The American post office has seen better days. Once the sole place for sending anything across town, country, or globe, it was also a de facto community center, a very public, often aesthetically grand place to meet up, catch the latest gossip, and socialize with friends and strangers alike.
But with the rise of private shipping companies like UPS and FedEx, and, of course, the dreaded Internet, the U.S. Postal Service lost its monopoly on mail, and the post office became a place where most of us rarely venture. Dying futures require tough decisions, so, in 2008, the Postal Service unveiled sweeping plans to sell off thousands of buildings nationwide, including hundreds of historic post offices, many designed by famous architects and full of awesome artwork.
When that plan landed on the desk of Milford Wayne Donaldson, California’s State Historic Preservation Officer from 2004-2012, the architect was stunned. So he began fighting for their protection, and convinced Congress to order a sweeping survey to determine the full merit of these old buildings, many of which were built during the New Deal era.
Today, Donaldson — who restored our train depot 15 years ago, among other Santa Barbara projects — lives in Sacramento and serves as chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a federal agency whose members are appointed directly by President Barack Obama. The fight to save historic post offices is far from over, and Donaldson is coming to talk about the struggle on Thursday, March 17, 7 p.m., at Casa de la Guerra.
The lecture is sponsored by the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, which has explored means of saving Santa Barbara’s downtown post office on Anacapa Street. But as of late, there is nothing new to report, said the trust’s assistant director Anne Peterson. “It’s been very difficult to get any information about it,” she said, but added that she and other stakeholders remain “very concerned about its future.”
Certainly, this local limbo motivated the trust to invite Donaldson to town. To learn more about this ongoing struggle to save some of America’s most interesting places, I spoke with Donaldson for about a half hour on the phone last week. What follows are condensed excerpts of our conversation.
Are our post offices under attack?
It’s a much larger contextual problem than that. If you look at a lot of the post offices, including the one in Santa Barbara, you find there is a tremendous amount of area that they expanded into in the 1950s. They had to do something to handle large packages, because they were the only game in town. Over the years, all the space has become wasted. And now people are paying their bills online. This slow drain led to an attempt to close all of the properties that simply weren’t up to speed, lacked the necessary facilities, or required retrofitting, like the Eureka Post Office, which was made of redwood.
So in 2008 they moved ahead with closing these properties. I was at the State Historic Preservation Office, and we got hit broadside with it. It was incredible in terms of trying to field the hundreds of calls coming in. It is unfortunate, especially when you consider that most of these post offices play an essential role in promoting economic development. Most of them belong to the community, and they’re usually incredible, like Santa Barbara, which has wonderful Art Deco architecture. They become civic monuments and serve as a great symbol for the federal government, especially compared to other federal buildings.
What about the artworks inside?
Like in Santa Barbara, many were built during the Depression and a lot under the WPA [Works Progress Administration] program. They also included a very heavy art program, like Santa Barbara’s murals. The Postal Service decided to keep ownership of these artworks, and we were trying to figure out why they were disposing of the property yet keeping the art. We found there is a national law that you cannot sell artwork or dispose of it unless you get permission from the makers or their descendants.
The Postal Service was not going to go down that line, so they came up with the concept of creating covenants when they sell properties. They say a property has to be open to the public at certain times, not specified, and that whoever takes it over must maintain and care for the artwork. That was twist that complicated the issue. There are 300 historic properties in the State of California, and the Postal Service was trying to make the State Historic Preservation Office hold all the covenants. That was impossible, because we just don’t have the state laws to do it.
So this disposal process is ongoing? There hasn’t been any stoppage?
No stoppage at all. But we were contacted by Congress to do a special report on why this is happening. We found that the Postal Service never had a numeric goal for these disposals. They did come up with some criteria, which was strange in a way, because they did not consider the historic values. They did a survey in 1985 at places that were 50 years or older. So for instance Santa Barbara, which was built in 1937, fell out of that range by two years. Therefore there was no consideration for anything 1935 or newer, and that was just crazy to think. At least we had them resurvey, though I still don’t think their survey is very inclusive or very good.
Was there a better way to go about this?
There are a lot of federal agencies out there, and we deal with 47 of them on a regular basis that have to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act. The Postal Service is one of these, and they just don’t get into disposals, as compared to the Department of Defense or GSA [General Services Administration], which have hundreds of thousands of buildings. What happened is that when they started the process, they got their lawyers involved rather than their federal preservation officer to give guidance. It was a real struggle. They have come around quite a bit since then. But we are dealing with a whole new age of other disposals, too, from the GSA and places like NASA. Every time these major programs go down, what do you do with the properties?
Why can’t the Postal Service lease them out?
They’re saying they cannot do the kind of lease that GSA and Department of Defense can. We never found that. We cannot justify why that is so. We’re still working on that.
How many have been disposed?
Hundreds and hundreds including extremely large facilities like the one down at Lindbergh Field in San Diego. And for those not considered historic, they are demolishing and selling the property because it is worth more without a building on it. The designs are so specific that it would cost more to retrofit than to build something new.
What can people do to save their own post office?
Contact staff at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. We have a couple people who oversee the program. They are very much on top of it. There is a process that has to be gone through. We can’t stop the Postal Service, but at least we can raise issues and awareness and make sure they go through the process correctly. That involves input from the community.