Historic Sheboygan post office heads for the auction block

Steve HutkinsBlog, Featured

Last week the Postal Service issued a news release announcing the proposed relocation of retail services at the historic post office on North Ninth Street in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

According to the news release, the post office suffers from a “space deficiency” — whatever that is. The announcement doesn’t say it explicitly, but the clear implication is that the historic building will eventually be put up for sale.

It appears that the Sheboygan post office will be yet another casualty of the Postal Service’s 10-year austerity plan, aka Delivering for America — along with slowing mail delivery, raising prices, cutting jobs by consolidating processing plants and carrier operations, reducing retail hours, closing stations and branches, ending evening collection at rural post offices, relocations to smaller retail-only offices, and a fire sale of postal properties.

The relocation options

The Sheboygan post office employs about 95 people — 75 letter carriers to cover 52 routes plus 20 customer-service and carrier-support clerks — perhaps about 60 at a time. The building has 43,000 square feet, and the parking has about 60 or 70 spaces, mostly for delivery vehicles. There seems to be plenty of on-street parking as well.

That’s a very large building, and that’s probably enough parking for employees and customers. It’s not clear why the site or building is inadequate for current operations.

Aerial view of Sheboygan property (Source: Google Earth)

The news release simply says, ”Due to a space deficiency of the current Post Office, the Postal Service is now considering relocating retail services within three miles of the current location.”

The Postal Service says it’s looking for an existing building that has about 3,400 square feet with at least 22 parking spaces where it can put a small, retail-only office (aka a finance station). If retail were moved to a smaller location like this, the Postal Service would consider keeping carriers in the current location on Ninth Street.

Another possibility would be to keep the retail operation where it is while relocating the carriers elsewhere. To do this, the Postal Service wants an existing building that has about 7,400 square feet with at least 47 parking spots. Presumably this facility would house only carriers (aka a carrier annex).

Yet another alternative would be to move to an existing building that as about 21,100 square feet and 161 parking spaces “to add the carriers to the new location.” The wording is not quite clear, but apparently that means moving both the retail and carriers together to the same new location. This building would be half the size of the current facility, but with more parking.

Sheboygan PO, triptych over entrance (Source: David Gates Jr)

Perhaps inadequate parking is the “space deficiency” at the Ninth Street post office, or perhaps the issue is something else.

But all the attention to square feet and parking in the announcement shouldn’t obscure the obvious: The Postal Service is planning to sell the Sheboygan post office.

Once all the relocating is done, why would the Postal Service hold on to the property? If carriers are removed and there’s just a small retail-only operation, it will occupy about a tenth of the building. That won’t make sense. And why would it be necessary to remove the retail while keeping the carriers in the building?

The process could take several months, maybe a year or more, but it can only end one way. The question isn’t will the building be sold, but what will happen to it after that.  A government building? A corporate office? Or maybe a boutique hotel and/or restaurant — with a postal theme, of course.

No public meeting

The news release says that customers can submit comments by mail over the next 45 days. This will be the only way for the public to share its views.

Sheboygan PO Lobby (Source: Wisconsin Historic Society)

That’s because last June the Postal Service revised the federal regulations on post office relocations and eliminated the requirement for a public meeting.

As the Postal Service explained when it changed the regulations, during the pandemic (when meetings weren’t possible) “written notification proved to be a more effective means of communicating and provided community members with a more accessible method of providing comments.” (Of course, that doesn’t explain why written comments and a public meeting aren’t a better way to hear what the community has to say.)

Now the only way the public can comment is by writing a letter to the Postal Service. It won’t be possible for the public to view these letters, and there will be no opportunity to meet with USPS representatives face-to-face. It doesn’t matter that the post office is a historic landmark in downtown Sheboygan.

If you’d like to comment, write United States Postal Service, ATTN: Sheboygan WI Relocation, PO BOX 27497, Greensboro, NC 27498-1103. Comments are due by March 15, 2024.

A highlight of the New Deal in Wisconsin

The Sheboygan post office was constructed from 1932 to 1937. Unlike many New Deal post offices, which were usually based on standard plans from the Department of the Treasury’s design office, the Sheboygan office was designed by an architect, Edgar A. Stubenrauch, a native of Sheboygan (b. 1894). He also designed several other large buildings in Wisconsin and Michigan.

“Present City” (Source: Wisconsin Historic Society)

The post office has five murals painted by Schomer Lichtner (b. 1905 in Peoria) funded by the Treasury Relief Art Project. One of Lichtner other works was selected by President Roosevelt and hangs in the White House. The murals depict the growth of the area from the time of the Native Americans to the present: Indian Life, The Pioneer, The Lake, Agriculture, and Present City.

The interior lobby’s work tables, moldings and column capitals, done in the Art Deco style, were designed by Elizabeth Tuttle Holsman, (b. 1873 in Nebraska), a painter and sculptor, married to Henry Holsman, a pioneer automaker and one of Chicago’s most famous architects.

The post office was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. The nomination form has an extensive description of the building and murals, including several black-and-white photos. The Wisconsin Historical Society has a page on the post office as well.

According to the NRHP form, “The richness of the materials and of the architectural detailing, together with the abundance of murals, create a setting not found anywhere else in the survey. Schomer Lichtner’s murals are an integral part of the building and are good examples of this Wisconsin artist’s work. The extent of the commission also presents a rare collection of five canvases of Schomer’s work. Together, the art and architecture of the Sheboygan Post Office mark this building as one of the highlights of the Treasury Department’s post office projects in the state.”

There’s an excellent photo essay about the post office and its murals, as well as a video, on Post Office Fans, a site maintained by postal historian David W. Gates Jr., author of a book about Depression-era Wisconsin post offices and their murals.

— Steve Hutkins

(Featured photo: Sheboygan Post Office, David Gates)