“Post Office Fans” Hits the Trail

David W. Gates Jr. at the Ladysmith, Wisconsin Post Office

David W. Gates Jr. at the Ladysmith, Wisconsin Post Office
The Colonial Revival-style post office was built in 1935.

A self-described “post office freak,” Chicago native David W. Gates Jr. is on a mission to document the nation’s post office art. The idea came to him during a river rafting trip when he and his friends came upon an unprepossessing post office in Athelstane, Wisconsin, and used it as backdrop for a group photo. Thereafter, David began to take notice of post offices, especially those in small town America.

David, a computer specialist, is an intrepid hiker. His peregrinations include the Pacific Crest and the Appalachian Trails. It was as a through hiker on the Appalachian Trail—a 2,176-mile trek through 14 states—that his obsession with post offices took hold.

The tiny post offices along the route were David’s lifeline during his 6-month journey through the Appalachians. Retrieving the supplies he had mailed to himself via “General Delivery” before starting out led David to post offices in Erwin, Tennessee; Hot Springs, North Carolina; Front Royal, Virginia; Pearisburg, Virginia; Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Damascus, Virginia; Boiler Springs, Pennsylvania; Glen Cliff, New Hampshire; Caratunk, Maine; and Andover, Maine. He’s been photographing and writing about post offices ever since. His website, Postofficefreak.com, includes nearly 800 blogs about his post offices encounters.

David had originally planned to photograph as many post office buildings as he could, but has since narrowed this quest to documenting New Deal post offices. Many, he found, have been shuttered or sold.

“Unloading a River Barge” by Ruth Grotenrath, 1943.

“Unloading a River Barge” by Ruth Grotenrath, 1943.
Gates searched for the mural in the former Hudson, Wisconsin, Post Office. He found it in storage, no longer viewable by the public. The post office, built in 1939, was sold and is now a restaurant.

New Deal murals and sculpture in post offices were produced between 1934 and 1943 under the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, later called the Section of Fine Arts. The purpose was to boost the public’s morale during the Great Depression with art that, in the words of President Roosevelt, was “native, human, eager and alive — all of it painted by their own kind in their own country, and painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved.”

According to the U.S. Postal Service’s website, “more than 1,150 post offices across the continental United States house this uniquely American art for people to enjoy as they go about their daily lives…The United States Postal Service is making every effort to preserve and safeguard it for future generations.”

That’s not what David says he found. “New Deal artworks that belong to the public are no longer available for the public to enjoy,” he says. “Many of these works have been removed, locked away, and even painted over.  I want to record them before they disappear.”

David recently published a guide to Wisconsin’s 35 New Deal post offices, “so that people can know what’s out there.”

To learn more go to www.Postofficefreak.com

David W. Gates Jr. is the Living New Deal’s Research Associate for Illinois and post office buildings nationwide. He lives in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

Dear Postal Service: Don’t Mess With Berkeley

Post Office Protest

Post Office Protest
Berkeley activists held demonstrations to save their post office.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Following a 3-year struggle that gained national attention, the United States Postal Service backed down from selling Berkeley, California’s historic downtown post office. Built in 1914, the massive Renaissance Revival-style building, which anchors the city’s New Deal civic center, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and houses New Deal murals and sculpture.

When the USPS announced plans to sell the building, the Living New Deal organized meetings that led to the formation of Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office. Teach-ins and demonstrations on the steps of the downtown post office encouraged the mayor and City Council to join the fight.

After months of public protest and meetings with Postal Service officials proved fruitless, the City and the National Trust for Historic Preservation filed a federal lawsuit seeking to require the USPS to conduct public hearings under environmental and historic-preservation laws before trying to sell the building. When confronted in court with multiple violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, the Postal Service told federal court Judge William Alsup that the post office was no longer for sale. The judge ordered a 42-day public notice of any pending sale or relocation of postal services, and will continue to monitor the USPS for five years. Therefore, future legal action challenging the USPS remains an option.

Berkeley’s successful showdown offers hope to other communities struggling to preserve their post offices and living wage jobs. But the losses continue to mount.

