowing, sorting and harvesting grapes; irrigating orchards; meat and cheese packing; grain harvesting and feeding cows.
UPDATE: June 15, 2011: "Bidding begins on Modesto post office": "Online bidding to buy downtown Modesto's historic post office started a week ago, but only one hopeful buyer has bid. The minimum opening bid of $100,000 was placed by an undisclosed person the morning bidding opened."
May 7, 2011
Another historic post office, this one in Venice, California, is set to close. Like the one we posted about a few days ago, it's from the New Deal, built in 1939 by the Works Projects Administration. The full story is here, and a blog on "save the Venice post office" is here.
Like many New Deal public buildings, the Venice post office has some significant murals, including "The First Thirty Years of Venice’s History," by Edward Biberman, painted in 1941. That's Abbot Kinney in the middle, surrounded by the town he created. Here's an interview with Biberman.
May 19, 2011
The downtown post office in Cheraw, South Carolina, was built in 1933 under the New Deal. It's located in the middle of the Cheraw Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it's surrounded by buildings that go back to the Civil War and even earlier. Cheraw, by the way, is the birthplace of Dizzie Gillespie.
The post office almost closed back in 1996 and again in 2009, but preservationists and government officials were able to save it. Now this historic post office is set to close again, and this time it looks like it's going to be tough to save. Postal Service officials want to consolidate operations by moving postal services to an annex located three miles from downtown.
Cheraw's mayor, Scott Hunter, said the post office would not go down without a fight, and he's enlisted the support of U.S. Congressman Mick Mulvaney. But residents of the small town can see the writing on the wall. As the Cheraw Chronicle reports, there are already rumors going around that potential buyers are making inquiries, and preservationists are hoping that the building might be turned into a museum or something that preserves the historic integrity of the building.
UPDATE, JUNE 8, 2011: "Residents riled up over closure of Post Office"
UPDATE, FEB. 12, 2012: USPS says, "how about a modular unit?"
May 19, 2011
The post office in Northfield, Minnesota was built by the New Deal in 1936. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it's a cornerstone of the Northfield Downtown Historic District. The Postal Service has announced it will close this historic downtown post office and consolidate services at an annex a few miles away.
KYMN radio reports today that the Northfield city council is sending a letter to the USPS District Area Manager requesting the postal service delay its decision to close the post office. A Save Our Post Office Task Force has gathered over 1,000 petition signatures, and local business people and government officials have been meeting with their Congressional representatives, urging the USPS to reconsider its decision. The USPS made its announcement on April 5, which began a 60-day comment period, so there's still time for local residents to make their voices heard, and it will be several weeks more before a final decision is made.
Northfield is famous for the attempted robbery of the First National Bank by Jesse James and his gang in 1876. The robbery went bad and several people were killed, including two of the gang. Hence, one of Northfield's slogans is "Jesse James Slipped Here." Looks like the USPS may be more successful in robbing the town.
UPDATE: August 18, 2011: "Northfield has been rebuffed in its attempt to buy the city's endangered post office and provide free space for the U.S. Postal Service to continue retail service in the historic building." Read more.
UPDATE: Jan. 25, not good: http://northfield.patch.com/articles/post-office-could-be-put-up-for-sale-within-days
(Photo credits: exterior)
May 19, 2011
The rich heritage of post offices built during the New Deal is being dismantled by the Postal Service, piece by piece. The post office in Athens, Pennsylvania, may be closing soon. The Sayre, PA, Morning Times reports today, "According to the Postmaster (who is not a local), a truck will come in Memorial Day weekend to move the majority of the building out and on June 4, employees were informed to report the Sayre Post Office for work. One clerk and one maintenance man will man the office in Athens until the final shutdown is scheduled.”
The Athens, PA, post office was built in 1939, and it features, like many of the New Deal buildings, a mural of historic interest. It's entitled "General Sullivan at Tioga Point," painted in 1941 by Allan D. Jones, Jr.
The "father of American music," Stephen Foster, was born about 50 miles away, in Lawrenceville, and he attended school in Athens from 1839 to 1841. At the age of 14, he wrote his first composition, Tioga Waltz, and performed it during commencement exercises. The site of his famous song "Camptown Races" is just 30 miles from Athens. You can bet your money on de bob-tail nag, but don't bet on the Athens New Deal post office coming out ahead.
May 20, 2011
In October of 2010, residents of Palm Beach, Florida, learned that their post office would be closing. An historic structure built in 1936 by the New Deal, it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Residents had a few weeks to protest, and protest they did, but to no avail—the post office is closing, probably sometime in June.
The post office has already been sold—to real estate mogul and former Democratic candidate for the Senate, Jeff Greene. Greene says he plans to use the Mediterranean-style building to house the offices of his Palm Beach-based company, Florida Sunshine Investments, Inc.
“I’ve known that building since I was a little kid, and I didn’t want anything bad to happen to it,” said Greene. As a teenager he used to pick up his father’s mail there. “I have a sentimental attachment to the post office,” Greene said. “What a marvelous building.”
How Greene made his millions became an issue when he ran for the Senate in 2010. In the Democratic primary, his opponent accused him of becoming a billionaire by trading the credit default swaps that helped plunge the country into a recession.
