Sunday, July 16, 2017

Star Billings: Big Sky, Big Post Office

Montana is MT! Rather literally. (Emp-ty. Get it? Okay, pun quota met for the post.) But that doesn't mean it doesn't have some sizable, historic post offices.

I've enjoyed processing original images from the National Archives for Montana post offices. Several were undated and required additional research. In several cases: Billings, Missoula, and Great Falls, the Post Mark Collectors Club (PMCC) has been able to compile multiple images of the building as it expands and develops over a span of decades. (You can read more about the PMCC's unparalleled collection of post office photographs—presently at 27,000 and counting—here.) In this entry we'll review the historic post office building in Billings, Montana's largest city.

Billings, Montana—now Downtown Station post office

I wanted to discuss this post office because more than one historic image of this building online is mis-dated. For instance, this illustrative image on Wikipedia, "ca. 1914", could not have been taken prior to 1932. (In fact, it is the image you will see below, dated "ca. 1932".) This is because the building, while originally built between 1913 and 1914, was noticeably expanded twice in subsequent decades.

First, a cornerstone image, taken 2012:
Billings federal building cornerstone

When originally completed the building had one-story side "wings". The building's National Register of Historic Places nomination form explains: "The present building has been twice altered. In 1932, the original single story wings flanking the central section were extended to three stories and the building was expanded to the rear (doubling the original side dimensions). The front and north facades remain unaltered from this addition. In 1940, an addition was made to the rear central and southern portions of the building."

You can see the difference given these images below:

This early (ca. 1914-1930) image appears on a postcard that is actually presently for sale at CardCow for an absurdly expensive price—thank goodness for fair use:

This image, which can be found at the National Archives, as taken post-first extension ca. 1932:
Billings, MT post office, ca. 1932

NRHP documentation featured three photos taken in 1984. I like the era-specific USPS logo/sign affixed to the building, though I'm definitely glad it's gone now:

Billings, MT downtown post office, 1984

Finally, here's a view with updated signage from 2012:

Billings, MT downtown post office, 2012

This is one of the few post offices in Montana to have received F.D.R.-era New Deal artwork. This would have been completed in conjunction with the building's 1940 extension. NRHP:
"The post office also contains a mural at the east end of the original lobby (presently separated from lobby by glass partition). The mural, entitled "Trailing Cattle", was completed in 1942 by Leo Beaulaurier for a sum of $800. As suggested by the title, the mural depicts a drover and cattle herd stretching across the Montana landscape.

Leo Beaulaurier was in Great Falls, Montana in 1911 and studied at the Los Angeles Art Center. Beaulaurier also completed a mural in the Langdon, N.D. Post Office in 1939. He is listed in the Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West (Samuels, 1976) and is deceased (February 11, 1983 in Great Falls.)"
The work is tricky to photograph. It is found in the left end of the lobby, behind a rather reflective glass enclosure, which bars the layperson from accessing the rest of the facility. Here's my attempt at a clean photo from 2012:

As in countless other cities, mail processing operations have since relocated to a newer facility away from downtown.

I enjoyed this passage, again, from the NRHP:
The new post office was dedicated on Flag Day, June 14, 1914, and was reported in the Gazette on June 16th. A parade including Billings police, the Billings band, Boy Scouts, and many others preceded the dedication ceremony. Postmaster T.C. Armitage presided and was accompanied by Mayor Leavens, the county commissioners, and various other local dignitaries. An address by Reverend Walter H. North expressed the symbolic importance of the new building and the following excerpts were reported:

It is a substantial monument of the government's faith in us. This is no boom town building. The government is a business institution which is represented in our life. It is a beautiful building. The city shall never have occasion to apologize for it. It stands as a monument of beauty and character as well as a building of strength.

In the days to come when the taller temples, which shall be erected upon these adjacent corners and opposite lots, dedicated to trade and society and religion, shall overtower it, this building will continue to be the pride and satisfaction of the people because it is our federal building, as good as the best and as beautiful as the most attractive.

It is our building. Ours to use. It is designed for the service and the convenience of the people. Here are to be housed those who life of the country. Here are to be the officers of the nation whose presence is the pledge of the interest of the nation in our territory which lies all about us. It is ours because we are part of the government.
Imagine that.

