Friday, July 28, 2017

Big Sky, Big Post Offices, II: Missoula and More

A couple of weeks back we looked at the history through the expansion of the downtown post office in Billings, Montana. Two of Montana's other largest cities (and locations that continue to process outgoing mail) are Missoula and Great Falls. Each of them has a grand downtown federal facility as well. Let's take a look.

Missoula, Montana—now Hellgate Station post office

Originally built prior to World War I (1911-1913), this federal building has undergone sizable expansions over the years, enabling it to serve as the Missoula's main post office, a federal courthouse, and house other federal functions.

Here's a 3-D Google Maps overview of the building, from roughly the same angle as our first image below, that might enable you to envision this complex more clearly. Te original structure is at the bottom-left; it was expanded rearward toward Pine Street:

You're about to see photos from several different angles: from the National Archives you have the front-right, along Broadway facing NW (ca. 1913); the rear-left, along Pattee Street facing SE (1928); and an image from roughly the same location facing NE, toward Pine Street, of a massive new extension (1938). Rounding out the tour my 2012 photo was taken from the Broadway, also facing NE.

ca. 1913:
Missoula post office, ca. 1913

1928 (first annex; note the extension of this face of the original building by three window bays—look closely at the color of the stonework):
Missoula post office, 1928

1938 (second annex, along Pine Street):
Missoula post office, 1938

Missoula: Hellgate post office, 2012

The building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, five years after most postal operations relocated from the building. The postal retail operation that remains is known as the Hellgate Station post office.

Great Falls, Montana main post office

Unlike in Billings and Missoula, primary postal operations in Great Falls never relocated away from downtown. Here too we've compiled multiple images of the building over time. The original grand three-story structure was built in 1912. In 1937 a large new wing was built to its left (the difference being rather apparent in the 1938 image shown below); and during the '60s the rear was expanded as well.

Our first image, from the 1910s, once again comes courtesy a postcard being sold on Card Cow:

Great Falls, MT post office, 1938

1993, by Postlandia friend John Gallagher:
Great Falls, MT post office, 1993

This building, too, has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, if you'd like to read more about it.

Neither the Missoula nor Great Falls federal facilities received New Deal artwork. However, several post office buildings in Montana built during the F.D.R. era did, and you can read about several of these buildings on this National Register nomination form. Best of all, I've scanned and uploaded National Archives photos from the completion of these buildings to the Post Mark Collectors Club (PMCC) online photo collection for Montana!

Compare our early-'30s image of the former Havre post office to a photo of what the building looks like now, courtesy a 2015 photo in a story by the Billings Gazette. New residents Marc Whitacre and Erica Farmer purchased and have been renovating the building for their own home. "The family's efforts earned them the 2015 Preservation Award for Outstanding Preservation Rehabilitation Project, an honor distributed every other year by the Montana State Historic Preservation Office." The details of the story are pretty fascinating.

The PMCC's online photo collection is virtually complete when it comes to currently operating post offices in the state, largely thanks to the work of Postlandia friend Gary Splittberger. More in our next Montana post.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

From Plate Blocks to Plain Ol' Plates: Old Post Offices You Can Eat At Now

Over the years I've visited hundreds of former post office locations. A surprising number of them have been converted into restaurants, eateries, and cafés. In 2013 we toured The Old Post Office Restaurant, near the water in Edisto Island, South Carolina. But there are many other instances of this trend at work (and in fact, too many for one post; there will be more to come). Let's review a few finds from recent years.

One additional note before we begin: in our 2012 annual postal summary a recently discontinued post office in Brook Park, Ohio was noted as becoming the Post Office Cafe. That business is since reported closed.

Vacaville, California: Lyon's Restaurant

My most recent nudge for this post was a recent visit to Vacaville, California, where the 1937 former New Deal post office now serves as the downtown location for Lyon's Restaurant. According to Yelp the location is under new management and recently renovated as of 2016.

Random postal detail: a bank of P.O. Boxes at the front in the back of the former postal lobby by a waiter work station.

The original tile work is still extant. Here's another image of the mural, with dining tables alongside original tiles.

Washington, DC: Taqueria Nacional

This location I actually have eaten at! Washington, DC's T Street post office was replaced by what is now called 14th Street Station several years back. Discussed in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Preservation magazine last year:
When co-owners Ann Cashion and John Fulchino signed their lease on the former T Street post office in Washington, D.C., the building had already been reduced to storage space for a secondhand furniture store.

“It was just filled from floor to ceiling with junk,” says Cashion. Influenced by the original facade, she and Fulchino outfitted the interior like an old post office in Mexico or the Caribbean, adding concrete floors and brightly colored tiles.

With “U.S. Post Office” etched into the preserved limestone exterior and mailbox replicas serving as trash and tray stations, the restaurant’s details have lured more than one customer into trying to mail a package or buy stamps. “I think we succeeded in our illusion,” says Cashion.The carnitas taco is a popular choice, and vegetarian options include the refried bean or egg and green chile tacos.

The building is lovely and I did enjoy the food. Three years later I recall that the triangular-cross section yucca fries were distinctive. Here's my taco order:

Random postal touch: a decommissioned olive mailbox.

Jonesboro, Arkansas: Sue's Kitchen

The historic 1911 former main post office in Jonesboro, Arkansas, is long closed but is still stately. The building is now home to a restaurant and catering hall called Sue;'s Kitchen. Their website discusses the family's origin story in great depth, though does not make any reference to the fact that they reside in an old government building. I visited in 2012, though this first image is from the post office's heyday, a 1934 image from the National Archives.

