Monday, March 13, 2017

A Stamp Issue to Make FDR Proud

A drizzle couldn't dampen the mood at the historic Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York last Tuesday as a crowd of 175 gathered to celebrate the issuance of ten WPA Poster-themed Forever postage stamps. Speakers at the First-Day stamp ceremony included Library and Museum director Paul Sparrow; Megan Brennan, Postmaster General; Anthony Musso, FDR author and historian; and David Roosevelt, grandson of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Postmaster General Megan Brennan speaking at WPA Posters stamp First-Day ceremony.

The series of ten stamps was made available for sale nationwide in a booklet-of-20 format beginning on March 7. The Works Progress Administration (later Work Projects Administration—each WPA) was perhaps the capstone of Franklin D. Roosevelt's ambitious New Deal, a set of programs which impacted all corners of the American social and geographic landscape as part of a massive effort to combat the effects of the Great Depression. The WPA operated between 1935 and 1943, and is best known for the staggering array of physical infrastructure development projects it undertook: more than 1,000 airports were developed; 24,000 miles of sidewalks, and sewers were installed; 40,000 public buildings were constructed, including schools, libraries, and hospitals; thousands of parks were developed; and hundreds of thousands of miles of roads built or improved with WPA labor. The list goes on. 8.5 million unemployed Americans were put to work as part of WPA projects that benefited the public good.

In addition to manual laborers the WPA put thousands of white-collar workers to work. Women were employed as seamstresses (creating and repairing 382 million articles of clothing), nurses, and school cafeteria workers (serving 1.2 billion school lunches). The new WPA Posters stamp issue celebrates a lesser recognized accomplishment of the WPA: poster artwork produced by a division of an arts program, which was known as Federal Project No. 1. As part of "Federal One" WPA artists created murals and sculptures for public buildings; musicians played in Federal Music Project orchestras; and thespians performed in Federal Theatre Project plays. WPA artists also created posters that were displayed in public places. These posters encouraged exploration of America's landmarks and natural treasures, "education, health, conservation and other civic ideals" (USPS). Two million posters of approximately 35,000 designs were produced. Ten of these designs are commemorated with the new WPA Posters stamp issue.

Left to right: Paul Sparrow, Megan Brennan, David Roosevelt, and Anthony Musso.

"These stamps commemorate the work of my grandfather's most ambitious New Deal program and the artwork generated from the WPA artists," declared David B. Roosevelt, grandson of Franklin and Eleanor.

Postmaster General Megan Brennan dedicated the stamps at the ceremony, lauding the "simple, effective, and striking" style of the artwork created as part of the WPA's poster program. FDR, an avid stamp collector, "understood the power of visual design" and the WPA's artwork was "bold and energizing." The designs featured on these stamps are "classic and enduring" images that continue to appeal today.

The Library of Congress maintains the largest collection of surviving WPA poster artwork. Digitized images can be viewed here.

It's only fitting that the stamps were inaugurated at Hyde Park in Dutchess County, explained Anthony Musso, author of FDR and the Post Office. Dutchess County is home to the five 'FDR Post Offices': Beacon, Wappingers Falls, Poughkeepsie, Hyde Park, and Rhinebeck. Each of the five distinctive post offices was constructed during FDR's presidency, and FDR himself had a hand in the design of each. Each was built with locally quarried stone and each possesses sizable or otherwise distinctive works of New Deal artwork inside. (Beacon, Hyde Park, and Rhinebeck house full lobby-wraparound murals; Wappingers Falls has two triangular murals painted directly on walnut wood, and Poughkeepsie's houses five large murals on two stories.) In each case the New Deal artwork displays aspect of the community's heritage. The art was created and installed in public buildings so to be accessible to all people. Four of the five post offices (all but Beacon) were designed after historic buildings in each community. Poughkeepsie's post office— the "Grand Palace"—was designed to emulate the former courthouse in the city in which New York became the 11th state to ratify the Constitution, in 1788. Collectively the five FDR post offices in Dutchess County are among the finest and most concentrated collection of New Deal post offices in the country.