Next time: Missoula and Great Falls.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Postally Puerto Rico

Several have gotten me thinking about the U.S. Post Offices on Puerto Rico lately... 1. The island has been in the news of late. 2. The Living New Deal has been adding some great photos and information about F.D.R.'s impact on the island by way of the work of various New Deal agencies. 3. When writing this Postlandia entry last month ranking U.S. states by number of active post offices, I had to manually de- and re-sort Puerto Rico since the territory outranked three states. 4. Our friend Jimmy Emerson, DVM, having visited all 50 states, recently snagged a few photos from the island. 5. Now I can show you some awesome photos of Puerto Rican New Deal post offices scanned at the National Archives!

Let's play a game we're calling Basic Postal Q&A: Puerto Rico Edition!
  1. Are post offices on Puerto Rico U.S. Post Offices?
    Absolutely! USPS operates the post offices in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other U.S. territories such as Guam and American Samoa in the Pacific Ocean. They're just like any other post office and standard postal rates are exactly the same as they are for anywhere else in the country.
  2. What's the USPS organizational structure for Puerto Rico?
    The Caribbean District, under USPS's Northeast Area, oversees postal operations on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  3. Where is their mail processed?
    All Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands mail is processed through the San Juan Processing and Distribution Center, also home to the San Juan Main Post Office and Caribbean District offices: 585 Ave. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, San Juan, PR.
    It's responsible for ZIP code blocks 005-007 and 009 (P.R.) and 008 (V.I.).
  4. How many post offices are in Puerto Rico?
    As of January 2017 Puerto Rico has 118 active post offices and 13 Contract Postal Units (CPUs). Most facilities are independent [main] post offices. There are just two (POStPlan) Remotely Managed Post Offices (RMPOs) on the island, and no Part-Time Post Offices (PTPOs). There are 21 classified (USPS-staffed) stations and seven classified branches, many of which center around San Juan.
  5. Have you spent way too long examining any largely dull and random resources while researching this entry?
    You know it! Check out this document by USPS's Address Management Systems Office: Postal Addressing Standards for Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands. You only live once.
That seems good for now. So where can you see some pictures? Your first stop should always be the PMCC Online Post Office Photo Collection: Puerto Rico page. We're presently nearing 27,000 photos, of which 54 are from Puerto Rico. So we've presently got a bit shy of half the island covered.

The National Archives has a few Treasury Department photos of completed post office construction in Puerto Rico.

Now the Atocha Station post office, what had been Ponce's main post office was completed in April 1933, meaning construction was begun under the Hoover administration and completed soon after F.D.R. took office.

Completed in 1937, the F.D.R.-era Mayagüez post office is the only one in Puerto Rico for which New Deal artwork was created. In fact, the post office houses two murals, which were installed in 1940. Titled "The Indian Mail System" and “Receipt of First Official Spanish Mail in the Island of Puerto Rico in 1541,″ the works were painted by Jose A. Maduro. You can see photos taken in 2017 of the post office and the artwork, courtesy Jimmy Emerson, in this album.

The following photos were taken in 1937 and 2000. The latter picture was taken by Postlandia friend John Gallagher.

Here's the building's entry on Living New Deal.

San Juan

Perhaps the most spectacular post office facility in Puerto Rico is [what is now known as] the Jose V. Toledo Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in San Juan. You can read more about the building's history at Living New Deal here. The facility was originally constructed in 1914, with its iconic towering addition built in 1940. While primary mail processing operations have been relocated, a postal station: the Old San Juan Station, is still housed in the historic facility.

Adiós por ahora!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Celebrating a Century in Merrill, Wisconsin

USPS and the local community teamed up last week to celebrate the Merrill, Wisconsin's historic post office building centennial. The building, located at 430 E. Second Street, opened April 17, 1917 and is still in service.