There was some truth to the accusation. As Forbes Magazine reported back in 2008 in a story entitled “The Reluctant Billionaire,” “Greene is one of those rare people who smelled trouble in housing when times were flush and made a contrarian bet that they wouldn't last. He did so by creating his own virtual hedge fund and buying credit default swaps that rose in value as subprime mortgages fell.” He earned a quick $800 million profit and a place on The Forbes 400 with a net worth of $1.4 billion.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission has approved Greene’s renovations plans, which involve maintaining the building’s main lobby (as required by preservation convenants) but adding a second floor to the back of the building and demolishing the central service counter to make room for a hallway. The Commission is undecided for now on whether to keep the gold-painted sign above its entrance, “United States Post Office Palm Beach Florida.”
UPDATE: June 23, 2011: The Palm Beach Daily News reports that a new post office has opened in the Royal Poinciana Plaza,a retail and office complex. It's just a few blocks down from the now-closed main branch building. “It’s great. But I like the other one better,” said customer Gaudi De Pedro. "The other building was more of a traditional place. It was unique. I always saw all my neighbors there." The postal service has signed a 10-year lease for the space. No ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for the new facility.
UPDATE: August, 2012: According to the Postal Service's new facilities list for leased properties, the annual rent on the new Palm Beach post office is $101,080.
May 20, 2011
The post office in Ukiah, California, was built in 1937 under the New Deal. It may close in a few weeks. On Feb. 23, the Postal Service announced its intention to close this downtown post office and move its services to an annex at the edge of the city. A meeting was held on April 21, and more than 200 people turned out to protest. More might have shown up, but postcards announcing the meeting mysterious arrived a week after the meeting. (Watch a video of the meeting here.)
The post office contains some historic murals, like the one pictured here, "Resources of the Soil," by Ben Cunningham (1938). (For more info, see the Facebook page local citizens are maintaining about their efforts to save the Ukiah Post Office.)
Ukiah is the birthplace is folksinger and protest activist Holly Near, whose song "Show Up" contains these lyrics:
It don’t look good, news is bad
You know I lost all hope that I thought I had
But what if good news is on the way
Wouldn't you hate to miss that day
You gotta show up get ready
See if you know how to rock steady
(photo credit: ukiahpostoffice.com).
UPDATE: June 21, 2011: Mercury News reports, "Historic post office in downtown Ukiah to close": "The Postal Service said Monday that it would shut down the downtown post office and relocate its services to another facility near Highway 101. . . Postal officials have said the mural would be preserved if the building is sold." Some 5,000 signatures had been gathered opposing the closing.
May 23, 2011
The post office in downtown Camas, Washington, was built in 1939 under the New Deal, and it's been on the National Register of Historic Buildings since 1991.
The Camas post office contains a mural, sponsored by the Section of Fine Arts, painted by Douglas Nicholson in 1941. Entitled "Beginning of a New World," it depicts Northwest settlers and a Native American woman as well as local industries of lumber, dairying, fruit and grain, and fishing. (More on the history of this post office, here.)
The Postal Service announced back in late 2009 that the Camas post office would be closing, a decision decried by residents and city officials. “You’re taking a sound establishment from the core of downtown, which will have a detriment to the downtown businesses,” said Brent Erickson, executive director of the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce. “With businesses that have moved out of the area or closed up shop, we’ll have that much less of a walking traffic down here.” “It’s used by many, many, many people,” City Manager Lloyd Halverson said. “It’s got nice architecture to it. It would be a loss to the downtown area.” Mayor Paul Dennis criticized the Postal Service for its decision and expressed his concerns, but the city was essentially “blown-off” by the Postal Service and said it was going to move forward with the consolidation.
The Columbian reported on April 13, 2011, that the Vancouver-based Last U.S. Bag Co., will be buying the building for the asking price of $430,000. Last U.S. Bag Co. sells custom-sewn bags and cases, and it will use the post office as a showroom and office space.
Beginning in the fall of this year, citizens will need to use an annex on the outskirts of town for their retail services and post office boxes.
More about the community's response on its Facebook page, Save the Camas PO.
May 23, 2011
The post office at 154 Post Road in Westport, Connecticut, was built in 1935 by the New Deal. It was designed by Lansing Holden, a World War I flying ace, who won the Distinguished Service Cross. Returning home from the war, he took up his father’s profession as an architect. Holden continued to fly, and in 1938 he died in a crash trying to land in bad weather.
As reported in the Westport Patch, the Postal Service decided back in December 2009 to sell the post office. The explanation was that "the USPS is having financial problems, customers have trouble finding parking spaces by the building, and the building is larger than Westport postal workers need now that mail is sorted in Norwalk." The building was appraised at $3.6 million, according to Westport tax records.
The Westport News reports that the post office was sold on May 18 for $2.35 million, to a real estate company named Ansley Westport Partners, based in Atlanta. The new owners of the building will seek a retailer or restaurant as a tenant. "It's a unique and historic building. We appreciate the importance of the building to Westport," said Ansley Westport principal and Atlanta-based lawyer, Alon Panovka. "We would like to find a tenant that will enhance the downtown Westport area."
Westport will continue to have its own post office—it's relocating a few block away, to Playhouse Square. Postal Service officials have not yet disclosed a relocation date.
As the Westport Patch reports, local merchants are bemoaning the closing of the post office. "It's terrible. Just a shame," said Joe Canicatti, owner of Joe's Pizza,which is just across the street from the post office. "We are going to lose a lot of foot traffic. Everybody's moving out. It's disappointing."
Westport, by the way, was the home of artist Robert Lamdin, who painted New Deal murals in the nearby Bridgeport post office and elsewhere in Connecticut.
UPDATE: The post office closed with the first of the year, Jan. 2012.
