Legacy for Sale: The Postal Service has no shame



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.)