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—
I really think this kiosk rendering has hit on something. I think this design is simple, beautiful,
functional and uncluttered (but not boring or unadorned). It’s the kind of design for the built environment that I don’t think can be ‘planned’ or forced by any sort of government action, but can only be achieved through the values of average denizens to demand that everyday things in their lives reflect cultural values. I find it pretty rare for the day-to-day commercial structures or infrastructure in America to be built with such an obvious concern for surroundings. In NYC or a national park you might find some concession stands making forced attempts to be inconspicuous, but that isn’t exactly what I like. The post offices of yesteryear I think more closely hit the mark–but their commercial nature is debatable.
When we look at streetscapes in many contemporary East Asian cities we often see pictures of a forest of neon calligraphy, advertising this or that product or shop. In America, we see a similarly motorized version of this, as Robert Venturi so famously has described. These kinds of commercial streetscapes can be functional and still beautiful, since much depends on your subjective understanding of what constitutes a beautiful landscape. However, they contrast strikingly with Victorian commercial buildings, American Main Streets, or Italian gallerias of earlier eras for reasons that go beyond new materials, new construction methods, and new technological demands. There was more going on in these approach of building small shops. There was pride of ownership and individuality evident that is different than the pride of ownership we see in small businesses today, especially and obviously when they’re franchises. There were normative ideas about how to relate your building to others without government direction. Yet, today, too many planners and designers are finding it necessary to rigidly demand less inspired designs to achieve this lost sense of place that attaches to an area or neighborhood that is working individually but in concert with one another to beautify their street. Usually this is in response to blight, sometimes in response to long, windowless walls from modernists.
Personally, I prefer when there is a demanding public who, perhaps almost unconsciously pursues an infusion of a particular aesthetic or humanist appeal into mundane structures of everyday life. Many places still seem to engage in this effort to beautify effortlessly, without prodding from local boosters or government, but as a matter of course of doing business. Not surprisingly, I’ve encountered this taking place in self-styled fashion cities like Montreal. In the early 20th century, American cities were full of businessmen who were criticized for their vulgar displays of wealth by building ornate facades of eclectic styles on even the most ordinary buildings. Bakeries and banks alike felt compelled to make architectural statements. Today, some painted numbers inside a window suffices. There are many imaginative people amongst us who can find a charm to these sorts of scenes. However, the beauty in the public realm is really being left to individuals to perceive, and is not consciously made. This salumeria might have once unconsciously arranged meats in the window this way, but that was perhaps centuries ago, and there is definitely an artifice to these arrangements today ( no less lovely for being so ). The comparison to an average American meat market (those that survive I suppose) or the local bodega is obvious. Is it a matter of money, or a cultural difference in taste or panache? There are two trends in our supermarkets today, either to update the interiors to resemble cafes and high end food markets (like Wegmans, some Whole Foods, etc) or downgrade to Super Wal-mart, Costco warehousing. Some would argue the Wal-Mart model is on its way out after peaking, but their profits haven’t shown this–yet.
The more extreme among us (Americans, not British or Dutch) would try to rectify this lacking attention to visual appeal through city adopted design codes. I think there is some validity to discouraging or even outlawing things we know are deadening to the public realm (long, uninterrupted spells of wall facing a sidewalk or public street, , max. setbacks instead of minimum ones, for instance). But when it reaches the point of dictating what kind of eaves a building should have, we have perhaps gone too far. Admittedly, this is a fuzzy standard, and too much relies on what is ultimately just the considered opinion of experts (subject to constant change) and nothing further. What is it going to take to make everyday, vernacular architecture of things like gas stations, retail outlets, concession stands, etc to become more design conscious? Is it recognizing some hidden economic cost of ugliness, or is it just an awakening of values? Or am I missing something already around me?
Cabrini Green, an infamous public housing project (made notorious and immortalized in the horror film The Candyman), is nearly entirely demolished. As Great Society projects continually fall down around us I can’t help but wonder why so much built in this era of idealism proved to be so ephemeral when contrasted to great undertakings of previous generations. Even in this government preservation document concerning buildings from the Great Society era, there is little reverence expressed for the architecture and even an open call to rehabilitate as much as possible. The overall sentiment and tone, as contrasted to other eras, seems to me one that does not so strongly fear the wrecking ball.
