Submitted by Anne H. Oman

Reporter At Large

Historic Fernandina Post Office
Historic Fernandina Post Office

As the US Postal Service prepares to slap a “canceled” stamp on the downtown Fernandina Beach Post Office on August 10, city residents are asking “what’s next?” for the mellow yellow Italian Revival landmark that has graced downtown since 1912, serving not only as post office but, at various times, as custom house, federal court house and military recruiting office.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Historic US Post Office Buildings to its 2012 list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places.  According to Chris Morris, project manager for historic post offices at the National Trust, the underlying reason for the risk is that the postal service needs money.

“The postal service is losing about $18 billion a year in part due to a Congressional mandate to pre-fund retiree health care,” she said.  “We’re hoping for a legislative solution.”

One possible solution lies in The Postal Act of 2013, introduced by Sen. BerniePost Office 12 Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Peter De Fazio (D=OR), which could help relieve financial pressure on the postal services and make stepped-up sales of buildings unnecessary. Congress watchers do not hold out much hope for passage, however.  Similar legislation, which would have provided a pathway for the city of Fernandina Beach to acquire the building, passed the Senate in 2012 but died in the House.

Post Office 20In addition to pushing for a legislative fix, the Trust works with communities to save post offices.  For the Trust’s tips on “Ten Ways to Fight for Your Local Post Office,” go to http://bit.ly/11Ja1is. 

No one seems to know precisely how many post offices are on the hit list.  In 2011, the US Postal Service said some 3,700 facilities would be closed, including the Fernandina post office.  After an outcry of opposition nationwide, USPS said that, while closings would continue, it would try to find other ways to economize.  Currently, the postal service has “for sale” signs on 41 post offices, a few of which are historic buildings.  These include post offices in Gulfport, MI ($2.2 million; York, PA, ($650 thousand); Norwich CT, ($499 thousand), and Camas, WA ($430 thousand).  Some of these buildings have murals painted under a Depression-era program to give work to artists. The Fernandina facility could be in the “for sale” pipeline 90 days after it is officially closed,

In addition, the postal service has indicated it intends to sell many other post Post Office 17offices across the country.  According to the website www.savethepostoffice.com , these include: the Depression-era post office on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, NY, with murals by social realist artist Ben Shahn, despite appeals by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Bronx borough president and others; the art deco La Jolla, CA, post office, despite appeals by two Congressman, local officials and the La Jolla Historical Society; landmark post offices in Santa Monica, Berkeley, and Ukiah, CA. and, of course, Fernandina’s downtown facility, which has anchored the historic district since 1912 and is the city’s first steel-framed building.  Designed by architect James Knox Taylor, it is considered by the Historic American Buildings Survey as “a fine example of type of architecture with Mediterranean motifs which was popular in Florida throughout the early 20th century.”

According to Chris Morris of the National Trust, when the postal service sells landmarked buildings, the buyer is required to maintain the building’s historic character.  This requirement covers architectural features but does not generally cover furnishings, light fixtures and other interior features. (This fact worries some local residents who cite the beautiful wood paneling and original light fixtures in the court room and other interior furnishings.}  Post Office 13

If a building has significant murals and other artwork, federal law dictates that they  remain under postal service ownership and be reasonably accessible to the public. In some cases, the postal service negotiates an agreement with the new owner that preserves the artwork and guarantees public access.  For example, the 1939 Venice, CA, post office, which will become headquarters for movie producer Joel Silver is covered by a protective covenant with the city of Los Angeles.  Its mural, “The Story of Venice,” will be restored by the new owner and made accessible to the public at least six times a year.

Post Office 23The National Trust prefers to keep post office buildings open and functioning, but if this is not possible it encourages “adaptive re-use” that retains the building as a community resource and preserves historic features.  Some examples of successful adaptations cited by the Trust are:

·        The 1929 Dallas, TX, post office , which now serves as 78 luxury residences with original features including marble staircases, terra cotta tile, carved wood wainscoting restored and preserved;

·        The all-marble clad original General Post Office in Washington, DC, commissioned by President Andrew Jackson and designed by Washington monument architect Robert Mills, which now houses the Hotel Monaco;

·        The 1908 Beaux Arts Post Office in Des Moines, Iowa, which houses both county offices and an art gallery;

·        The 1934 Bedford, Ohio Post Office. which now hosts an architectural firm. Post Office 21 The new owner restored the Depression-era lobby mural painted by Karl Anderson, brother of author Sherwood Anderson.

·        The New Deal-built main post office in Nashville, TN, which combines Classical and Art Deco architecture and which now hosts the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.

Post Office 25So, assuming that the Fernandina closure is a done deal – which it will be unless an appeal is filed with the Postal Regulatory Commission, which can delay the action but is highly unlikely to stop it – the postal service plans to sell the building for the market value. 

Knowledgeable sources, however, say that influential people are working behind the scenes to secure the building for the city. 

According to City Commissioner Arlene Filkoff, the new commission elected last fall has not discussed that possibility.  Commissioner Filkoff believes there is money in the budget to stabilize the building, though not to buy it.

“I’m concerned that it hasn’t been well maintained – there’s been water leakage,” she said.  “It would require investment.”

That investment would have to be substantial. According to architectural studies,Post Office 19 the building would have to be made compliant with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It would need an elevator, parking facilities and plumbing, window and roof repairs.