The "Grand Palace" Poughkeepsie post office, recently completed, Dec. 1938.

[Note: I must correct a popular misconception that was repeated several times by the speakers at the stamp ceremony (and, alas, even by me in the past). New Deal post offices and their attendant artwork were not themselves products of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Rather, they were products of parallel but separate New Deal programs that were overseen by the federal Treasury Department. Post office building construction was overseen by the Public Buildings Branch (1933—1939) and Public Buildings Administration (within the Federal Works Agency, 1939+), with many facilities funded in conjunction with the Public Works Administration (PWA). Federal building artwork was commissioned by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts ("the Section", or SFA) and Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), not the WPA's Federal Art Project.]

David Roosevelt speaking at the WPA Posters stamp First-Day ceremony.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was an avid stamp aficionado. At its peak his collection of stamp numbered 1.2 million items. Collecting and studying stamps "helped save his life," declared Ms. Brennan. Philately was "like a Zen meditation for him," stated Mr. Musso. According to the National Postal Museum, "As a child, he looked to stamps for knowledge about the world. As a polio-stricken adult, they offered solace." David Roosevelt affirmed the value of philately: it "makes us better citizens and innumerable ways enriches our lives."

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum granted free admission to all attendees of the stamp ceremony. FDR's first stamp album was put on display at the museum for the first time.

One special guest at the ceremony was Jeremiah Brennan, Postmaster General Megan Brennan's father. He lived through the Depression and was an admirer of FDR. Mr. Brennan came from Pennsylvania to attend the event.

The Colors were presented by New York State Police Troop K. The National Anthem was sung by the First Ladies a cappella group from Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Hyde Park. (Now Haviland Middle School, the former Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School building in Hyde Park was constructed as a New Deal project with Public Works Administration funds!)

First Ladies a capella group singing at the WPA Posters stamp First-Day ceremony.

In addition to stamp designer Maribel Gray, USPS personnel from Postal Headquarters, the Westchester District, and Hyde Park Post Office were on-hand. A first-day hand-cancellation and Hyde Park "bullet" dater were available for postmarking purposes.

Local coverage by the Poughkeepsie Journal and Hudson Valley Post.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Alaska's Floating Post Office, and the Town Under One Roof

Hello again! Welcome to Postlandia's fourth installment of Alaskan postal explorations. In case you missed them here are the links to the first three posts in the series:

1. The Last Frontier: Alaska, Anchorage, and Bypass Mail
2. The Halibut Capital of the World
3. The Crooked Runway

This time we conclude our late October explorations from Homer, Alaska. Instead of flying we will be heading to our final village off the road network, Halibut Cove, on the official U.S. mail boat. And like the communities we've visited in our previous posts, there's nothing quite where we've about to go.

TravelAlaska: "There are no roads to Halibut Cove — in fact there are no roads in Halibut Cove — but the community is only [a few] miles across Kachemak Bay from Homer and the famous Homer Spit... Halibut Cove's peak years date back to 1911 when it supported 42 herring salteries and a population of more than 1,000. After the salteries closed, most residents left and today the community is an enclave of artists, craftsmen, commercial fishermen and the operators of one very fine restaurant."

Halibut Cove features just one-to-two dozen permanent residents around its pristine waters, with scenic views of the Kenai Mountains and blocks of boardwalks on stilts to protect everyone from (as we noted back in Seldovia) some of the highest tides in the world. They also have, of course, a post office—a contracted Community Post Office (CPO), to be precise.

Fortunately, of those dozen full-time residents two are named Carl and Tammy Jones. They were gracious enough to answer all my questions, get me on the mail boat out to the town and ferry me back to Homer, all during the tourist off-season. Thank you, Tammy!

Our journey begins at the docks near the end of the four-mile-long Homer Spit (seen from above, below).

Flying over Homer Spit

On the ground (water?) our destination of the Stormbird, a former U.S. Army T-boat that carries the mail twice a week to Halibut Cove. During the tourist season she also carries passengers who can "visit the art gallery, hike the scenic trails or beaches watching the wildlife or grab a bite to eat at the Saltry Restaurant." Today though, we're off to see Halibut Cove's floating post office.

