Preservation Photos #228

Marble staircase in the old post office in White River Junction, VT. Now home to the Center for Cartoon Studies.

Marble staircase in the old post office in White River Junction, VT. Now home to the Center for Cartoon Studies.

A bit of history from the Hartford Historical Society:

Built in 1934 as a WPA Project, this building has seen life as a post office, Vermont District Court and as a privately owned office building. Located at the northeast corner of South Main and Gates Street, it is  a Neo-Classical Revival-style brick building with a round, arched opening and the inscription “United States Post Office” on its front. The first post office in White River Junction opened in 1849 after the town became a major railhead and was located at or near the train depot. It moved in 1890 to the Gates Block and subsequently relocated to this building in 1934. It was replaced by a new distribution center, built outside the historic district in 1964.

 

The U.S. Postal Service Buzz

The latest word from the United States Postal Service, is that as of August 2013, Saturday letter delivery will cease. Packages will still be delivered on Saturdays and post offices will remain open. In the meantime, post offices continue to close and processing facilities will close, too; thus, staff will be reduced. The reason? The US Postal Service has been operating on a $15.9 billion deficit since last year. They have to reduce that deficit somehow. And with the rise in online bill paying and electronic communication, the postal service simply isn’t what it used to be.

Preservationists, what do you think? So we won’t be getting letters on Saturday. It’s not really a big since the post offices will remain open, which is probably a day that many of us go to the post office. Most of us probably send significantly more electronic messages than snail mail letters, right?  Will we mourn the loss of six day mail delivery, or adjust with the modern times?  In the 1900s-1940s, the mail at Overhills, NC was delivered by train to the post office, which sat adjacent to the tracks. In later years, the post office relocated to another building and trucks delivered the mail. The post office has evolved, just like everything else, however its existence depends on the quantities of mail that we send, which continues to decline.

Jumping to the modern era, do you use email, Facebook, or text messages more than the other? Do you miss the days of emails instead of Facebook messages? (I prefer email over Facebook.) Do you miss the days of instant messenger or do you prefer text messages? Technology continues to change and we all change with it. What will be the fate of the US Postal Service in 100 years?  I would say it depends on what we do as a society.

The issue that remains is the effect that closing small and/or rural post offices will have on our communities. In some towns, there is little more than a post office and a town office in terms of public buildings. Having an individual zip code is important for the identity of towns. In some places, like Ripton, VT, the post office is in a country store. This topic of conversation about post offices came up on PiP back in August 2011. A PiP post from July 2012 talked about the types of buildings in which post offices are located.

 

The Ripton Country Store located in Ripton, VT.

The Ripton Country Store located in Ripton, VT. (Preservation Photos #53)

What’s your mail preference? What do you think about no more letter delivery on Saturday? What about the closing of small post offices?

A Post Office Observation

Lately, many communities are concerned with disappearing post offices: the federal government is shutting down many post offices and cutting hours in order to save money and decrease the deficit. Smaller communities are most often those who desperately want to keep the post office, because it is a meeting place for residents. While the issue of hours and the amount of operating post offices has been discussed, there is one issue that has not entered the conversation – one that relates to historic preservation: the building stock of post offices.

Post office in The Plains, VA, located in the historic village. September 2008.

Where is your post office located? Is it still in the center of town or perhaps at a crossroads? Is it located in a historic building? Is it a place to which you enjoy going? Lately I’ve noticed that many post offices are located in strip malls or nondescript buildings on the edges of town. Few are located in the centers of towns or in their original locations.

Rural post offices are reported in the media as meeting places for towns where there are no other such places. Some post offices operate out of the front of the postmaster’s house. If that is the case and residents want the post office, then there is no sense (in terms of community) in relocating it to another town. Everyone community deserves a gathering place.

But, in too many towns – in Vermont and beyond – post offices have been relocated to strip malls. There is nothing fun about strip malls. The post offices are generic, without any architectural character, making long lines seems even longer. This could be a stretch for some to say; however, imagine your post office was located in a beautiful building in your neighborhood or town. Wouldn’t you enjoy waiting in line if there were architectural details to admire? Wouldn’t the atmosphere be better?

A small post office in a historic building (a former bank) in Avilla, MO. August 2006.

Of course, post offices have not always had their own buildings and the history of mail is more than just the buildings. However, the issue of moving post offices from existing buildings in towns to the outskirts in strip malls or generic stand-alone buildings is as much about proper adaptive reuse and rehabilitation of historic structures as it about the importance of a post office to a community. Any time that a vital public service is removed from the center of activity, the community patterns will change. Perhaps it is less foot traffic for other businesses or more cars on the road because no one can walk to the new post office.

