Preservation activists in Berkeley, California, worked for years to protect their city’s historic core. In 1998, they achieved National Register of Historic Places status for a 5-block area encompassing the New Deal-era Civic Center Park and 13 buildings—the Beaux Arts-style Old City Hall, Veterans Building, Berkeley High School, Community Theater, and the Main Post Office, a Berkeley Landmark.
In 2014, amidst a downtown development boom, the City created a “defined district”—the Civic Center Historic District Zoning Overlay— restricting uses within it to civic and cultural purposes. The year before, the U.S. Postal Service announced it planned to sell the historic Post Office, potentially to local developers, who planned to develop it for a Target store.
Since legislation Congress passed in 2006 placed onerous financial obligations on the U.S. Postal Service, hundreds of post offices nationwide—many historic—have been listed for sale or sold to developers.
Designed by architect Oscar Wenderoth, Berkeley’s century-old Renaissance Revival post office, like many civic buildings of the time, was embellished with artworks during the New Deal under the Treasury Relief Art Project.
Suzanne Scheuer, one of 23 New Deal artists whose work can be seen at San Francisco’s landmark Coit Tower, painted the mural in the lobby of the Berkeley Post Office. “Incidents in California History,” depicts Native Americans, Spanish explorers, Californios, and other early residents of the Bay Area. Sculptor David Slivka, who later exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, carved the bas relief of postal workers on the post office’s exterior. Carved in stone are the sculptor’s initials and the words: “From D.S., To: All Mankind, Truth Abode on Freedom Road.”
The USPS sued the City, claiming its Civic Center District Zoning Overlap frustrated efforts to sell the post office. Last month, after nearly two years in federal court, the City prevailed. U.S. District Court Judge Donald Alsup rejected the Justice Department’s claim that the special zoning had deprived the Postal Service of the ability to sell the property.
Save the Berkeley Post Office and the National Trust for Historic Preservation view the ruling as a victory for cities that, like Berkeley, seek to use zoning as a tool for historic preservation.