Here is the Stormbird docked at the harbor in Homer, and its USPS / mail boat decal.

Stormbird in Homer Harbor

The Kenai Mountains are in the background as we leave the harbor.

Aboard is a stack of mail and a bag of mail. Mail gets delivered twice a week to Halibut Cove: Tuesday and Saturday. The post office is open those days and only those days. Current operating hours are 9:00am - 10:00am and 3:00pm - 5:00pm. The official "address" of the post office is 6400 Boat Dock Lndg.

You are welcomed to Halibut Cove by a former lighthouse, now a rental that can be had for a cool $200/night.

Stormbird is ably captained by skipper Jim, seen here focusing on the task at hand.

Upon arrival at the dock the mail is carried the few dozen feet to the post office. Halibut Cove is identified by USPS as a No-Office Point (NOP), "a location where there is no Postal Service facility or Postal Service personnel. The NOP community identifies and appoints an individual as the agent responsible for receipt and dispatch of mail." Below, mail is walked to the post office, and contractor ('Postmaster') Kay comes down to greet the mail and open up shop for the afternoon. Behind her is the Halibut Cove Coffee House, a visitor favorite.

Stormbird handles deliveries beyond official mail as well. Tires were among the products getting delivered this October afternoon.

The post office building (along with the entire dock) rises and falls with the tide. Hence it is truly a floating post office. See the pilings? We're actually near high tide at this time. I think it's also interesting to watch just how extreme the tides in this area can be, and how it affects the piers. Watch this time-lapse video from nearby Tutka Bay, from low to high tide:

I will let the post office speak for itself. This might be the greatest post office sign ever.

Halibut Cove post office

Halibut Cove post office

The inside of the post office is not unusual, per se.

I think it's helpful to provide a broader view of the community. I never made it to high ground, per se, but one person who took a Halibut Cove hike, Panoramio user jeffxx, took this wonderful overview photo. I annotated a small version of it to show the Halibut Cove Community Post Office (CPO) in its larger context.

Anyway. I sent a LOT of postcards to my friends from the post office. Thank you, Kay, for putting up with me!

From the post office Carl Jones ferried me on the Bay Roamers Water Taxi to the beautiful Covelight Inn for some much-needed coffee after a long day of flights and ferrying. Bye, floating post office!

The water taxi ride was pleasant. You'll likely see wildlife during a trip to Halibut Cove. Case in point: welcome back, Otter!

Here's the lovely Covelight Inn. And here I am with Tammy, outside.

The trip back to Homer was chock full of wildlife, all documented (from very long range) while still in the cove. First was a sighting of Spot, the resident seal. You can even get postcards of him at the post office! Careful if you're a fisherman just back from a run; he might just snatch away some salmon!

(And, gotta love the Internet, here's a video of a cat named Cleo passing by a sleeping Spot, on a kayak.)

Next up, a graceful blue heron.

Finally, a couple of bald eagles!

Bald eagles in Halibut Cove

Back on terra firma, here's one final look of the Homer Port and Harbor.

Homer Port and Harbor

So the flights to Seldovia, Port Graham, and Nanwalek, as well as my trip on the mail boat, occurred in one day. Let's get a drink. The Salty Dawg Saloon is right by the docks and is positively plastered floor to ceiling in (largely signed) dollar bills. Talk about a really cool decor / possible fire hazard!

Salty Dawg Saloon

Anyway. Cheers, and thanks for joining me on this Alaskan voyage.

But before we go...

