Privileging the frank: Part 3, Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship

March 22, 2013 | Adaptive reuse, Advocacy, Economics, Historic, Housing, Infrastructure, Networks, Post office, Rehab, Tax credits, Zoning

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]


By:David A. Smith


Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship

– Benjamin Franklin, Postmaster General


By now, halfway through our deconstruction of a fluffy article by Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times (March 8, 2013) and the subsequent comments section (green Arial), we’ve seen that although post offices may close, if the buildings have value – physical, economic, or psychological – someone may come along and repurpose them.  Or, if the historic or preservation-worthy features are inside, such as in those WPA murals that many of us remember from high school auditoria, that can be detached from its original emplacement and moved to a museum or other public space (like City Hall):



Airmail over Texas: WPA Post Office mural


Still, there is no pleasing some people:


The agreement is one of a number that have been created for murals that were made for post offices. In Venice, though, some residents are upset that the agreement stipulates that the mural can be publicly viewed just six times a year and by appointment only.


Given a notepad or a microphone, one can always find a resident prepared to voice displeasure at just about anything – and that’s worth remembering when evaluating any of these requests or demands.


Mr. Silver [who bought the Venice post office and turned it into his movie production company’s headquarters – Ed.] said through a spokesman that he planned to make the mural available to the public more often.


Those preservations occurred because benefactors were feeling civic – and in both cases, the benefactor was extremely wealthy, and the property located in a wealthy city.  The other 1,098 post offices likely to be closed face a more practical problem:


4. Will the buildings find alternate uses in the marketplace?


Throughout its story, the Times takes as a given that the post offices being closed are national treasures whose unique contributions to Americana will be lost if they slip through the public’s fingers into the grasp of – for shame! – developers. 


“Unless the U.S. Postal Service establishes a clear, consistent process that follows federal preservation law when considering disposal of these buildings, a significant part of the nation’s architectural heritage will be at risk,” the National Trust for Historic Preservation said in a citation that placed historic post offices on its most endangered list.


‘Endangered list’; ‘slaughter.’  Somewhere along the way these post offices’ admirers have personified them, and sought to elevate them from property into personhood.




This 1939 Colonial Revival building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is known for its red brick facade and limestone interior, along with two relief panels of a bear and a deer carved by the artist Paul Fiene in 1938.


There’s no question that old post offices have a nostalgic charm that evokes small-town America, and a childhood which grows fonder every year it recedes in our memory.  And if money were no object, yes I too would want them all preserved as local museums.  But money is always an object, and those who would preserve the properties give no answer to that – evidently they want the properties preserved because they think preservation is important, and they expect the hat to be passed to others, not to themselves.


David from Flushing


Post office buildings are odd structures in a way. They often boast dignified lobbies in the front and factory-like interiors behind with loading docks. Preservation of these hybrid designs could prove difficult as the “pretty” part is a small portion of the whole.

There is also often the problem of location. Monumental post offices were built next to the railroad facilities in New York City, Philadelphia, and other major cities to take advantage of the proximity of mail trains. Today mail is moved by trucks and planes. Often the old locations are in traffic congested areas that delay mail movement.

We have already seen conversion of old post offices. The Art Deco building in Philadelphia has been converted by a developer into a modern office building that has preserved the ornate lobbies. Here in NYC, Grand Central Station (not the terminal) survives as the outer shell of a high rise office tower that rises from the interior.

I find it interesting that so many post offices are beloved because of their WPA murals in the lobby. This points out the continuing appreciation of public art.


No question they’re nice buildings.  For myself, I like entering old post offices, especially those that present a historical architecture (especially Egyptian Revival or Art Deco); given a moment to reflect upon them, they would make me smile … but like millions of Americans, I no longer enter post offices, and the ones in my part of the world are unlikely to be preserved – or are no more worthy of preservation than our city hall or a dozen other buildings in Cambridge. 



Egyptian Revival former Post Office: now the Urbana Champaign Independent Media Center


Mark Hugh Miller from Los Angeles


These buildings seem heroic because they were intended to inspire. Roosevelt told his architects that not only post offices but also government office buildings must inspire the peoples’ confidence in government institutions after the calamity of the Crash and the on-going Depression. They did, and they still do. Today’s federal boxes reflect a far different sensibility, and the public responds accordingly.


In my home town of Marblehead, the post office was converted to condominiums a few decades ago, and a good thing too.  I doubt it would have survived otherwise.  The same is true for many historic churches, particularly of religions whose congregations are shrinking.



The Old Post Office in Marblehead, courtesy of Wednesdays in Marblehead


When these post offices close, preservationists say, important public buildings become private preserves as they are refurbished into commercial spaces like high-end retail stores.


[Note the constant undercurrent of snobbishness: ‘high end’ retail stores are implicitly worse than (say) lower-end grocery stores? – Ed.]




Though many of the buildings’ exteriors are protected by local landmark laws, many of the interiors are not and developers tend to make changes like renovating lobbies.


[Renovating lobbies – what uncouth sods would ever do such a thing? – Ed.]


If the interiors are historic, protect them legally; or if they are not historic but are merely evocative, then preserve the decoration, perhaps by buying the painting or mural, or even removing the fresco.  All of these are quite possible, and frequently done.


Further, if your artistic or emotional response is evoked solely by the building in its totality, then buy the property and turn it into a museum to the old Santa Monica, or a coffee house run at a loss and funded by subscriptions. 



The Key West Post Office and Customs House, turned into the Key West Museum of Art and History


And yet, public properties cannot be preserved in their original form, because between their construction and today, building codes and sensibilities have changed, meaning that to operate at all requires upgrades:


Elanah Sherman from Norwich CT


One of the issues with quite a few old post offices is their lack of accessibility to people with disabilities. Repurposing these structures in a way that would create access is a challenging proposition. This is the case with the Norwich building which, by the way, contains a wonderful WPA mural.



Norwich Post Office, early 1960s



Taking Up Arms, Norwich, CT post office


Ms. Sherman raises an excellent point the Times writer overlooked: modernized, ‘enlightened’ views of public purpose can clash with one another, and if both are elevated to the level of mandates, one must defer to the other.  Which is it to be – accessibility or historicity?  Or this choice:


Lynn C from New York (continued)


When I had to replace my windows, the contractor specializing in historic windows suggested replacements that were true to the architectural elements of my building, the difference being the window framing was made of modern materials and EnergyStar rated. I lived on the fourth floor and the frame would be painted, so no one walking by could tell the framing wasn’t made of wood. The preservation office vetoed it and I ended up paying thousands more for inefficient windows. In an era of reducing carbon footprints, slavish adherence to historic recreation had trumped energy efficiency.


5. What about housing?


An occupied building deteriorates; if it deteriorates long enough, it becomes a health and safety hazard, and if that goes longer still, it will fall down. These buildings need to be reused, and housing – especially affordable housing – represents one of the very best adaptive reuses for these properties, albeit sometimes with unexpected discoveries:



The post office in Paintville, KY, converted into a single-family residence


Sarah Belhasen, who collects Americana, was searching for “a house with character” ten years ago when she saw that the old post office in her hometown was for sale. She couldn’t resist the challenge of preserving it, so she bought it for $162,000 and went to work.


During the renovation, they not only found undelivered mail but secret passageways behind the walls that the postmaster used to keep an eye on his employees without being seen in the days before surveillance videos.


Indeed, conversion into housing can revive such structures:



“Creditors have better memories than debtors.”


[Concluded tomorrow in Part 4.]