Eugene Post Office Up For Sale–Murals and All
I took some pictures of the Eugene Post Office and the context of its neighborhood, and would like to just give a few thoughts about why buildings should be preserved and reused, this structure’s situation to its environs, and some ideas for potential future use. I liked what Gary Jarvis, a local employee, gave as a reason why he did not want the building sold “That’s the face of the post office the community has come to know,”. Indeed, many post offices like this one in Eugene is a face of government once known, but now fading. Unfortunately, the United States Post Office is going to sell hundreds of buildings like these because the USPS just isn’t going to need as much capacity going forward. Yet, these structures are strikingly unique and immediately recognizable symbols of our civic culture. The facades and foyers, made up of expensive materials expertly executed, have value beyond the inner sorting rooms and empty offices (33,000 sq. ft. worth in the case of this building). It’s listed on the National Historic Register of Places, not just because of the larger architecture design of Gilbert Underwood, but due to the interior art murals by Carl Morris. It’s a quintessential example of FDR’s public works projects and an expression of optimism in government.
Walking around the building, as with many buildings from this time period, the individually designed fixtures stand out. Objects such as the iron fences, window grills, and lamp posts–all of the kinds of details that once they disappear, the effect on an observer of the artifacts is simply impossible to replicate. People unconsciously pass by these sort of details everyday, but even if they aren’t consciously thinking about the history and culture these objects link to, I believe their existence alone can foster awareness within individuals of the cultural norms they participate in day-to-day. They remind people that societal conventions are invented and they have a role to play in their reinvention. From the solidity of iron materials with slight imperfections indicating the work of human hands, to a hanging lighting fixture patriotically marked with star, or a sign to the Nuclear Fallout Shelter that recalls for the psychologically of the long cold war period, and to the polished marble walls that are actually expression of common cause with Greek and Roman republican virtues–together they manifest continuity with the past and mnemonically mark the plans and labor of previous generations in our present consciousness. And by preserving, reusing, and ultimately enhancing the shared inheritance of these structures that link to the past, we are also creating a connection in our present time to the future. Only by renewing the old can our society hope to orient its present day efforts to long-term planning and goals.
As for the building itself, I believe much can be done with it once it finally loses all postal functions. There is a large addition of a mail sorting room, replete with docking bays for mail trucks. This large open floor plate area is strategically located in a neighborhood of several successful historic buildings being commercially reused, and near the train station, so altogether is very well positioned to survive.
The foyer of the building is beautiful in some of its finishes. However, I have noticed that the immediate surroundings are perhaps already high on public uses. There is a prison, and a probation office, and several other social services leasing office space near adjacent to the post office already. Eugene already has a very crowded indoor farmer’s and crafts market in their convention space on the other side of town, but its only accessible by car. The location of the post office is eminently walkable to many businesses on Fifth and Sixth Avenue, including the performing arts theater and the Hilton Hotel. The area is prime for more dense residential structures in the future, and even if rail doesn’t becomes more a popular commuting choice, the location is near the highway, a new bikepath to the river and its parks, and some of the best restaurants and shops in town (I’ve found it peculiar that these things coexist at ease so closely to the prison, but they do. I suspect this is an East-West culture shock moment). Indeed, this region between Fifth Street and the Train Tracks and 6th Ave, is taking on a more lively downtown center feeling than, well, the current CBD which is quiet, dead, and slightly menacing in character, but only a short if unpleasant walk across Rt. 126. The city has labored hard over decades to revive the downtown, but really I think there should be a shift in priority to this area, where although there are some vacancies indicative of the current economic situation, there is positive activity year-round and at night. Nighttime bars, restaurants, a movie house, an overabundance of parking (ripe for development), bookstores, gift stores, apparel shopping like Buffalo exchange, lunch hour traffic from the Federal court houses, and several home goods stores.
If the area were to be developed more densely with more residential uses, I think the Post Office is an excellent candidate for relocating the Thursday and off-weather Farmer’s Market. Currently, the indoor markets at Lane County Fairgrounds, are entirely self-contained affairs with little to no spillover effects. Personally, I think once the Post Office is at last completely finished with the building, it should be turned over to the city for a rehab. Punch out the ceiling of the mail room to bring in some light and expand the feeling inside, and move some of these successful markets into the post office, where their traffic can spill over and effect the large amount of local businesses in the area and improve the viability of more, dense residential structures (the ability to walk to a farmer’s market for food is highly desirable for people who want to walk, bicycle, or perhaps in the future, take the train to work). This is an attractive, interesting area, and is more likely to vitalize downtown from the outside-in, rather than trying to shoehorn things into the unappealing, lifeless buildings and streets of downtown.