May 29, 2011
The post office in Norwich, Connecticut, was built in 1905. An addition was built by the New Deal in 1938, and the post office was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. It contains a mural, "Taking Up Arms - 1776," painted in 1940 by George Kanelous, who was such a perfectionist he’d paint over his own paintings and consequently left a relatively small body of work.
According to The Day, James A. Hickey Jr., a Postal Service real estate specialist, told city officials that the building could be placed on the market within the next 60 days. The Postal Service would consider providing for the downtown “with a so-called contract postal unit, a small station run by a private business owner to sell stamps and hold post office boxes.”
City officials have enlisted assistance from the state congressional delegation Monday in the fight to save the post office. But The Day reports, “Norwich might not get a full hearing on their arguments. Because the Postal Service considered it merely a transition from one Norwich facility into another, the city was not given any input or a public hearing ahead of time on the decision.” Watch a TV news spot on the fate of the post office.
June 11, 2011
The federal government has a long history, going back to the early nineteenth-century, of constructing buildings intended to symbolize the power, stability, and prosperity of the nation and its government. Court houses, custom houses, and post offices were designed in the latest styles and using the best technology, and they were supposed to be monumental and grand to inspire confidence in the federal government. In the first decades of the twentieth century, these buildings were done in the neo-classical style, calling to mind the great democracies of Greece and Rome. As an historian of federal architecture writes, the classical style of federal architecture ““bespoke the power, influence, and self assurance of a nation on the brink of world leadership.”
Among the federal buildings constructed at this time was the post office in Greenwich, Connecticut. Built in 1916, it features a concave façade facing the triangular Memorial Plaza Park. This unique adaptation to the site and other architectural features, like a recessed portico and foliated capitals on the columns, put the building on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and it’s included in the Greenwich Avenue Historic District.
The Postal Service moved most of the sorting work from this site years ago to a facility on the outskirts of town, which turned the downtown post office into a small branch operation. As reported in the Greenwich Time, in April of 2009, the USPS announced it was putting the building up for sale.
Greenwich Patch reports this week that a buyer has been found—real estate mogul Peter Malkin, owner of the Empire State Building. And it looks like the old post office is going to be refitted as a clothing store. Local offices say it will be rented by the high-end retailer Bergdorf Goodman.
In the meantime, the USPS has reassured residents that they’re not losing a downtown post office completely. It will be moving to a new location about a half mile away: a former pet supply storefront.
The post office has a New Deal mural in the lobby entitled "Old Days of Greenwich," painted in 1939 by Victoria Hutson Huntley. It depicts Dutch fur traders and pilgrim farmers leaving the dock after loading a ship bound for New York with furs and potatoes.
As Greenwich Time reports, residents have expressed concern about the fate of the mural. USPS spokesperson Maureen Marion said it could be left in the building if the new owners agree to preserve it, or it could be moved to another location.
"Depending on what the next use of the building is may also dictate how that mural will be handled," Marion said. "This is one of our treasures, and we do try to take good care of them all."
June 21, 2011
In the mid-nineteenth century, Fort Worth, Texas, became the center of the cattle drives of the legendary Chisholm Trail, earning it the nickname “Cowtown.” The railroad arrived in 1876, ushering in another boom and a new nickname, “Queen City of the Prairies.” The cowboys whooped it up in dozens of saloons and bawdy houses, and Forth Worth got itself yet another sobriquet, “The Paris of the Plains.” (Wikipedia)
Downtown Fort Worth is known for its Beaux Arts and Art Deco architecture. Among the city’s historic buildings is the 1933 post office. Unlike most New Deal post offices, which followed standard Treasury Department designs, it was designed by an architect, Wyatt C. Hedrick, who also did the Will Rogers Memorial Center and Amon G. Carter Stadium.
As local historian Quentin McGown told the Star-Telegram (in an excellent article by Bill Hanna), the post office is one of Fort Worth’s iconic buildings, and it exudes “a sense of place.” “To me, it is the ultimate federal building.”
The post office prospered from the 1930s through the 1950s, but it went downhill after it was cut off from the rest of downtown by Interstate 30 in 1958. In the 1980s the Federal Highway Commission and Texas DOT proposed widening the I-30 overpass to within 40 feet of the post office façade, which would have meant the end of the post office, but a grassroots fight successfully stopped the project with a federal lawsuit. The old I-30 was torn down in 2002, reuniting the post office with the downtown, and, as the National Trust for Historic Preservation states, "the city of Fort Worth is now in the midst of a creating a master plan to revitalize the Lancaster Avenue corridor, making into a dynamic, attractive, pedestrian-friendly gateway to downtown."
The future of the post office is unclear—maybe the city will take it over, maybe a developer will convert it to commercial uses, maybe it will be destroyed. As the Star-Telegram reports, Sam Bolen, a Postal Service spokesman, said the service had no comment about the negotiations with the city or a possible sale of the building. But it's looking like the US Postal Service will not be a part of this post office's future.
July 4, 2011
In 1843 women's rights advocate Margaret Fuller, on a road trip around the country, stopped for a few days in Geneva, Illinois, a new settlement on the western fringe of Chicago. In her book Summer on the Lakes, she wrote that it reminded her of a New England village, and she discovered many New Englanders living there, "generous, intelligent, discreet, and seeking to win from life its true values." She went to church and listened to a sermon, then spent a couple of days "passing some happy hours in the woods that fringe the stream, where the gentlemen found a rich booty of fish."
They must be proud of the fishing in Geneva. When the federal government commissioned a mural for the post office in 1941, the painter, Manuel Bromberg, had to work out the subject matter with the people of the town. The title of the mural is "Fish Fry in the Park."