Demonstration to Save the Berkeley Post Office

Demonstration to Save the Berkeley Post Office
Ralph Nader speaking at a Berkeley Post Office rally.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Public protest failed to save Venice Beach, California’s post office, built by the WPA in 1939. A treasured local landmark, the 24,000-square-foot, Art Deco building houses a mural, “Story of Venice,” by artist Edward Biberman. To great fanfare, in 2012 the USPS sold the building to a film producer for $7.5 million. At the press conference the buyer assured the mayor and others assembled that the building would be preserved and its mural restored. The building now stands empty, covered with graffiti.

Conservatives in Congress have long pushed to privatize the post office. During the Nixon Administration, Congress abolished the U.S. Post Office Department and replaced it with the United States Postal Service, a corporate-like entity with an official monopoly on delivering mail in the United States. In 2007, Congress required that the Postal Service pre-fund 75 years of employee benefits. To avoid forced bankruptcy, the USPS began liquidating properties, often over the objections of local communities. The USPS identified some 600 properties, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, for possible sale. Many are on the National Register of Historic Places, and many were built by the Roosevelt Administration and contain New Deal artworks.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation investigated the USPS sell off. Its report to Congress was highly critical of the USPS and its exclusive contract with the real estate giant, CBRE, in which Richard Blum, husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, has a large interest.

Berkeley’s Congresswoman Barbara Lee has introduced The Moratorium on U.S. Historic Postal Buildings Act, but Congress has yet to act.

Bronx Post Office Sold to Developer

Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson Mural at the Bronx Post Office

Ben Shahn Mural at the Bronx Post Office
“America at Work” is one of thirteen murals in the Bronx post office

Despite vigorous protest by the public and public officials, the Bronx General Post Office has been sold. Valued at $14 million, the building reportedly was sold to Korean developer Young Woo & Associates for an undisclosed sum. The U.S. Postal Service has not made an official announcement about the sale and has declined to provide details.

“The United States Postal Service has sold one of the Bronx’s most important community and historic treasures in a completely irresponsible manner,” Bronx Congressman Jose Serrano said. “The USPS has disregarded the voices of the Bronx community, elected officials, historic preservationists, and their own employees—all of whom opposed this process and this sale.”

In 2013 the Postal Service announced its intention to sell the massive Bronx Post Office in order to “right-size our retail operation into smaller leased space,” according to Joseph Mulvey, a real estate specialist for the Postal Service.

The Bronx General Post Office

The Bronx General Post Office
Built in 1935, the Bronx post office is the largest of twenty-nine Depression-era post offices in New York City

The four-story Moderne Bronx Post Office was built in 1935 as part of a Treasury Department program to employ out-of-work architects, artisans, and artists. It is one of more than a thousand post offices constructed during FDR’s presidency. At 175,000 square-feet, it is the largest of twenty-nine Depression-era post offices in New York City.

Two sculptures by Charles Rudy and Henry Kreis adorn the outside of the massive building. The lobby contains thirteen murals, entitled “America at Work, painted in 1937 by American artists Ben Shahn and his wife Bernarda Bryson. Shahn (1898-1969), a prolific artist, is known for his works of social realism. His works appear in several government buildings in Washington, D.C. and are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of the City of New York.

The Postal Service has faced severe criticism of its disposal of its historic properties, many of which contain artworks intended for the public that paid for them. Last year the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the lobby of the Bronx Post Office and its murals a historic landmark to give them some protection in the event of a sale.

Exterior of the Bronx Post Office

Exterior of the Bronx Post Office
Charles Rudy and Henry Kreis sculptures decorate the landmark building

The U.S. Postal Service receives no public funds, yet in a push to privatize the agency, Republicans in Congress enacted legislation in 2006 requiring the U.S. Postal Service to prepay 75-years of benefits to postal workers within ten years. Without that $5.6 billion prepayment, the USPS would have made a profit of over $600 million last year.