What do you think? I’d be much more inclined to visit the post office if it were in a historic building in the center of my town, rather than on the edge. An errand in a historic building seems less like an errand to me. Maybe other people feel the same way (even subconsciously), and that is just a small part as to why our postal service is suffering. Maybe a good experiment for the USPS would be to move post offices to historic buildings in walkable communities.

If you have a nice post office, let me know. What do you like or dislike about your post office?

Historic Charlotte Amalia

In order to bring some bright colors to this rainy Friday in New England (in Vermont at least – where did last week’s weather go?), let’s take another jaunt to St. Thomas, USVI. Originally named Charlotte Amalia, a map misspelling changed the name to Charlotte Amalie upon U.S. acquisition. Charlotte Amalia was the first settlement on St. Thomas, established in 1672 by Danish settlers. In its early years, it was a haven for pirates. The Charlotte Amalia Historic District includes government, civic and residential buildings. Learn more about the USVI historic sites on the NPS travel site (the website is dated, but the information is good).

While stunning and colorful, I found the beauty of the buildings to be marred by the numerous utility lines and poles, modern street lights and the asphalt streets. Many of these modern amenities were likely added in the last few decades, when tourism increased exponentially. I hope that future improvements take into account the historic context of the district and the visual effects of existing infrastructure. With that said, the district is fascinating; partially because was an entirely new landscape to me. These photographs are an eclectic mix from our stroll through the historic district.

Red metal and tile roofs define the view in Charlotte Amalie; what a striking complement to the blue sky and green leaves everywhere.

The colors of buildings along the streets are so vibrant!

Many of the historic buildings have tall windows with functioning shutters, which would have been designed to control the temperature and air movement throughout the day and seasons.

The buildings in the shopping district have doors such as those above, which open wide for business hours but are locked with latches and bolts at the end of the day. It makes for a much more interesting and appropriate streetscape than standard doors.

Wood doors and cast iron balconets are a common sight.

An alley "restored" in the 1970s; many alleys lead to additional small stores. Charlotte Amalie is known in the USVI for its shopping district.

Above the main streets, the streets are steep and hilly, as seen in this photograph. the asphalt pavement meets the building edge or meets the concrete gutters on the side of the street. The open gutters function as above ground rain and runoff drains. You can see on the left that some buildings build over the drains, creating small culverts.

The Frederick Lutheran Church.

The United States Post Office.

The 99 Steps located on Government Hill. The Danes built these "streets" up the steep hills in the form of stairs, using brick ballast from the ships. Some portions of the steps have been rebuilt and covered with concrete. There are also more than 99 steps.

Looking down the 99 steps.

The view from the top of the hill at Blackbeard's Castle.

These photographs are mostly without pedestrians because we were strolling around on a Sunday, which is not a cruise ship day, and therefore much of the island is closed. While it limited where we could venture inside, it made for easy sight-seeing.

Other USVI posts: Preservation Photos #122. Annaberg Sugar Mill. Preservation Photos #121. Home Sweet Home. Historic Sites on the Reef Bay Trail. Reef Bay Sugar Mill.

Preservation Photos #54

Another image from the Ripton Country Store in Ripton, Vermont. The post office, still in operation, is located inside the country store.

Bicycle Adventures: Mail, Coffee & the ATM

Hurricane Ike, gas prices, downward economy – there just isn’t a lot of good news lately.  Since I can’t control the news or the weather or the economy, I am at least trying to control how much of my income goes to fueling my car.  Thankfully, I have the option of a flex schedule, which means nine hour workdays, but every other Friday off, translating into 60 miles less per two weeks. It may not sound like a lot, but it does all add up and make a difference, especially when I’m driving around 275 miles per week.  Instead of filling up my car’s gas tank every week, I can go every eight days or so. 

I’ve decided to ride my bicycle whenever possible.  Sadly, this is not possible for the grocery store because I do not own one of those buggies for children that attach to the bike.  (Someday I will!) However, I can easily ride my bike to the coffee shop, post office, and the bank.  And I have been.  For the record, I could walk, but I’m not a fan of walking; it’s either running or biking for me.  And once again, the environment and preservation go hand in hand.