The mural embellishes the Geneva post office, built by the New Deal in 1938. Located within the Central Geneva Historic District , which contains 68 historic buildings (including Frank Lloyd Wright’s P. D. Hoyt House), the post office was a busy place for decades. But years ago, as part of a nation-wide strategy to abandon large downtown post offices, the Postal Service moved the mail carriers to an annex behind a MacDonald’s.
With only a retail business and a staff of three, the space is now considered “under-utilized,” so the Postal Service has been trying to sell the building. It put it up for sale in 2009, but there weren’t many interested buyers, except for a local company, Fagans Graphic Design. Company president Joe Stanton said he gave up on trying to buy the building because dealing with the federal government became a “nightmare.”
The property is currently valued at $1.2 million. The real estate firm Jones Lang is handling the sale, reports the Geneva Patch. “We think it’s an interesting property for redevelopment,” said the company’s senior VP Jeff Gittelman. He imagines the building “as the home of several retailers or a new downtown restaurant.”
Postal worker Jim Cowell said, “It’s built to be a post office. Nothing else should be here.”
The fate of the mural has been of concern to Geneva’s citizens since they learned the building was for sale. In January the mural was temporarily removed for restoration; it’s supposed to be remounted later this year.
“This restoration is a benefit to the community,” said USPS rep Robert Hart, in a USPS press release back in January. “The Postal Service makes every effort to preserve and safeguard the art in our buildings for future generations.” Unfortunately, when it comes to preserving and safeguarding the post office buildings themselves, the Postal Service has, well, other fish to fry.
July 5, 2011
The New Deal post office (1933) in Modesto CA is being auctioned off, and you can follow the bidding action on the General Services Administration (GSA) auction site (it's one of the featured properties at the top). The auction started on June 9, with a minimum opening bid of $100,000. As of July 5, three bidders were competing, and the high bid was $350,000. The GSA site doesn't say when the bidding will be closed, so you'd better get yours in soon. The site has some nice photos of the New Deal murals in the building.
The Modesto post office story is another case where the Postal Service gradually emptied the building of all but a small retail operation, and then declared it was under-utilized, obsolete, and needed to be sold. Non-profit groups, working through county officials, have expressed interest in buying the building, but the GSA says it will go to the highest bidder. The GSA can decline the top bid if it doesn't reach the appraised fair market value, which the GSA won't disclose. Other New Deal post offices have sold for millions—one in Palm Beach FLh went for $3.7, and another in Westport CT, for $3.6 million.
(Photo credit: Modesto po)
July 9, 2011
It’s the usual story. The Postal Service owns a beautiful downtown post office that’s been a thriving hub for decades. Then it moves most of the postal workers to another facility, a non-descript annex on the edge of town or in another city. After a few years the Postal Service says, “the building is much bigger than we need,” and it goes up for sale. When the citizens of the community learn that the post office is on the market, a Postal Service rep tells patrons, ““We want to maintain our retail presence in the area,” so perhaps we’ll be able to lease back some space in the building or in another nearby location.
That’s what happened in Eugene, Oregon, home to a 72-year-old landmark post office built by the New Deal. For 40 years it was the main processing center, but in 1979 the Postal Service moved most of the workers to a processing center in Springfield, and now the Postal Service has put the building up for sale. (Register-Guard)
Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy wrote a letter to Eugene Postmaster Paul Bastinelli , saying the “signature post office is essential to the long-term growth and economic vitality of Eugene’s city center" and asking the Postal Service to discuss the fate of the post office with the community. Ron Anderson, the Portland-based USPS customer relations coordinator, said that’s not how it works. First the post office finds a buyer, then it notifies the community of the impending closure, and then it listens to what residents have to say.
The downtown post office was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. It was designed by Gilbert Underwood, and it contains murals by Carl Morris, a friend of artists Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. The murals depict the local industries of lumbering and agriculture.
If you’re an interested buyer, the post office is listed by Northland Realtors. The asking price is $2.5 million. Unless the city of Eugene can find a way to take over the building for public purposes, it will probably turn into a restaurant or offices for a private company. That would be too bad. As career postal employee Gary Jarvis told KVAL.com, moving out such a unique building will lower the postal service's standing in the community. "That's the face of the post office the community has come to know," he said.
July 11, 2011
Settled in 1639, Fairfield, Connecticut is one of the oldest towns in the country, and the people of Fairfield were among the earliest followers of the cause for independence in the Revolutionary War. In 1779 the British burned the town to the ground in retaliation. At Fairfield’s center is the Historic District, which contains 75 buildings in a variety of architectural styles, some going back to the Revolutionary War era.
On the edge of the historic district, at 1262 Post Road, is the Fairfield post office, built by the New Deal in 1936. According to the Fairfield Citizen, the Postal Service is considering selling the post office. "We hope to be able to sell our current location, which we have occupied since 1936,” said USPS spokeswoman Maureen P. Marion, “and make a seamless transition to an alternate site in the same general area that comes in a better size for us.” The post office is almost 16,000 square feet, and they’re looking to downsize to about 2,000.
That announcement came back in December, and there’s been no news since. The post office is not listed for sale on the usual websites like Loopnet. But with the recent sale of the nearby post offices in Westport and Greenwich, as well as the closing of the Norwich p.o., rumors of an impending sale are spreading. It seems only a matter of time before a “for sale” sign appears in front of the Fairfield post office.