The website Tie Dye Travels acknowledges the building's postal past and reviews the interior in more depth: "The cavernous main floor of the building is mostly open, with dainty tables and large windows. The menu is very much teahouse meets burger joint, with a nice selection of sandwiches, specials and salads. And on Saturday, there's a brunch."

Fairfield, Connecticut: Plan B Burger Bar

A few months ago we followed up on our 2013 report about the sale of historic post office buildings in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Post 154, a high-end restaurant that opened in the upscale community of Westport had already closed (and been replaced by an interior design showroom). I revisited former Fairfield post office as well, now home to the upscale Plan B Burger Bar.

In Fairfield extensive landscaping and building modifications have been made to the old post office grounds. Compare the below photos of the post office in operation with a new image of Plan B Burger Bar. You can see that a building extension at the left side of the building has been removed, replaced with an outdoor patio. The front handicapped ramp is gone. Fortunately the cornerstone was left visible and intact during the laying of cement old and new.

Remember, the New Deal artwork that had been housed in the lobby has since been relocated elsewhere in the community. But here is a photo from inside the Burger Bar for good measure.

That National Trust for Historic Preservation article, "Place Setting: Restaurants in Historic Post Offices," presents three post offices-turned-restaurants: McAdoo’s Seafood Company in New Braunfels, Texas; Willimantic Brewing Company in Willimantic, Connecticut; in addition to Taqueria Nacional. A followup story features three more: Post Office Cafe (now Johnny Granata's) in East Greenwich, Rhode Island; Post Office Pies in Birmingham, Alabama; and Postmasters Grill in Camden, Arkansas. I have photos from additional locations (including Willimantic Brewing Company) for a future post.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Flooded Post Office in the Desert: Montello, Nevada

You might be familiar with the years-long drought in California that ended this winter. The wettest winter in more than a century resulted in record snow melt, breaches in dams and emergency spillways (notably Oroville in northern California), the closure of stretches of Highway 1 along the California coast near Big Sur, and the flooding of a post office northwest of Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats, in far northeast Nevada. I first read about an emergency mobile postal unit heading to the high desert back in February, soon after failure of the Twentyone Mile Dam.

Here's Utah station KSL coverage of the damn burst, to give you a sense of the magnitude of the situation.

Waters easily poured the 25 miles southeast to Montello, flooding basements and, according to USPS, "swamping" the post office. Photo here of the post office at the time. No mail was damaged, and USPS sent over a Mobile Unit to maintain operations in the community (as opposed to subjecting residents to a nearly 100-mile-round trip to West Wendover—or '150 miles,' as per a veterans group protesting the potential closure of the Montello post office several years back). The road at the Nevada/Utah border, 11 miles northeast, was also washed out.

Here's a look at the landscape as of the beginning of July, and here is the Montello post office.

Route 233 southwest of Montello, Nevada

Montello, NV post office

When Postlandia friend John and I arrived in Montello about a month ago the mobile unit was still on the scene, camped out at the south side of the post office building. There was not apparent damage inside the post office; in fact it seemed ready to reopen. The building smelled of fresh paint, and several fixtures, including the windows, seemed newly installed. The standard facility has been in use since 1997 (per dedication plaque). I've been told the building was inspected to ensure there was no structural damage or threat of mold, which led to the suspension of quite a few postal operations over the years.

USPS Mobile Unit in Montello:

USPS Mobile Unit

Fresh paint and window repair work at the Montello P.O.

Nice touch: A modest display on the bulletin board shows a couple of photos of the former Montello post office and its former postmasters. It's an all-in-the-family story: Melva Pearson served from July 1950 to October 1976; Ruth Pearson [surname Beatty, as of July 1993] took over until June 1996; then Josephine Pearson served as Postmaster until April 2015.

While preparing this post I looked into the photo topped by the heading Ruralite, a monthly magazine founded by northwestern electric cooperatives in the 1950s. The publication features information "about electrical safety, conservation, and new products or ways of doing things," and issues regional variants. Several editions have featured fantastic vignettes about small-town post offices and Postmasters, including Montello in 1987. Ruralite was kind enough to find the publication in its archives and send it over. Written by Rick and Kristi Steber, the story was written when the Montello post office occupied a false-fronted building on Route 233 between 3rd and 4th Streets. Image from Google Street View, 2008:

The building, possibly built as a cabin for use by the manager of a cattle company and in use as a post office since prior to 1956, was repainted between 1987 and 2008. Once the post office moved out, signage that had read "U.S. POST OFFICE // MONTELLO NEV. // 89830" became "MONTELLO NV", albeit the new iteration retained the font's basic character. 1987 photo (courtesy Ruralite):

The Ruralite story details a typical day in the life of the Montello post office at the time. Postmaster Ruth would arrive at 7:30 a.m. by bicycle, have her morning smoke and coffee, and sell stamps and money orders until the day's mail was delivered from Wells, Nevada (another town approximately 50 miles away). After delivering the mail to the 100 or so P.O. Boxes the Montello post office serves, Ruth said, "sometime during the day everyone in town will swing by to pickup their mail. It is fun to see people."

Her attitude is one we can all appreciate. "I found out a long time ago if you are friendly people will be friendly to you. It works the same if you are a crab. Most days, I'm smiling."

The day wound down, per Ruralite, at the 2:30 mail dispatch. In those days mail would have been processed in Elko, northeast Nevada's largest city (present population 20,000), 100 miles away. Today, Montello's mail travels much further; a few years back Elko mail processing operations were moved to Salt Lake City—a 227-mile drive (further than the distance between New York City and Boston)—as part of USPS's Area Mail Processing initiative.

Montello's present operating hours are weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a half-hour lunch break at noon, and Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m.

There are plenty more stories from northern Nevada post offices to tell; see you next time!

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.

When we return to Montana: Missoula and Great Falls.