The American post office building is the embodiment of a miracle. More than just a convenient place to buy stamps, mail packages, and peruse wanted posters, the post office is, like the public library, akin to a pub in an English village — a meeting place, where news is exchanged. It is the manifestation of a vital, diverse and yet inter-connected community.
Various recent attempts to run the Postal Service “like a business” have just frustrated bean-counting legislators. For the Post Office is not a business. Rather, it is a public necessity, like roads and municipal tap water. Once the conveyor belt of commerce, it stood as steady and sure as the government itself. The advent of email has done a lot to change that and the once mighty institution is struggling. Yet, not too long ago, our post offices were built as temples to the commonweal, and fittingly, outstanding architecture was the norm.
That these post office illustrations are all post cards suggests the pride that these buildings engendered. From 1852 to 1939, the federal government constructed all post offices, courthouses, and customs houses; almost all were designed by the Supervising Architect of the Treasury. Many of the supervising architects were significant designers who upheld standards of probity in representing the American people’s public face.
Rapid population growth following World War II, the ubiquity of the automobile, and development of the suburbs hastened the decline of “Main Street,” and with it post office design. A fateful decision to lease post offices rather than building them came in the Reagan era. This explains why so many recent postal facilities are found in strip malls, hardly differentiated from the tire stores, take-out food joints, and salons around them. Compound this with a national aesthetic blindness, along with a belief that the “postal service” could be streamlined and operated like a discount department store, and it is no wonder that elegance and style became relics of the past.
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