Another resident knowledgeable about preservation and familiar with the studies said that ‘the most important action remains securing the building’s envelope…If the building continues to deteriorate any discussion of future use is merely an academic exercise.”

Once the building is secured and stabilize, what would residents like to see it used for?

“I’ve always envisioned it as some sort of learning environment, “ saidPost Office - 25 Commissioner Filkoff.   For example, she added, she would love to see the Savannah College of Art and Design or a similar school take it over and restore it as a first project. 

A random sampling of Fernandina residents gleaned other ideas.

Donna Paz Kaufman suggested the building could hold “condos or apartments, an art collective, with the chambers as exhibit space,” possibly with retail in the basement and on the first level. 

“The upper floor has a view of the Intracoastal Waterway,” added Ms. Kaufman.  “Add a roof terrace and it would be lovely and may sell for enough to pay for the cost of renovations.”

Post Office 26Burton Bright points to Valdosta, GA, which invested money to turn its main post office into City Hall and to Don Shaw, who turned a vacant bank building on Centre Street in Fernandina Beach into restaurant space.

“I charge our leaders to have a vision – research, plan and present,” said Mr. Bright.

“My first choice would be as City Hall,” said theater director and historian Ron Kurtz.  “Its original function was governmental and I appreciate the reminder that one side of the street houses the county, and the other could house the city—partners forevermore.  However, the building’s continued presence on Centre Street is my essential concern…. Were I wealthy, I would buy it , restore it and have a Performing Arts Center—theatre, visual arts, studio space, display space, rehearsal space – all permanently ensconsed in the heart of town… It would essentially serve as a Chautauqua type facility… From an historical perspective, the Lyceum was just up the street.”

Artist Sandra Baker-Hinton called for an arts center combined with office space.

Photo courtesy of Helmut Albrecht
Photo courtesy of Helmut Albricht

“Artist studios on the top floor – the view is outstanding,” said Ms. Baker-Hinton.  “A great gallery space on the second floor.  A dance studio in the big courtroom or a wedding chapel there also…How about a film production office?”

Jay Kayne suggested the building be used as “a business incubator for residents starting new businesses.”

Sallie McDonald, who hails from Washington, DC, cites the example of that city’s Old Post Office Building, saved from the wrecking ball and now a major tourist mecca, with retail and restaurants on the ground floor and government offices above.

Photo courtesy of Helmut Albrecht
Photo courtesy of Helmut Albrecht

Louis Goldman warns that “little by little Sadler Road is becoming our downtown with motels, new housing, restaurants and storefronts, with at least 15 national tenants.  Historic downtown will always be popular but needs ways to attract more ‘feet on the street’ so the shops can be economically secure.  If you haven’t noticed, there are currently at least four vacant storefronts.  The current thinking on the Fernandina Beach City Commission is for the post office to become the new City Hall.  How many shoppers will that bring to the surrounding businesses?”

Post Office 27Mr. Goldman believes that the building is “the perfect location for an arts and cultural center, similar to what happened to historic post offices in Gainesville and Fort Myers and other cities. and … The building would be a constant magnet for both visitors and locals.”

Although not all respondents saw eye to eye on the future use of the building, all agreed on the need to keep it a living part of downtown.

 Said author and columnist Dickie Anderson: “We need to capture the momentum that the emotion of the official closing should and will cause….We must again rise up to save something special.  We lost the Keystone Hotel but saved the Courthouse and Trinity Church.  We must save the post office.”

“Let’s keep this part of our history and see it to its next chapter,” urged Ms. Kaufman

What will that chapter be?

Watch this space – and that space – for further developments.

 Editor’s Note: Anne H. Oman recently relocated to Fernandina Beach from Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, Family Circle and other publications.

July 18, 2013 11:26 p.m.

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Rose Bennett
Rose Bennett
8 years ago

I can’t imagine downtown without this beautiful building. It must be saved. I like Sallie McDonald’s mixed use idea because with government and retail/restaurant space, the entire building would be used and also partially funded by taxpayers. When I see the architecturally out of place building that replaced the Keystone Hotel at the entrance to Centre Street, it makes me sad. I don’t want to lose the post office building, too, and don’t want another modern weed replacing the post office in our beautiful downtown garden of historic buildings.

LMM
LMM
8 years ago
Reply to  Rose Bennett

Alas, the mixed use – shared cost model of the Old Post Office in DC may not be viable. The DC icon has struggled to stay solvent and recent news of the district reports that Donald Trump will purchase the p.o. and plans to redevelop it as a luxury hotel.

Has anyone called to see if he is interested in a propertty on the island? jk

Donna Paz Kaufman
Donna Paz Kaufman
8 years ago

Great and timely article! Thanks for bringing us up to date and offering ideas from various citizens. What I love most about Amelia Island is that its volunteers have proven how to make things happen. The museum, Boys & Girls Club, and ACT are just a few examples. We have the potential to become a small town with a leading arts community … with the number of visual and performing arts efforts already contributing so much to our quality of life. While the First Baptist Church didn’t work out for that purpose, perhaps this can. The beautiful building offers us an opportunity to do great things.

Dickie Anderson
Dickie Anderson
8 years ago

Well done – need to distribute this to every outlet and person who may help.

Thank you Anne – what talent!

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