The suburbs of Fairfield County, the "Gold Coast of Connecticut," provide the setting for several literary and cinema classics that define the “suburbs” in the American imagination. Eric Hodgin's Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse (1946) is about a couple who move from NYC to a rundown farmhouse in Connecticut, and the 1948 movie with Cary Grant and Mryna Loy is always worth watching. Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, made into a movie starring Gregory Peck as the commuting businessman who learns he needs to spend more time at home, was set in nearby Southport. John Cheever’s 1964 short story “The Swimmer” takes place in an affluent Connecticut suburb like Fairfield, and the 1966 movie with Burt Lancaster was shot in nearby Westport. Both the 1975 and 2004 versions of The Stepford Wives were filmed in various towns in Connecticut, and the 1975 version had locations in the Greenfield Hill section of Fairfield. And the best of them all, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, was set in a fictionalized version of “Fairfield County,” and scenes for the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were shot in the real Fairfield.
Like many New Deal post offices, the Fairfield p.o. contains an historic mural. (There may have been another one on the opposite wall, but according to the staff, it was wallpapered over years ago.) The extant mural was painted in 1938 by New York artist Alice Flint, who also did murals in Georgia and Louisiana. It depicts a couple on horseback in a procession symbolizing the passage of time. It’s entitled "Tempora Mutantur et Nos Mutamur in Illis," a Latin motto which means “Times change, and we change with them.”
(By the way, note the FedEx box in front of the post office.)
UPDATE: July 15, 2011: The Fairfield post office was included for example purposes in a OIG study about the fair market value of postal properties. Apparently the Fairfield post office was purchased for about $1 million (or perhaps that's how much it cose to build?), and it’s worth $3.5 million today.)
July 16, 2011
Pinehurst, North Carolina, is a small town located in the south central part of the state in an area called the Sandhills. It was established in 1895 when James Walker Tufts, a resident of Boston who had build a fortune with the American Soda Fountain Company, purchased land to create a health resort. He wanted a “first rate” plan, so he hired the best—Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York City and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. (More history here.)
Pinehurst remained a private resort until 1920, and the place is “sacred ground” for golf enthusiasts. It has hosted the US Open three times, and it is three-time winner of Travel & Leisure Golf Magazine’s Best Golf Resort in America award. In 1996, the Village of Pinehurst and its resort were given National Landmark status for their significant role in U.S. golf history.
In 1999, Payne Stewart, on a comeback late in his career, sunk a 15-foot putt on the 18th green of the famous #2 and won the U.S. Open, just months before he died in a plane crash at the age of 42. People still talk about the putt, and there's a sculpture by Zenos Frudakis of Stewart doing a fist pump after the ball dropped in the hole. It's called "One Moment in Time."
There’s a New Deal post office in downtown Pinehurst, built in 1935. It will close on Aug. 19, and its operations will be consolidated at the Blake Boulevard location, reports The Pilot this week.
Village Manager Andy Wilkison said in May that the village would do what it could to keep the postal facility open, perhaps by purchasing the building and leasing part to the USPS and part to another business, but it doesn’t look like that will be happening. Wilkison said that two businesses have expressed interest in the building. Rumors are the asking price is $695,000.
“Going to the downtown post office is a ritual, a tradition for so many,” said Mayor Ginsey Fallon, “and it’s not going to be the same if they have to go someplace else to get their mail.”
UPDATE: August 20, 2011: The post office did close on Aug. 19, and the community has filed an Appeal with the PRC. Here's the news item on the closing.
July 25, 2011
Head west out of USPS headquarters in L’Enfant Plaza and take Wisconsin Avenue north, and in less than 30 minutes, if the traffic isn’t too bad, you’ll find yourself in one of the richest and most highly educated communities in the country, Bethesda, Maryland.
In the middle of town at 7400 Wisconsin Avenue you’ll discover one of the more beautiful of the country’s post offices. You can’t miss it because it’s right next to a large Madonna of the Trail statue, erected by the National Old Trails Association and the Daughters of the American Revolution to honor pioneer women. Future president Harry S. Truman, then president of the Trails Association, presided over the dedication of the monument on April 19, 1929.
The Wisconsin Avenue post office was built by the New Deal in 1938. It is included in the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation, and it contains a mural by Robert Gates, who would later become the head of the Art Department at American University. The mural shows farm women feeding their animals on one side, selling produce at the market on the other, which may be an allusion to the Farm Women’s Cooperative Market that began across the street in 1932.
Eleanor Roosevelt took a special interest in this post office, and on Dec. 12, 1938, in the middle of a day packed with personal engagements and public appearances, she visited the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department to look at the mural sketches Gates was working on. The sketch was “charming,” wrote Eleanor in her diary, and then she added, “I think these post offices are making the country more and more conscious of decorative, artistic values.”
The Postal Service sold the Wisconsin Avenue post office in March for about $4 million, and the new owner has been renting space back to the Postal Service, so the post office is still open. But now the Postal Service is planning to consolidate the Wisconsin Ave post office and the Arlington Road post office, and to re-locate both to a central office.
Dennis Perry is a real estate specialist who works in the USPS eastern facilities service office in Greensboro, North Carolina. Asked why the Postal service was considering closing the Wisconsin Avenue post office, Perry replied, “To drive the highest and best use, to optimize our operations.”
I guess you’d have to ask the folks over in L’Enfant Plaza how it came to pass that the post office is not being used to its full capacity. They probably moved most of the postal workers to other locations some time ago, leaving only a small retail operation, just as they’ve done at downtown post offices across the country.
There’s a meeting to discuss the consolidation plan on July 27. If you can’t be there but would like to let Mr. Perry know what you think about “optimizing” this historic post office, you can give him a call at 336-665-2863 or drop him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m sure he’d be happy to explain why history doesn’t mean squat to the Postal Service.