Whittier: The 'Town Under One Roof'

Before we bid adieu to the Last Frontier for now, I thought I'd show you a postal operation south of Anchorage that, while it is on the primary Alaskan road network, makes for a rather unique travel experience. That's because a mountain separates the city of Whittier from Portage, which is on the primary route Alaska 1. The solution? A tunnel, of course. But this isn't just any tunnel. This 2.6-mile tunnel was the longest highway tunnel in North America until it was edged out by upon completion of Boston's Big Dig. What's remarkable about Whittier's Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is that it's one lane wide. This means that both vehicular traffic, and even train traffic, travel in the same space. How is this accomplished? Very carefully. "The one-lane tunnel must be shared by cars and trains traveling in both directions, and it usually needs to be aired out in between trips (with jet turbine ventilation, another first!). This unique design that enables a single lane of traffic to travel directly over the railroad track saved tens of millions of dollars over the cost of constructing a new tunnel."

So how does it work? You can't travel the tunnel any time you want; there's a schedule stating when eastbound traffic can enter and travel (once per hour), and when westbound traffic can enter and travel (once per hour). And then, of course, the trains get their time slots as well.

The arrangement makes for an interesting visual when driving through.

Tunnel to Whittier

Ah, yes. There's also a toll (collected eastbound), which was $13 for the round trip last year. And don't head to Whittier for the nightlife; the tunnel is closed entirely between 11:00 pm and 5:30 am.

So how is Whittier "under one roof," you ask? Because Whittier is an unusual town. For a community with only 200 residents the landscape is dominated by one surprisingly tall structure: Begich Towers, which houses most of the community's residents as well as the city offices, police department, and (of course) the post office! The contracted Community Post Office (CPO), to be precise.

Begich Towers, Whittier

The 14-story building was originally constructed as an army barracks during the 1950s. It was constructed in three phases as three buildings: "east," "middle," and "west". The post office can be found inside the east entrance (at left, above) along Kenai Street. It features a great wooden sign, banks of P.O. Boxes, and an experienced contractor who's got some interesting stories to share.

Whittier, Alaska Community Post Office (CPO):
Whittier Community Post Office

You can see more photos and read more stories from Whittier here.

Hope you enjoyed! That's it for this episode, but don't worry, there are plenty of amazing post offices to be found all over our country. See you next time on Postlandia.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Alaska by Post Office: The Crooked Runway


The first thing you'll notice about Nanwalek? Landing in Nanwalek is fun. Their runway is not exactly linear.

Welcome to our third installment of Postlandia visits Alaska. In our first post we discussed just how large Alaska is compared to the rest of the United States; took a postal tour of Alaska's largest city, Anchorage; and explored Alaska's unique Bypass Mail network. Next we headed down to the Kenai Peninsula; saw a couple of nice "log cabin" post offices; and took off from Homer to the villages of Seldovia and Port Graham. Now we take our third flight of the Alaskan October morning to Nanwalek. To review, here's a map of the flights we're taking in this corner of the Last Frontier.

Google Earth satellite imagery for Nanwalek is presently disappointing, so we won't have an annotated aerial view as we did with Port Graham. Nanwalek is the furthest community west on the Kenai Peninsula, and is only accessible by local boat or by airplane. It's a fraction of a square mile in size, built largely on top of a hillside (think: protection from tsunamis) overlooking the airport. The airport lies between a lagoon and the outer reaches of Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet (the body of water stretching from the northern Pacific Ocean inland to Anchorage. The gravel runway is 1,500 feet long, 50 feet wide, and, as we've seen, not perfectly straight. But it serves the community's needs.

Here is a view of the community, from a fascinating take by Kathy, on her visit to Nanwalek in 2011.

Here I am at the modest airport terminal, getting greeted and inspected by a friendly local.

Here goes my ride! It's heading back to Homer, and another Smokey Bay Air plane will meet me in an hour.

I'm greeted by a local, Mackey, who's tasked with bringing the mail to the Community Post Office (CPO) from the airport. Mail is flown in three days a week from Homer, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—weather and regional volcanoes permitting. The CPO is open 11 am to 2 pm those days. The post office is located inside the building also housing the local tribal administrative office. I'll show you the outside in just a little bit; first let's see the sign.

Nanwalek post office sign

This might strike you as modest. Did anyone else notice the red, 'white', and blue outlines? I love it. Below, here I am at the entrance. I also love the hanging sign with the standard stamp rate [remember, this was back in October], and the packaging with the active rates on them. It's always great seeing when people let loose that creativity.

