New Deal Post Offices
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.”
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.)
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.
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 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.)