September 14, 2011
The Wall Street Journal has a report today about how the Postal Service is in the process of selling off its historic post offices. Maybe someone at the Journal has been reading "Save the Post Office." We've been bemoaning the sale of these historic post offices for months now, and there have been stories in the Guardian in the UK and Liberation in France, so it’s nice to see the American press finally taking note of this travesty. Since the WSJ is subscription only, here’s the gist, with a few additional details. For more, check out our pages on the New Deal post offices and on other historic post offices that have been sold or may be sold soon.
Most post offices are housed in leased spaces, but the Postal Service owns about 8,000 post offices, as well as a thousand empty lots and modular buildings. Some 2,500 of these post offices are either on the National Register of Historic Places or eligible to be listed due to their historical significance. About 2,000 of them were constructed before World War II, and a thousand of them were built by the New Deal in the years 1933 to 1943.
The New Deal post offices are among the jewels of the nation’s architectural treasures, and it’s a crime against the American people that they are being sold off so shamelessly by the government agency entrusted with protecting them. (That's not in the WSJ article.) Paid for with tax dollars and owned by the people of the country, these federal buildings are now being sold to the highest bidder and turned into real estate offices, restaurants, high-end clothing stores, and the showroom for a bag company.
According to Dallan Wordekemper, Postal Service historian, about 800 of the New Deal post offices contain priceless sculptures and murals, often prized more than the buildings themselves. Although often mistakenly identified as WPA murals, they were produced under the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture, later called the Section of Fine Arts. The Postal Service makes an effort to protect the murals, but there have been horror stories about murals gone missing and discovered years later in the basement somewhere. (Not mentioned in the WSJ article.)
The Postal Service has already sold $140 million in post offices and other property so far in fiscal year 2011, according to ubiquitous USPS spokesperson Sue Brennan. As the Journal reports, “Postal officials say it's unclear how many of these historically significant post offices will be sold, but many communities are already starting to see the for-sale signs go up. ” The article cites several that have been discussed in blog posts on this website: Palm Beach FL, Westport CT, Pinehurst NC, Northfield MN, Cheraw SC, and Venice CA.
The two lists of post offices being studied for closure — the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI) list of 3,652 and the non-RAOI list of 727 more — contain over fifty post offices built before 1945. But there are many more historic post offices in danger that aren’t showing up on closing lists. That’s because the Postal Service can sell a post office building, as it did in Palm Beach FL or Westport CT, and then move the post office to another location. That does not count as a “closing,” and the Postal Service does not need to go through the normal closure process. There is nothing stopping the Postal Service from selling off all 2,500 of its historic post offices. Absolutely nothing. (None of that is in the WSJ article.)
If you want a better sense of just how insane this whole thing is, consider Palm Beach, Florida, where the Postal Service, as the WSJ reports, sold a magnificent New Deal post office to real-estate mogul Jeff Greene for $3.7 million. Greene, if the name's not familiar, is "the Reluctant Billionaire" who somehow figured out how to make $800 million trading the credit default swaps that helped plunge the country into recession. He ran for the Senate in Florida, but didn't get past the primary. An admirer of the Palm Beach post office since he was a kid, Greene appreciates the lobby's "wonderful woodwork and marble, and ornate elements," his architect tells us. When renovations are completed, the building will become home to Greene's real estate company — Florida Sunshine Investments. The Postal Service, in the meantime, has moved the post office to a strip mall where it’s renting space and reportedly paying — get this — $10,000 a month. (Not mentioned in the WSJ article.)
October 30, 2011
On Monday of this week, Ruth Goldway, chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC), will be speaking in Venice, California, at a meeting of the Venice Post Office Task Force. The subject of the meeting: the fate of the Venice Main Post Office, a beautiful example of New Deal architecture, which the Postal Service has decided to close and sell, a decision now being appealed before the PRC. The Postal Service has been selling off historic post offices right and left, and it’s really a crime, but no one can stop it.
For Goldway, the trip to Venice will be something of a homecoming, and she probably knows the Venice post office well. Though born and raised in New York City, Goldway lived in southern California for over two decades. During the 1970s, she worked in California’s Department of Consumer Affairs, and from 1979 to 1983, she was a council member and mayor of Santa Monica, which borders Venice. She subsequently worked in Los Angeles at California State University and the Getty Trust. Unfortunately, it seems that Goldway's history with Venice has made it necessary for her to recuse herself from the appeals case.
The Venice post office was built in 1939 by Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration. It’s a beautiful building, and it contains a prized New Deal mural, “First Thirty Years of Venice’s History," by Edward Biberman, a California Modernist whose work appears in the Smithsonian and the National Portrait Gallery. The mural features Venice’s founder, Abbot Kinney, surrounded by the town he created.
Normally when the Postal Service wants to close a post office, it has to go through a formal discontinuance process that gives the community an opportunity to express its concerns. But in this case, the Postal Service says it’s under no legal obligation to go through that process because the “post office” is not really “closing” — it’s just being “relocated" to a carrier annex.
Tell that to the citizens of Venice. They know a closing when they see one, and they know that closing the Venice post office will do irreparable harm to their community. They’ve protested to Postal Service officials, formed a task force to organize their efforts, and filed an appeal with the Postal Regulatory Commission.
