Mail Call: NJ’s Historic Post Offices in Jeopardy
Buildings are built to house activities. They are specific to the needs and wants of their owners and/or designers, at the time they are constructed. As such, they often become the stoic victims of downsizing , population shift and societal advances. What was once a celebrated, relevant monument becomes “outdated” and “obsolete.”
Last month’s announcement that the US Postal Service is examining the feasibility of closing just under 3,700 branches nationwide– including 50 in New Jersey- is the perfect example. We just don’t need the mail as much as we used to, and as a result, USPS is entertaining the idea of cutting some of its losses. Unfortunately, the historic buildings that stand to be left behind in this case are some of the most character-defining landmarks we have left.
In New Jersey, post offices statewide are included on he list, but the overwhelming majority are located in the northern half of the state. While not all are historic facilities, the inclusion of such landmarks as the Morris Street post office in Morristown is cause for concern. And this list is only the most recent alarm: in March of this year, the 100-year-old Johnsonburg Post Office in Frelinghuysen was closed, and USPS announced in May a desire to sell the 1938 WPA-constructed downtown Lakewood post office.
The historical significance of the post office is undisputed. In the days when mail was one of few methods of long-distance communication, post offices were literal and symbolic elements of a municipality’s success. Architecturally, for decades, the significance of these buildings outweighed thoughts of economic construction. As a result, many post offices were designed by private architects to be showplaces of their communities.
So what will happen to these showplaces as they are vacated by the USPS, and what can community advocates do to help retain them? As a starting point, the National Trust for Historic Preservation Forum recently published an article discussing the USPS’ role in the disposal process, the different policies affecting the post offices slated for closure, and case studies of rehabilitated historic post offices. While the sale of federal property does invoke Section 106 review, the reviews will generate mitigation on a case-by-case basis and as always, input from an invovled, educated public will be critical.
In the end, it will fall to community members to advocate for the retention of these landmarks, via purchase by preservation-conscious buyers and the creation of creative reuse plans. With awareness, preparation, and education, advocates can impact the fate of historic post offices, and support the retention of these community-defining resources.