This photo of the facility was taken by Postlandia friend John Gallagher in 2005:

Merrill, WI post office

To commemorate the occasion the Postal Service and Merrill Historical Society set up displays and exhibits featuring historic artifacts and photos at the post office. A press release [somewhat rearranged by yours truly] describes the following special activities undertaken on Saturday, April 29:
Retired Letter Carrier Ron Behm was outside the post office building with his dog sled team as a reminder that mail didn't always arrive in a motor-powered vehicle. Postmaster Joelle Nelson and [Milwaukee-based] Lakeland District Business Development Specialist Dave Janda were available inside the Post Office to share the many ways the US Postal Service has changed and the services they currently provide. ... Behind-the-scenes tours of the Post Office led by retired postal employees were given to participants in the Merrill Historical Society's 2017 History Hunt. The event also took participants out to the country to visit the current/former locations of 12 rural post offices and learn about some of the area's colorful history.
The Merrill Historical Society uploaded several images from the 2017 History Hunt, of which I snagged a couple. Loving that birthday cake!

The History Hunt took people to society-proclaimed "obscure places" in Lincoln County, all of which housed post offices a long time ago:
  • Champagne (1878—1887
  • Chat (1884—1911)
  • Corning (1879—1902)
  • Cotter (1903—1910)
  • Doering (1903—1939)
  • Dudley (1880—1881)
  • Dunfield (1904—1909)
  • Finn (1899—1903)
  • Heller (1890—1921)
  • O'Day (1910—1912)
  • Schultz (1901—1911)

Wisconsin's WJFW reported from the event, led by Postmaster Joelle Nelson, who has worked at many Wisconsin post offices over the years: "A trip to the back rooms reveals locked passageways for postal inspectors to secretly observe employees through fake vents. Upstairs, an empty old safe with a huge iron door stands open. Glass cases in the lobby house pictures and items from 1917, 1967, and years in between. Nelson's favorite feature is a giant glass skylight in the main lobby." Tours today can be arranged by contacting the Post Office at 715-539-3287.

The building's cornerstone declares the building's construction start date to be 1915. A handful of additional photos of the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), can be found here. The building's NRHP registration form notes: "The postal lobby is unique among the Wisconsin post offices surveyed; it has a cofferred ceiling with an octagonal skylight. The design of the skylight is enriched through the addition of geometric tracery. Modern lighting fixtures have been installed in such a way as to minimize the Impact on the cofferring. The lobby retains other original features, including its original tile floor, marble wainscot, and marble door surrounds. The walls and ceiling are of plaster."

I, for one, have never seen a century-old post office with an octagonal skylight. I also can't recommend the two-minute video story at WJFW highly enough. Please go watch!

The building's National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) form provides more details about Post Office history in the town: "The Merrill Post Office was built in 1915 to the designs of the Office of Supervising Architect. It was the first federally owned post office in Merrill. Prior to its construction, the post office was housed at various locations. The first post office hi Merrill was located in the Jenny Hotel, owned by Cyrus Stowbridge, the first Postmaster. Prior to the construction of the current building, the post office rented space in the Masonic Temple."

You can get a physical souvenir of the Merrill post office building's 100th anniversary: a Postmaster-autographed postal card with limited-edition pictorial cancellation applied on the day of the event. Some copies of the item are available for $10 from the Merrill Historical Society. Here's part of the item in a scanned example:

Merrill Post Office Pictorial Cancellation

The Merrill Historical Society continues to commemorate the occasion, with an exhibit that opened May 13:
A new exhibit featuring an overview of the U.S. Postal Service, including some history on railroad postal cars, opened May 1st at the Merrill History & Culture Center, 100 E. Third Street. According to exhibit chairperson Pat Burg, the exhibit also tells the story of some of Merrill's early Letter Carriers and Post Offices. A small model train layout in the lower level will showcase the interesting way that railroads came to be part of the mail delivery system. The Society plans to create a Merrill postal time capsule to be opened 50 years from now. For further information on the dates and times for the exhibit, or to loan items for this exhibit, please contact Merrill Historical Society at 715-536-5652, or see the website at

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Third Life: Westport, CT

Four years ago I reported on the sale and redevelopment of several historic post office buildings in Fairfield County, Connecticut, including the 1935-6 building in the wealthy coastal town of Westport. On the way to Rhode Island last weekend I decided to check in on the Stamford, Westport, and Fairfield former P.O.s to see what's changed. I was particularly intrigued to re-visit Westport after seeing this interesting Google Street View image taken last October. A restaurant had replaced the post office here, and that's not a restaurant!

