Could postal service woes threaten architecture delivered by FDR's New Deal?

September 12, 2011

The U.S. Postal Service is in well-documented dire straits these days.

Postal officials are discussing closing locations and downsizing services across the country. In the Chicago area, 14 sites are being contemplated for closure. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, nor the winds of change, nor a nation challenged, will stay the postman from his or her rounds, sure. But the writer of the motto had no way of seeing the other threats to the 236-year-old institution such as online bill paying, email and private package delivery services. The agency could lose $10 billion this year.

It wasn't always this way. The postal system was once as much of a sign of a modern America as were paved roads and electric power. And from 1933 to 1943, the old federal Public Works Administration, under FDR's "New Deal", built more than 400 new post offices across the country. The PWA post offices were real beauties, too: attractive, well-designed, modern. There were often beautiful murals and modern light fixtures on the inside. Stylistically, the buildings landed somewhere between Art Deco and Art Moderne--as streamlined and efficient as the service postal officials wanted customers to find inside.

Chicago landed a fair number of these new post office facilities. in 1934 alone, the PWA set aside enough cash to build 18 of them, including Stockyard Station at 41st and Halsted, seen in the photo here. And while the only potentially-endangered Chicago post office of this vintage is the Englewood Station at 63rd and Peoria (more on that later), one can't help but wonder what the future holds for some of these 70 to 80-year-old buildings here and across the country. How long can they survive with a landlord that loses $10 billion a year?

Let's take another look the Stockyards post office completed in 1936 and designed by Howard L. Cheney. It was built when the Union Stockyards stood across the street, and the entrance features well-done reliefs of an eagle on one side of the door and a steer's head on the other:

Here is the Englewood post office at 63rd and Wallace that postal officials are the thinking about closing. Serial killer H.H. Holmes' Devil in the White City house of horrors previously stood on the site:

The Roseland post office at 110th and State is well-preserved, right down to its louvered window and that Buck Rogers-looking flagpole above the main entrance. It was built for $122,000:

 

The Roseland post office has a few fraternal twins around town, including this one at California and Medill in Logan Square. The entrance alone is worth the price of postage: