October 20th marks the 53rd anniversary of the opening of “the first fully automated post office in the United States.” President Eisenhower was here in Providence that day in 1960 to cut the ribbon.
The huge building and technologically advanced sorting operation, located in what was then known as the West River Development, were the brainchild of U.S. Postmaster Arthur E. Summerfield, who declared that “Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California.” Summerfield, who earned some notoriety for trying to ban the mailing of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley's Lover, declared that “We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”
Built at a cost of $20 million and designed by engineering firm Maguire & Associates, the post office of tomorrow had almost 16,000 feet of conveyor belts that moved more than a million pieces of mail a day. But as early as 1962 there were glitches in the systems, and critics hailed Summerfield’s “Project Turnkey” as more of a Turkey.
Even so, the building that you can glimpse from the train and see only adequately from the air is a real period piece. The white folded roofs recalled such contemporaneous triumphs as the St. Louis Airport (designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who gave us the World Trade Towers) and Eero Saarinen’s brilliantly evocative TWA Terminal at New York’s Idlewild Airport. (William Woodward, author of the AIA guide to Providence architecture, suggests that the post office is the “love child of Saarinen and Mies van der Rohe.”)
The six intersecting vaults, for me, hark straight back to the Basilica of Constantine erected in the Roman Forum by the first Christian Emperor in the early 4th century. Maybe the post office is a knockoff of some Mexican, thin-shell-concrete pioneer, or an echo of a large government building by a less-talented follower of Brazil's great modern architect, Oscar Niemeyer.
Having received and treasured a first-day cover from my brother’s girlfriend who lived in Providence, I had long wanted to see this spectacular piece of civic architecture — or what appeared to be in the rendering on the stamp or from a distance. Up close, the exterior is a pedestrian blend of grey bricks, opaque Lexan panels, and ho-hum concrete. Most disappointing, there’s nothing to be seen inside — no great halls that recall European basilicas, markets halls, or train stations. The public sees nothing but the usual soul-deadening Postal Service dreck, jammed into a windowless, low-ceilinged hall.
In the hands of a real architect this might have been one fabulous 20th-century American building. Instead, we got a sad monument to the decline of government-sponsored design in America. And as for rocket mail …
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Gail Ravgiala is editor of Design New England and a fan of both the region's historic architecture and its growing inventory of modern houses and public buildings.
Courtney Kasianowicz is associate editor of Design New England who scouts the area for new design, charming products, and local artisans both innovative and daring.
Jill Connors, Design New England's editor-at-large, is an antiques maven and design scout and will post about trends and discoveries in the field.
Bruce Irving, Design New England's contributing editor for architecture & building, is a renovation specialist who will share his insights on design and construction.
Estelle Bond Guralnick, Design New England's style & interiors editor, will post about interior design and interior designers and her favorite finds.