Post 154, a high-end restaurant whose name reflects the building's address at 154 Post Road East, opened at the former post office site in August 2013 after an investment group paid $2.35 million for the property in 2011. The restaurant faced a glut of culinary competition and closed after two and a half years, despite what were termed tasteful renovations (including the addition of a "serene" patio) and generally positive reviews, such as this one in The New York Times. Westport Now reported soon after that developers had come up with a brilliant new idea to turn the closed restaurant into... you guessed it, a new high-end restaurant!

Let's just say that plan didn't work out very well.

The former post office's new tenant is Design Within Reach (DWR), a modern furniture store. Long-time readers know I'm generally not a fan of the sale and conversion of public buildings into what are effectively retail enclaves for the wealthy. What I will say is that in this instance the re-purposing of the old Westport post office results a space more open and inviting than any other renovation I've seen to date, and I'm very grateful to the staff for letting me poke around and admire the new life that DWR has breathed into the building.

Here's a look at the front of the building now:

Allow me to present some photos. First is taken from the main entrance, where your eye is immediately captured by a nearly 100-light installation called Light Cloud. In the background you can see the 30-foot-long color spectrum Swatch Wall. Light Cloud leads you down the staircase from the center of the main floor, where postal counters used to be, to the showroom's lower level. The second image was taken looking up from the staircase.

Downstairs, as upstairs, features an unadorned ceiling with exposed beams and pipes painted white. As such the space reminds you of the building's roots; but they don't detract from the space's modern feel. Both floors are bathed in light from a variety of fixtures. Each corner feels lively, with each room vignette coming across as intimate yet vibrant.

Many of the fixtures enable incredible textures by way of the interplay between light and shadow. To wit: these clocks and this room vignette.

Here is the deck space originally created for Post 154.

Look closely, such as along the rear wall behind the building, and you can see some vestiges of the facility's original function. Here, loading dock numbers with doors since walled in.

Here's another look at the primary floor space.

All in all, at least in my view, Design Within Reach creates a compelling re-purposing of the post office building through an innovative rethinking of the building's interior space.

'Til next time!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A 420 Road Trip? Visiting Weed, New Mexico and more

It struck me that, should the laws of the land ever change, and should the U.S. Post Office ever become the U.S. Pot Office, it would have a couple of great names to start with. Basically, yes, here is a post about post offices whose sole connection is they have 420-friendly names! Let's start in New Mexico.

Weed, New Mexico
Weed is located in the middle of nowhere. Located east of Alamogordo in the hills of southern New Mexico, it's a community of 20 people. Nevertheless it, and the neighboring post office of Sacramento, is able to sustain a four-hour post office. Get your bearings with this Google Map; Weed is on the right side:

Name aside, Weed, New Mexico has some of the best welcome and post office signage around. Check 'em out!

Welcome to Weed, New Mexico sign
Weed, NM post office sign

The building that houses the post office also houses the Weed Café.
Weed, NM Cafe and Post Office

Love the cowboy minding the entrance!
Weed, NM Cafe and Post Office porch

Inside the front door is the community bulletin board and some additional directions:
Weed, NM Cafe and Post Office

The actual postal part of the building has been standardized re: the counter and P.O. Box section.
Weed, NM post office

I visited the site in 2012, during my second large cross-country road trip. A few weeks later I visited another Weed, this time in sight of Mount Shasta in far northern California.

Weed, California

Weed has a mid-century Federal Building, which unfortunately was backlit (and doesn't have very unobstructed views in general).

Weed, CA post office and federal building

Weed was the site of a massive fire in 2014, which destroyed several institutions—including churches and a library—though not the Federal Building.

Finally, let's head up to rural South Dakota, where two small towns (also visited on that road trip in 2012) east of Pierre on U.S. 14 round out our 420 tour.

Blunt, South Dakota has a population of about 350, and the post office has been at 301 North Main Street for nearly 50 years, since 1968. The current lease, as per USPS's Leased Facilities Report, is for a modest $4.99 per square foot.

Blunt, SD post office

And, of course, once you've driven through Blunt it's pretty easy to achieve Highmore. Population-800 Highmore has had its post office located at 111 Commercial Avenue SE since its building's construction in 1961.

Highmore, SD post office

'Til next time!