Postal officials have insisted that they must sell thousands of post offices in order to fix the cash-strapped agency. Local opposition to the sale of many post offices led Congress to appoint the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) to look into the matter. In April 2014 the Council recommended  that the Postal Service refrains from selling historic post offices until it improves its program and procedures.

The international real estate firm CBRE has the exclusive contract to sell “surplus” post office properties. Until recently, the chairman of the board of CBRE was Richard Blum, the husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein. Blum stepped down as chairman in May, but continues to be a major stockholder. The USPS Inspector General is looking into whether CBRE may be selling postal facilities to its partners at below-market prices at the Postal Service’s expense. Young Woo & Associates, the Korean developer that purchased the Bronx Post Office has done several deals with CBRE. According to Save the Post Office, CBRE CEO Robert Sulentic also serves on the board of directors of Staples, where a pilot program has been underway to see if the Postal Service could cut costs by outsourcing retail services to big box stores.

“It’s not clear why the Postal Service is so reluctant to share information about the sale of the Bronx Post Office, what it sold for, what the plans are, or where the postal retail operation is relocating,” says NYU professor Steve Hutkins, whose Save the Post Office http://www.savethepostoffice.com/search website has been bird-dogging the sell off of the nation’s post offices. Save the Post Office, among the many organizations objecting to the sale. In April, a coalition of elected officials that included New York Mayor Bill De Blasio and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer urged that the sale be put on hold. Congressman José Serrano introduced legislation to halt the sales until the Postal Service implements the ACHP recommendations. Hundreds of concerned citizens and postal workers turned out at a public hearing to oppose the sale.

Because the USPS will divulge nothing about the sale of its public property, its fate and that of its great murals remains unclear.

For Sale: America’s Historic Post Offices

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office
Berkeley, California

 

Despite growing public protest, the U.S. Postal Service is moving apace to sell the public’s historic post offices. Last month, the Postal Service added four more post offices on the National Register of Historic Places to its “For Sale” list: California’s La Jolla Wall Street Post Office, built in 1935; New York City’s Old Chelsea Station on West 18th Street, and the Bronx General Post Office on the Grand Concourse, both built in 1937; and the Berkeley Downtown Post Office, which, in spite of a year long campaign to keep the century-old building in the public domain, was recently slated for sale.

Like many other endangered post offices, these buildings contain unique New Deal artworks.

During the 1930s the federal government put thousands to work building the nation’s postal system.  In big cities and small towns alike, New Deal post offices are among the most artful, architecturally distinguished, and beloved buildings.

The thirteen murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson are considered masterpieces.

The Bronx Post Office
The thirteen murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson are considered masterpieces.

“Apparently the country is done with that kind of idealism,” notes Gray Brechin, geographer and Living New Deal Project scholar, “Rather than building beautiful public places, the federal government is selling them off.”

Buildings on the National Register of Historic Places are afforded some protection—their exterior must be preserved. But once sold the buildings are often gutted. In at least one case, a 1937 post office in Virginia Beach, Virginia was demolished to make way for a Walgreen’s pharmacy.

The National Historic Preservation Act ensures public access to public artwork, but when post offices are sold the murals and sculptures often are removed to storage. Even when the art remains in place, it’s up to the new owners whether the public may view it.

The Postal Service financial crisis started in 2006 when Congress required the Postal Service to pre-pay 75 years of workers’ benefits within ten years. Although many blame email for the Postal Service’s demise, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 is responsible for $4 out of every $5 in Postal Service debt—more than $15 billion in 2012. In response, the Postal Service is cutting services and selling many of its most valuable properties.

CB Richard Ellis, a giant commercial real estate firm, holds the exclusive contract to sell postal properties worth billions. CB Richard Ellis’ chairman is Richard Blum, a University of California Regent and the husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein. So far, the press has shown no interest in investigating how that contract was awarded, nor its terms.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced legislation to repeal the law responsible for the Postal Service’s death spiral. The bill recently passed the Senate but the other has yet to be voted on in the House.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Historic Post Office to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places of 2012.

Read Francis O’Connor’s open letter about post office art »

For a list of endangered post offices go to:  http://www.savethepostoffice.com