The case for the appeal argues that community deserves the full discontinuance procedure because the post office is, for all intents and purposes, closing. The building will be sold, and the new retail facility in the annex is very small compared to the one at the historic post office. The brief submitted by James Smith on behalf of the Free Venice Beachhead newspaper describes the post office very nicely and explains how vital it is to the community:
“The [Venice Main Post Office] VMPO was a Works Project Administration building that includes a cornerstone dated 1939. Thus this historic building has been at the center of Venice community life for 72 years. It is located on the central plaza in the center of the main commercial district of the town. It is constantly busy with postal customers arriving on foot, by bicycle and auto. There is no busier building in the Venice community. Generations of Venetians have patronized this building on a regular basis throughout their lives. Upon climbing the stairs or handicap-accessible ramp, they entered an attractive lobby with a deep wood finish. Their eyes automatically turn to the beautiful and well-preserved “Story of Venice” mural by artist Edward Biberman on the south wall. The mural was painted in 1941 by the famous artist, and is his last surviving mural. It is seen by hundreds of people per day, thanks to its position in the post office lobby. The aesthetic charm of the building, and the museum-quality art in the lobby, is beloved by this community which is filled with artists, poets, muralists and connoisseurs of art. The character of the Venice community as an arts haven means that the blow to the community of losing both the building and the mural is far greater than it would have been if it were a nondescript building that was bereft of art.”
February 15, 2012
BY GRETA COBAR
Venice Beach, California, is an idyllic, bohemian, beach-side community that was once home to The Doors, Jimmy Hendrix, Janice Joplin, and Beat generation poets Stuart Perkoff and John Haag. Today it still embraces alternative lifestyles and artists and performers who don’t seem to fit in anywhere else.
The town's romantic archiecture, beaches, and piers have also attracted many filmmakers, and Venice has been the backdrop of several movies, like "They Shoot Horses Don't They?", "Heat," and "The Net." The famous opening title sequence in Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" was shot in Venice back in the fifties.
Also known as Venice of America, the city was founded in 1905 by tobacco millionaire Abbot Kinney, who re-created the Italian sister city’s architecture, canals, a lagoon with gondolas, the whole bit. After its annexation by the city of Los Angeles in 1925, Venice saw many of its historical buildings, canals, and lagoon destroyed. What survived is now considered to be the number one tourist destination in Southern California.
In the center of town majestically sits the Post Office, a 1939 Works Projects Administration building. It houses the 1941 “Story of Venice” mural by Edward Biberman, a renowned California painter. The beautiful, well-preserved mural depicts Abbot Kinney and his vision of Venice, as well as the oil wells and the destruction that followed annexation.
Truly the heart of the community, as all roads lead to it much like all arteries lead to the heart, the priceless post office building is now going to be sold. Citizens and local organizations voiced their objections to the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), but they were ignored. Venice residents and community associations then filed an official appeal with the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) asking for a hearing, but the PRC granted the USPS motion to dismiss the appeal.
At issue with the PRC was the USPS claim that the closing of the Venice post office was essentially a “relocation,” because services will be moved to what is currently the USPS Annex, located 400 feet away. The appeal argued that the closing of the Venice post office should be considered a formal discontinuance, entitled to a full closure process, including a hearing before the PRC. The Chairman of the PRC, Ruth Goldway, is a Venice resident, so she chose to recuse herself from the vote because the case involved her own neighborhood. The other three members of the PRC unanimously voted in favor of USPS’s decision to dismiss the appeal.
The plan now is to combine postal retail services with the mail sorting activities currently taking place in the Annex, and to sell the historic post office building.
Community input to the USPS has centered on selling the Annex instead, which could fetch three times more money than the beautiful post office building. Venice mail sorting operations could easily fit into the basement of the current post office, and sorting operations for all other neighborhoods could move to other, less expensive locations.
It seems as if the effort to privatize the Postal Service by selling off post offices is spearheaded not just by the owners of private shipping organizations, but by USPS higher-ups as well. Even the Public Representative of the USPS supported the dismissal of the appeal, even though the community is overwhelmingly united and outspoken against such action.
Aside from implementing cuts and closures that can only diminish revenue, the USPS has been intentionally suppressing revenue at the Venice branch. For example, on January 22, when the price of stamps increased from 44 to 45 cents, the Venice post office did not have one cent stamps for sale. It consistently has had only a limited selection of stamps, which is a major deterrent to stamp collectors and picky customers.
Furthermore, for the past two years only two of the five windows have been open for customer service regardless of the length of the line or the waiting time. The USPS’s own provision to provide service in less than 20 minutes has been ignored on a daily, hourly basis. Overworked clerks have to constantly deal with frustrated customers, which only contributes to their poor morale.
The retail facilities planned for the Annex consist of only two service windows, fewer parking spots for customers and employees, and significantly less mail sorting space in a facility that, according to current Venice postal employees, is already overcrowded. In addition, the neighborhood surrounding the Annex is strictly residential, and the establishment of retail operations would have a negative environmental impact in a coastal zone that has not been addressed or considered.
Bill Maher, press spokesperson for the USPS, told Venice residents that the local post office has historical status, which proved to be untrue, as federal buildings are ineligible for such status. Locals are now trying to place the building on the National List of Historical Buildings, which would not stop the USPS from selling it, but would prevent the buyer from tearing it down. Public access to the building and the mural cannot be guaranteed, though, if the sale does proceed.
Los Angeles has a poor history of historical preservation. The covenants attached to the sale of historic downtown hotels have easily been broken in recent years. In addition, a Biberman mural removed from the downtown post office has disappeared and has not been found since. In the mid 1980s Biberman himself embarked on a mission to find his displaced mural, to no avail.
The Venice community has been extremely outspoken and active in its efforts to save the post office. Two very successful rallies took place, attended by the likes of Bill Rosendahl, District Councilperson, and Debra Padilla, Executive Director of The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), alongside dozens of community members and activists.