Mail: Riding to the post office is a much better option than driving for many reasons.  1) It takes the same amount of time due to the speed limit downtown, yield signs and trying to find a parking spot; hence it’s quick and easy.  2) I can just park on the sidewalk and lock my bike.  Yes, I lock it because I’m paranoid that someone will steal it even though I’m in the building for about two minutes.  Yet,  on Friday, as I’m locking up my bike, someone parks his car, leaves it running and dashes into the post office.  No one else was in the car. Huh? That was one of those I live in a small town moments.  I’m still locking my bike.

Coffee:  After the post office, I got back on my bike and headed to the coffee shop.  Feeling extra environmentally friendly, I brought along my travel coffee mug.  Once before I had seen a fellow customer fill up his mug rather than use the store bought cup.  I figured that I could at least ask.  To my surprise, the coffee shop worker was more than happy to allow me to fill up my travel mug. And an even better surprise: it only cost me $1.00 for a large 16oz coffee (my travel mug is 16oz.)  Normally, coffee is $1.25 for a 12oz and $1.50 for a 16oz.  This happens to be the cheapest and the best tasting coffee in town.   I’m not sure how much it would cost if my mug were more than 16oz, but I’m sure it would still be cheaper than buying coffee and a cup.

The other exciting part about this coffee discovery was the fact that my coffee mug handle fits perfectly over the handlebars on my bike and it will not spill a drop because it is the superwoman of coffee mugs (it’s pink, by the way.)  This convenience allows for my coffee to stay warm longer, for me to save money and trees, and for me to ride my bike rather than walking to the coffee shop.  (Also, I don’t look like a dangerous fool trying to hold my coffee mug and steer my bicycle without dying.)  Moral of this adventure: bring your own coffee mug and get one that fits over handlebars or in your water bottle holder!

ATM: Today I decided that after riding to the post office, I would continue the extra .75 miles to the bank so I could deposit a check. If it were during business hours, I probably would have gone inside the bank, but rarely do I make it there before 5pm.  Thus, I figured that I could use the ATM.  I got in line behind two cars and waited my turn, thinking about how much gas I was saving, how much pollution I may have inadvertently breathed in, and how I felt slightly awkward at a drive through ATM on my bike.  But really, close enough. Motorcycles can go to ATMs, so why not bicycles.  I continued to feel awkward as someone pulled in behind me, but this person was gracious enough to keep his car at fair distance.  When it was my turn I rode up to the ATM and went about the usual business.  It was nothing out of the ordinary.  I think I’ll do that more often and get over the weirdness, which has to be just a societal construction anyway.

Biking notes: Saturday I repeated the mail-coffee routine but added in the farmer’s market.  My best advice is to ride with some form of backpack so there isn’t anything swinging at your wheels. Most importantly, I obey traffic laws as if I were driving a car and pay extra attention since I know that people aren’t expecting me to be in certain places. Granted, I do have the advantage of living in a small town with a 25-35 mph speed limit downtown, one way streets, and a cycling population, but I still have to be careful.  Not everyone has the luxury of being able to bike places, but if you do, you should try it.  One more thing, I ride a mountain bike around town, not a road bike because I’m not confident enough to clip in and out of pedals whenever necessary.  Being able to put my feet on the ground at a moment’s notice and not fall off my bike is much more comforting.

Here’s to using my bicycle for errands!  I’ll see what I can come up with next.

Preservation Chat is Everywhere!

I love my post office, mostly because it is a historic building with leaded panes and real window muntins. There’s an eagle on the front of the building and a mural on the inside. The interior of the postmaster’s office has beautiful wood floor and tall ceilings. Luckily, these features tend to overpower the slowness of the post office and the fact that I often get the same piece of wrongly addressed mail in my mailbox, despite writing “return to sender.”

Anyway, today while standing in the long Saturday line waiting to mail a package, a mother and her three elementary school age sons stood behind me. They were quite adorable and I enjoyed eavesdropping on their conversations. My favorite part occurred was when the oldest boy said to his mother, “Mom, why is that door there? I bet there used to be stairs there so they could get upstairs. Maybe they use a ladder to get up there now.”

Truth be told, it’s just a high ceiling and the door leads to the postmaster’s office, but it just made me to smile to hear a nine-year-old analyzing a historic building. Granted, he had no idea what he was doing but it’s evidence that there is a foundation and an interest to teach these young children about preservation! How often do adults just ignore their surroundings and never think to ask why something is the way it is. So let’s get out there and educate these children who are more than willing to learn (usually if they don’t know they’re learning!)