Aside from this the interior is comparatively standard; you can see a bank of current-generation P.O. Boxes behind me there.

Now let's go outside. You might expect the sign to say good ol' Nanwalek, which is actually the local native term for "place by the lagoon." (Remember, the airport lies between the bay and a lagoon?) However, the sign says English Bay. This is no accident; the town was known as English Bay until 1991. Nanwalek is one of a number of Alaska place name changes in recent decades, part of a trend toward reclaiming indigenous names over arbitrary modern English monikers. (One larger example of this in action is Barrow, originally Utqiaġvik and officially, again, Utqiaġvik as of 2016. The name Barrow still appears on maps and on their post office.) Anyway, here's the sign designating (as well as yours truly):

Postlandia friend John Gallagher visited Nanwalek 25 years ago, and snagged a photo of the [now former site of the] operation in 1992. Look closely at that sign! Why fix what ain't broke?

Both names Nanwalek and English Bay belie an important part of the community's history, that of a Russian fur/pelt trading post starting in 1786. The community was then designated Alexandrovski. Alaska was Russian until the United States (remember "Seward's folly"?) purchased the entire territory in 1867. How English Bay got its name is unusual. According to Nanwalek's website, "The two villages [Nanwalek and Port Graham] share not only family relations but also many customs and traditions. Interestingly, the English names of the two villages were switched by a cartographer in the late 1800s. Thus, English Bay sits out on the tip of the peninsula, while Port Graham is located further in the bay." So English Bay shouldn't have been English Bay to begin with! It gets better still. I should note that our English Bay-née-Alexandrovski should not be confused with English Bay, a body of water out in the Aleutian Islands, whose name pertains to its exploration by Captain Cook.

All good? Great. Nanwalek's Russian heritage bears heavily on the town to this day, particularly in terms of its religious life. By the post office is the community's Russian Orthodox church, a structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building is beautiful and I was honored that Mackey (seen later on) gave me a tour of the inside of the church. Isn't it lovely?

Here's the church's classic "onion dome"!

The Russian Orthodox have some beautiful traditions. I recommend visiting this KBBI story about Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on January 7. Here's a snippet, discussing the representation of the journey of the Three Wise Men:
Each region in Alaska that practices this style of caroling, what we call Slavic, they all have variations. But generally they follow a star, a wooden frame that’s decorated with the icon of nativity in the center and that star guides the carolers house to house.
The rituals are a blend of Native traditions, the community's Russian past, and Western influences alike. It's a rather unique combination.

The Russian Orthodox cemetery, located behind the church, is also beautiful. Male and female graves are marked distinctively: "The graves in this cemetery are marked with Russian Orthodox crosses. The crosses for females have a wooden "cap" signifying the caps women wear in church." Can you see the difference?

Here's my gracious tour guide, Mackey, on his ATV (perhaps the most common vehicle around town). The church is in the background.

Nanwalek, as one would expect, has a general store. It's bright and inviting inside, if rather nondescript outside.

Has anyone here tried Sailor Boy Pilot Bread?

I'll leave you now with a few closing views from Nanwalek. First up, the elementary-through-high school, a larger school with a more substantive playground than we saw over in Port Graham.

Here's a restful look at the Nanwalek lagoon, taken at the periphery of the airport.

Finally, a view of the Nanwalek airport/runway from the Russian Orthodox cemetery.

Flying back to Homer we get a view of the wonderful turquoise sea.

Finally, we return over four-mile-long Homer Spit. Here we see the harbor/marina, from which we'll depart for our final post office of the day.

Flying over Homer Spit

Once again, thank you to Smokey Bay Air for working with me and making this trip possible!

In our next installment we take the mail boat to Halibut Cove, and after a long day we'll relax in the bar with 80 gajillion dollar bills on the wall, which can be found back at the end of the Alaskan road. We'll also explore one unique Alaska city, Whittier, which is accessible by a three-mile, one lane tunnel through the mountains.