A third rally is planned for February 18, 2 to 4 p.m., in front of the post office. Thousands of petition signatures have been collected in the neighborhood and online at www.change.org (search Venice Post Office to sign). For the latest updates or to just show that you "like" our efforts, please visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/savethevenicepostoffice.
Many local organizations and politicians have come together to stop the sale. They include the Free Venice Beachhead, SPARC, Venice Arts Council, Venice Chamber of Commerce, Venice Neighborhood Council, Venice Peace and Freedom Party, Venice Stakeholders Association, Venice Town Council, Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, Edward Biberman Estate, New Deal Preservation Association, Los Angeles Conservancy, Council member Bill Rosendahl and Congressperson Janice Hahn.
Just like many other communities across the country, Venice is heart-broken to lose its post office. Public outcry continues, the local paper covers the topic in its every edition (www.freevenice.org), and we are still collecting petition signatures. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm that has been representing us pro bono thus far, is currently assessing the possibility of a legal challenge before deciding whether it will continue to represent us.
Let’s not allow one of our oldest government institutions — with its strong labor unions ensuring good wages for workers and a network of post offices that benefit the poor, disabled, rural residents — to be dismantled in ways that favor big, private business. Contact your Congress representatives and urge them to support H.R.1351 and S.1853, which would ease the requirement that the USPS pre-fund the health benefits of employees for the next 75 years in a ten-year period and would refund $18 billion of overpayments (and that’s aside from $75 billion the USPS has overpaid into the Civil Service Retirement System).
The USPS is a self-sufficient federal business that private shipping companies want destroyed. Let’s not allow our politicians to be bought out this time as well.
(To contact Greta Cobar, email email@example.com.)
July 3, 2012
The Postal Service has been actively selling off historic post office buildings for over a year now. About forty have been sold or put up for sale. They’re scattered around the country, but for some reason more than a third of them are in California.
The Berkeley post office was built during a period when many believed architectural beautification could bring harmony to urban living, explains Gray Brechin, UC-Berkeley geography professor and founder of the Living New Deal. “The federal government went to special lengths to give Berkeley one of the handsomest postal facilities in the state and possibly the nation,” says Brechin. “It represents the high idealism of the City Beautiful Movement.”
Apparently the country is done with that kind of idealism, and rather than building beautiful public places, the federal government is selling them off. What’s going on in California is one of the main reasons the National Trust named the Historic Post Office to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places of 2012.
Historic post offices are highly prized by their communities. They anchor the downtown area, help local businesses, enable people to walk to the post office, and elicit pride of place. People may complain about the long lines, but they love their grand old post office.
If something doesn’t stop the sell-off, it looks as though the Postal Service is prepared to dispose of all 2,200 of the country’s historic post offices. Postal officials seem to think that this legacy belongs to them, to do with as they please. They forget that these post offices are the property of the American people. They seem unaware of the magnitude of the crime they're committing.
The Postal Service says it needs the money these sales bring in, and the old buildings cost too much to maintain, especially when a lot of space is underutilized. But the sales bring in a relatively small amount of money in the context of the USPS budget, the maintenance costs are less than the rent the Postal Service pays on the replacement post office, and the underused space is the Postal Service's own fault. Rather than making the most of the downtown location, the Postal Service moves letter carriers to other locations (which also cost money to lease or maintain), so that the mail processing that used to go on in the back now goes on somewhere else, leaving just the retail services in the building.
The explanations offered by the Postal Service disguise what's really going on. The Postal Service is selling off its properties because divestiture of assets, along with outsourcing, is one of the main steps in the process of privatization. The plans have been in the works for a long time. Back in 1998, President Reagan's Commission on Privatization recommended selling off "obsolete buildings in central business districts" — historic downtown post offices — to help move the Postal Service toward privatization. You can read all about it in the Commission's report, "Privatization: Toward More Effective Government" (pp. 122-125).
California has fourteen historic post offices that have been sold, put on the market, or planned for sale — the most of any state in the country. Connecticut is number two, with five (most of them in the “Gold Coast” area around Westport). Several other states have one or two.
One might assume that so many historic post offices are being sold in California because the state has an unusual number of them, but that explanation doesn't hold up. California ranks fifth in terms of how many historic posts offices it possesses, 106. New York is number one (with 238); Pennsylvania, second (182); then come Illinois (170) and Ohio (126). Yet these states have only one or two historic post offices for sale.
Of California's approximately 1,800 post offices, the Postal Service owns around 600. Using fifty years old as a rule of thumb for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, over a hundred California post offices are eligible and 24 are currently on the Register. (A list of California’s historic post offices is here, a map here, and a spreadsheet showing how post offices and historic buildings break down state-by-state, here.)
Percentage-wise, California is not at all unusual in the number of historic post offices it possesses. About 6 percent of the state’s post offices are historic, which ranks California 29th. By contrast, in the New England states, about 13 percent of the post offices are historic.
There must be another reason why the state is seeing so many sales compared to other states. One possible explanation is that postal management in the Pacific District is simply being more aggressive about selling post offices than other districts, perhaps to please postal headquarters back east. It’s also possible that the California post offices are among the country’s most valuable, and the Postal Service wants to work on the big-ticket items first. That would also explain why it sold off the post offices in Connecticut’s Gold Coast and Palm Beach, Florida. Or maybe the Postal Service is just starting the divestiture process on the West Coast, intending to work its way east, so it’s only a matter of time before other states suffer their share of the damage.