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Putting a price on history: Distinctive post offices for sale

By ROBIN POGREBIN New York Times

Publication: The Day

Published March 10. 2013 4:00AM
Day file photo
The Norwich Post Office is among the historic and architecturally distinct post offices for sale around the country.
Norwich PO is among those on the market

Santa Monica, Calif. - The lines are often long inside the Art Deco post office here under the palm trees. But few people complain these days when they visit that New Deal-era building.

They are glad to get their mail, send off a package and maybe chat a bit while they still can. In December, the government said it planned to sell it.

"We don't know what's going to happen to this beautiful, Depression-era architectural jewel," said Sara Meric, 87, a retired script analyst who has used this post office since 1959. "If, God forbid, this slaughter does go through, some entity should make sure that this building is protected."

The Santa Monica post office, with its distinctive PWA Moderne style, is one of about 200 post offices around the country, dozens of them architecturally distinctive buildings, that the Postal Service has indicated it may choose to sell in coming years because of its financial problems.

Eleven historic post offices are already on the market in places such as Yankton, S.D.; Gulfport, Miss.; Norwich; and Washington.

In many cases the buildings have not been only community hubs, but also remain among the most architecturally distinguished buildings in their towns, legacies of New Deal efforts to put America back to work.

So as the Postal Service tries to shrink, it is often finding itself in battle with groups trying to prevent what the National Trust for Historic Preservation last year labeled one of the most significant threats to the country's architectural heritage.

"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 trust said in a citation that placed historic post offices on its most-endangered list.

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. 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.

In one case, a post office built in 1937 without protected status was demolished. That building, in Virginia Beach, was knocked down in 2009 to make room for a Walgreens, despite attempts to save it.

"There are lots of quite significant post office buildings that are threatened because the Postal Service itself is threatened," said G. Martin Moeller Jr., a senior curator at the National Building Museum in Washington.

The Postal Service lost $15.9 billion last year, and last month announced it was considering eliminating Saturday letter service. It says that the real estate sales raise revenue and save on operating costs, and that the shuttered post offices are those where the number of customers had declined, or where it found a less-expensive alternate site.

"The trend has been to maintain the post offices that are operational while saving money at the same time," said Sue Brennan, a spokeswoman for the service. "The Postal Service follows all applicable laws regarding the disposal of historic buildings."

There are some 31,000 retail postal offices in the country, most of them leased. But roughly a quarter are government-owned and as many as 1,100 were built in the 1930s, when the government hired architects to design civic buildings.

In 2011, the Postal Service identified about 3,700 post offices - some leased, some owned, some historic and some not - that it said may have to close in coming years to save money. When that plan met with opposition, the service announced that it would instead try to lower expenses by reducing operating hours.

But even as postal officials agreed not to eliminate outlets in some towns and cities, they did leave open the option to sell valuable properties and relocate services. "Periodic sales of post offices will be ongoing," Brennan said.

The agency acknowledges that in recent years the sale of post office buildings has accelerated, and in 2011 it hired CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm, to handle the transactions.

"Our biggest concern is the way they're going about it isn't transparent," said Chris Morris, a senior field officer for the National Trust and project manager for post office buildings. "A lot of us are very confused about the process."

Advocates say there have been too few public discussions or assurances that prized buildings will be protected.

Another person who is tracking the issue is Steve Hutkins, a New York University professor whose website, Save the Post Office, attempts, among other things, to map the sale and possible sale of the buildings. "They are losing iconic buildings," said Hutkins, who questioned whether the Postal Service was "artificially inflating the seriousness of the deficit problem to justify downsizing."

While the hundreds of post offices on the National Register of Historic Places are not at risk of being demolished without government review, some of their interiors are subject to alteration. Other post offices have been sold with covenants: legal stipulations that require subsequent owners to maintain certain architectural features in perpetuity, even if a property is transferred. And even without protections, some buildings are unlikely targets for demolition because they are so attractive, commercial realtors say.

A variety of these factors has worked to preserve a post office building in Connecticut. The one in Greenwich was sold to the real estate magnate Peter Malkin for more than $15 million in 2011. Malkin said he had met no resistance to his plan to convert the Classical Revival building, constructed in 1937 and listed on the National Register, into a Restoration Hardware store.

"One of the reasons I became involved in the purchase of the building was to protect it from being changed in any way," he said. The battles over the buildings seem most pronounced in California, where preservationists say they fear that dozens of post offices may be sold. Postal officials said such concerns were unfounded because there was no such plan at this point in the state.

Nonetheless, concerns about the post offices "are overwhelming the state historic preservation offices," said Carol Lemlein, president of the Santa Monica Conservancy. "There is very little confidence in the Postal Service's ability to execute a process in a manner that will really protect the buildings," she added.

Even with legal protections in place, advocates say there is no guarantee that these post offices will remain intact once sold. They say such protections can be ignored or prove insufficient in the absence of vigilant monitoring or explicit guidelines that specify which architectural elements deserve protection.

"Unless these features are appropriately defined, the building can be "preserved' without continuing to exhibit the features that made it important in the first place," said Lemlein of the Santa Monica Conservancy.

In the building on Fifth Street in Santa Monica, preservationists point to Art Deco features of the exterior, to the wood paneling in the public lobby and to the original light fixtures as elements worthy of protection. They are trying to establish a covenant for the building, which postal officials said in a letter last December to the State Historic Preservation Office was, "slated for sale," though it has yet to be listed.

The city joined in Rep. Henry A. Waxman's appeal of the Postal Service's decision to close the post office.

"I think they got it wrong," Waxman said in an interview. "It's a Depression-era structure, it's an historic structure, one of the few Art Deco buildings in Santa Monica."

The first goal is to keep the post office as a post office, preservationists say. But if it has to be sold, they say they want to ensure that any new owner is sensitive to the building's cherished history and architectural distinction.

"It could be a restaurant, a store, offices," said Adrian Scott Fine, the Los Angeles Conservancy's director of advocacy, "as long as you keep those features that define the building."

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