The other local venue that could serve as a model is the W.O.W. Hall—
When the Federal government determines buildings are no longer useful, they put them up for auction through the GSA. Other Federal agencies, nonprofits and educational uses are supposed to get first dibs, but if nobody wants it, the GSA does have a whole department to support its “good neighbor” policy by facilitating local planning efforts to reuse federal buildings. Whether or not they’re first consulted in disposing of Federal buildings, or if they wait to act only when the local community or citizens approach them, is something I will have to investigate further. As I wrote in a previous post, I would love to see the thousands of soon-to-be-vacant post offices turned into new public facilities rather than just all be turned into restaurants, sit empty, or fall to wrecking balls. In the case of the Eugene Post Office (seen here,) a property in seemingly exquisite condition and on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as in a neighborhood of older buildings put to new commercial uses, I think the worst case scenario is off the table. However, I doubt this will be the fortune of all the closing post facilities.
Now, the GSA website has up a list of success stories, by state, of successful property donations. Oregon’s case example was the provision of an emergency school when the one in the town of Sheridan burnt down. I found this a bit short and pretty lame–maybe the GSA needs a publicist, or maybe despite their desire to find local partners to take these buildings, most federal buildings/infrastructure just end up in the marketplace. It leaves me to wonder if there is going to be a thoughtful process of divesting the U.S. Post Office of its infrastructure, or if in the end it will be completely ad hoc. In this case, I think opportunities are going to be missed because of the lack of any federal leadership. Localities–not all but many–will most likely scrap to keep their particular offices open for as long as possible, and then will be completely apathetic as to the final outcome for the post offices.
Some of our wealthier places, as here in Beverly Hills, might be able to not only secure funding but recreate the historic building into something noteworthy for the community. However, these will most likely be the exception to the rule. Also, if the thought is that these structures should be put to purposes of economic revitalization in depressed regions, I believe the default option of making new community theaters, performing arts places, and the like is sort of played out, or at least overhyped. Building new cultural and arts institutions makes sense for many medium to large metro-areas that are most likely starved for these sorts of local opportunities, but I think the strategy of just building these edifices in the hopes of creating bohemian clusters is oversold to many places that it isn’t likely to take. Also, much like the arguments made in behalf of public funding for sports stadiums and arenas in the name of economic development, the idea that these spaces will automatically create spillovers for downtowns does not comport with reality. But this is clearly a topic for another post.
Back to the subject of how the GSA is most likely to dispose of hundreds, and thousands, often uniquely designed, federal post office buildings in the near to medium term. There is, of course (as usual), an argument to be made that leaving things up to local markets to decide the fate of these buildings is the finest, truest method for determining the maximum utility these structures will have for society. I’m divided in my opinion because while I would prefer localities to take the lead (they will best know optimum use and needs) many places lack the sort of informed citizen engagement necessary. In addition, I believe these post offices are going to come up onto the market without much far warning, and as a surprise to local historic preservation or booster groups. Furthermore, thinking from a good government perspective, I would question whether other agencies have thought creatively about how they could take advantage of these thousands of retailing centers strategically located nationwide. It’s understandably not a priority at this time, and expansion has costs. I think it would be desirable for the GSA to analyze each property its disposing, and then shop the building, recommending uses, to targeted agencies and local actors.
For instance, given the GSA’s other mission to provide child care centers, and given the open floor plans post office mail sorting rooms offer, a systematic approach to convert mail rooms to Head Start centers , might be an option. Another might be to help close the digital divide that still persists by the creation of library branches dedicated solely to access to computers, the internet, and multimedia. Other community “3rd place” options would vary greatly by building and location, but include dedicated voting centers (no more closing school early to turn the gym into voting location), fitness centers, clinics, etc. As is the case with the Eugene, Oregon Art Deco structure, Post Offices were designed to grandly express the civic virtues of our republic with Greek temple like entrances. Even with their musty post office odors, I believe the foyers and entrances of these buildings is inspirational and instructional, and we must aspire to fill them with programs and frequent uses that befit their design and influence future generations. These future functions might be private and commercial, but besides the niche bistro I doubt it. I prefer a hold on the sale of former USPS buildings, a thorough and systematic examination of these buildings for continued public use, and if it could be managed, funding for their retrofits and conversion. I photographed the Eugene Post Office and the context of its neighborhood and will soon be posting some thoughts about the structures situation to its environs, and potential future use.
How did I miss such a fine example of what I was discussing about in my previous posting, right here under my nose!