One quote from that document I find particularly rich is “This era can be characterized as an architecture of difficult beauty…We must separate the bad from the good–and there are plenty of bad buildings–but we must make these distinctions with subtlety and scholarship” from Robert Stern, Dean of Yale School of Architecture. I find these words richly ironic, not because they are attributed to Mr. Stern, but because they come from a Dean of the Yale School of Architecture. Any Nutmegger whose walked the streets of the old Elm City, or knows their local history, is acutely and painfully aware of the difficulty of the beauty inflicted on the city at this time–most of it originating from Yale architects. New Haven today is a fine place to revisit the pleasures of the “Brutalist” style thanks to Yale School of Architecture. (I am also astounded by his contribution of such a brilliantly nuanced and open standard for preservation as “subtlety and scholarship”).
Our social needs, of course, have not diminished since the Great Society projects. I’m not an apologist for the large warehousing of America’s poor that took place during the excesses of our welfare state, but I’m equally distressed that we as a country seem allergic to discussing or advancing solutions to the same problems we felt so urgent then. They have not gone away, our poverty problems have metastasized.
Although I believe giving people vouchers and subsidies is empowering and a far preferable way of spreading opportunity in poor communities, and that it is far better to diffuse poverty than to segregate and concentrate impoverished people for a host of social and economic reasons, the danger is now that we are not adequately providing in levels to the need. This will only bring us back to the Dickensian conditions that began the first progressive movement nearly a century ago.
I am not saying there is an architectural design solution to the rampant poverty in America, but to posit that the shortcomings in both the quality of this era’s construction and design have inhibited our abilities to think ambitiously. The crumbling architecture of the Great Society era are ever present symbols and advertisements of the failure of our most recent, large scale projects. Even worse, many inspirational architecture of a preceding era have been demolished. The landscapes of today often serve to deaden the political will and stiffens the conventional wisdom that success cannot come in big packages.
“exegi monumentum aere perennius”
(I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze)
— Horace’s Third Ode.
This phrase was adapted to the motto “quid aere perennius?” or, “what is more enduring than brass?”, by my old home city of Waterbury, CT formerly famed as the “Brass City”. It came via the suggestion of a local New England WASP, philanthropist, and all-around 19th century patrician; Frederick Kingsbury (who also happened to be a contemporaneous friend and confidant of famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted).
Ironically, plastics proved themselves to be more enduring than brass, and the city experienced a long decline from its manufacturing pre-eminence. However, I am haunted by the spirit contained within this phrase; both in Horace’s first incantation and later in its prosaic, civic booster formulation. A desire to make places of our present moment connect with times future and past encapsulates each expression, and with a similar aspiration, I am launching this blog.
The 19th century industrialist and Yale graduate Kingsbury seemed to make his classical allusion forthrightly and without any hint of modesty, whereas Horace’s comparison of his own poetry to the pyramids, impervious to erosion, had a decidedly sarcastic, but reflective quality. Horace, of course, is still read thousands of years later while many of the grandest structures of Waterbury on Grand Ave. are already struggling against erosive forces: shrinking city revenue, corrupt officials, and outright vandalism. My hopes for this blog is merely to continually post on themes posited here: a perceived lack of ambition in the body politic, on-going commentary on regional economic policies and interventions in the physical environments–the tangible loci where our present moments are already interconnecting with future developments.
Just a couple decades ago, it seemed to me the idea of erecting physical, everlasting monuments seemed itself a dead and forgotten notion–remembered dimly as vulgar, Epicot-like Disney-esque delusions. Architects and futurists talked of a fast-paced, convenient, disposable, and more utilitarian world. Indeed, many of the more epically conceived, ambitious structures of the modernist era ought to reproduce the grandeur and austerity of ancient Roman buildings in their current ruined state of beauty but eschewed their historical, freshly festooned antecedents in pursuit of sparse, clean lines. Yet, compare the current condition of the Parthenon’s concrete to Louis Kahn’s IIM-A or Moshie Safdie’s Habitat ’67. When modernists erected their monuments, their design and construction did not exude the same grand emphasis on forging a legacy. Perhaps they thought if they mimed the geometric starkness of form of the pyramids the structures would take on their permanence. By the 80s and 90s and 00s distopian world views seemed to command the popular mindset (from Escape from NY to Oyrx and Crake to Matrix).
Parallel to the fall of high modernism, environmentalist and ecological perspectives have evolved to provide an intellectual framework and a rationale of resistance to the turbulent, short-sighted notion that innovation is purely synonymous with cheap, easily replaced materials. Their concept of sustainability is now adopted widely and most have successfully avoided categorization as unrepentant luddites. Sustainability, perhaps the greatest buzzword of the past ten years, is so ubiquitous and often confused mantra that we must conclude the word has nearly lost all relevance and meaning. Yet, many feel an urgency, rationally constructed in response to threats of industrial pollution and climate change, to renew what it means to tie a building to its physical site, its land and the whole of nature. Should we build our homes of biodegradable straw or, foregoing the need to duplicate effort, carve them out of reusable, long lived stone? The answers to these kinds of specific questions will, presumably in a more environmentally conscious culture, once more reflect the ecological peculiarities of a location greater than the regional price for rebar. The aesthetic choice of a window framing a view of a clump of trees will no longer suffice as proof of an architect’s intention to unite a home in spirit to its surrounding nature; ideally, the energy efficiency of the glass will be given equal or higher consideration. Surely, at the heart of sustainability, is a question not just of the most efficient methods of consumption, but the manner in which we build and structure our cities and societies.
However, to my thinking, forever coupled with the idea of ‘sustaining’ must also be the idea of ‘enduring’. If we take as granted that our societies will reform themselves to achieve grand goals of sustainability, we must remember what bestows the grandeur and what animates its passionate pursuit. The desire to endure is the humanistic fundament for these projects’ appeal and all other concerns are ancillary benefits.
As I interpret the concept, it should neither be like the Italian Futurists that wished to entirely rupture from the past, nor in full lockstep with contemporary new urbanists, such as James Kunstler, who have exhaustively decried the aesthetic decay and alienation caused by an unholy, ahistorical, consumerist crush of sprawl on our landscapes, but also might seek to exhume dead architectural styles. By building in our present with a mind to last, we will create a consciousness of the future in the minds of the young. Hopefully, it will also enlighten respect for our treasured inheritances and by slow accretion transform the places of our daily lives with endearing qualities that will predominate overall.
Still, to my chagrin, even today I can hear glib utterances by young architects that resemble remarkably notions of planned obsolescence. The same individual from a top university, who might otherwise be a very dedicated humanist, or fascinated with executing energy efficient designs, can still be quoted as saying that most buildings are not meant or preferred to last longer than the fifty years. The response to those who question why, sometimes given with a scolding tone, is to remind the questioner we no longer live in ancient Roman times; as if durable construction in lasting materials is more than merely costly but also the hallmark of a more primitive civilization. For me, this has always sounded analogous to American car manufacturers who scoffed at designing fuel efficient cars because consumers wanted only power.
Of course, it will take more than architects to reverse the circumstances that have given rise to these types of commonplace opinions. I have lived in a neighborhood where, according to Census data, the plurality of building stock dated to the 1910s. I write this today from a building erected in the late 1920s. Indeed, I would argue that in the future buildings must be more enduring than bronze if our physical realm is to have any lasting economic value. While we do not have the same cheap labor, cheap masonry, or armies of skilled Old World artisans that made the enduring structures of the WPA era, neither did the designers of the 50’s and 60’s. Fifty years later, and our society has discovered rather than being able to upgrade and replace as planned, that it must lean only more heavily on the infrastructure and buildings of that era. Our current financial projections also seem to indicate little hope of our nation having the resources to upgrade or replace them in the next fifty years.
In this era where the word unsustainable, whether in environmental or financial context, torrentially pours from the mouths of every commentator and politician prominent in American life, and our post-WWII physical structures are deteriorating quickly, there are innumerable indications that Americans have awoken to this slowly unfolding crisis. On the other hand, there is little indication that any large scale measures will be taken to meet them. In addition to constantly questioning why this is the case, I will research, analyze, comment, and link to urban and regional planning efforts that are seeking to forestall or reverse this reality, and to highlight efforts that I believe are heroic in their pursuit of building cities and monuments more lasting than brass.
Please visit again soon.