Historic Post Office in Modesto, CA: For Sale

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The post office in Modesto, California, was built by the New Deal in 1933, under the supervision of James Wetmore, who was responsible for "designing" hundreds of public buildings in the 1930s.  As the Modesto Bee relates, the post office contains nine original wall murals in the lobby, commissioned by the Treasury Relief Arts Project. The oil paintings were done in 1937 by Ray Boynton, with the assistance of several local artists, and they depict agricultural scenes: plowing, sorting and harvesting grapes; irrigating orchards; meat and cheese packing; grain harvesting and feeding cows.

The Modesto post office closed this week, and now the building is for sale.  It will be auctioned off on June 9, opening bid, $100,000.  (More on the story here, and a TV news report, here.)

(Vintage post card credit; mural.)

UPDATE: June 15, 2011: "Bidding begins on Modesto post office": "Online bidding to buy downtown Modesto's historic post office started a week ago, but only one hopeful buyer has bid. The minimum opening bid of $100,000 was placed by an undisclosed person the morning bidding opened."

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Public, Legislators Join the Fight to Save Mail Service

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From the April-June 2011 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine: "The Postal Service’s assault on the nation’s mail processing network shows no signs of stopping — and APWU locals have responded by engaging elected officials, community leaders, and members of the public in the fight to save our service.

"Nearly 100 members of the Flint, Michigan Area local and community activists gathered for an informational picket on March 16 to protest the proposed closing of the Flint mail processing facility.

"February was a record month for consolidation announcements, as the USPS launched studies that could lead to the closing or significant downsizing of 20 mail processing centers. The previous record month was September 2010, during which the Postal Service announced 13 planned studies.  In response to a new onslaught of possible consolidations, local unions ramped up efforts to prevent the cuts at postal facilities across the country, building coalitions with members of Congress; elected officials; community activists, and the public."  Read more.

 
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And the closings go on and on

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The Postal Service has been announcing post office closings for many months now.  Each day sees newspaper accounts of more and more.  Our news feed gets about five closing news items every day, and they all tell the same story—the shock of residents when they hear the news that their post office is closing, the urgent call for town meetings, petition drives, pleas to the postal service to reconsider, fears for the impacts on the business district and the community as a whole.  The Rhinecliff post office has not been put on the closing list, at least not yet.  But the Postal Service has its eye on shutting down at least 2,000 small post offices, and Rhinecliff is just the kind of small rural post office that they're closing.  And if the announced changes in the postal regulations are approved, it will be even easier to close post offices and more likely that Rhinecliff will find itself on the "discontinuance" list one day.  

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Rhinecliff protests the post office closings on YNN TV

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RHINECLIFF, N.Y. — The United States Postal Service is cutting back in many ways, including closing some of its post offices. Recently, there had been some concern the Rhinecliff Post Office would be closing.

Fortunately for local residents, the postal service says it's not closing. Community groups are using this potential scare as a way to bring awareness to the fact that these small community based post offices are necessary and although Rhinecliff isn't on the list of closures, residents are urging others to sign an online petition to protect their local office from closing.

"With 2,000 post offices about to be closed, it’s just the kind of post office that they might want to close because there’s another post office a few miles away. So we're very worried, this is a historical landmark district, it's a historic post office. It’s been here since 1853; in fact its birthday was a few days ago, April 13th,” said Steve Hutkins, Rhinecliff resident.

See the YNN news video here.

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How towns get broken

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No surprise that with email and facebook and twitter and UPS and FedEx, the amount of mail delivered by the post office has gone down in recent years, from 213 billion pieces in 2006 to 170 billion in 2010.  That means declining revenues and cost-cutting measures like maybe no mail delivery on Saturday.  It also means closing something like 2,000 “underperforming” post offices over the coming months.

But closing all these post offices isn’t going to make much of a dent in the deficit of the Postal Service ($8.5 billion in 2010).  And it isn’t going to do anything for the national deficit either.  That’s because the Postal Service gets no direct support from taxpayers.  It is actually a self-sustaining institution—it pays its own way, and when it goes in the red, it has a credit line with the U.S. Treasury.

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“Rightsizing” the post office

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In the current issue of <a data-cke-saved-href=”\\\\” href=”http://postalemployeenetwork.com/news/2011/04/rightsizing-the-usps-network/””>Postal News</a>, Dean Granholm, vice president of Delivery and Post Office Operations, says that new postal regulations, published recently in the Federal Register, expand the criteria for which a Post Office, station or branch may be closed or consolidated.  Granholm says customers already are choosing — and desire — alternatives to visiting a local Post Office. This includes paying for postage online at usps.com, purchasing stamps from ATMs, and vending machines and visiting more than 63,000 other alternate retail locations where stamps may be purchased.  He also says USPS has to rightsize its network and make good business decisions to remain viable.</p> <p>What Granholm doesn’t seem to recongize, however, is the role post offices play in the social life of a community.  They are not simply places to buy stamps.  They are not simply “retail locations.”  And “rightsizing” may have a nice ring to it in the era of fiscal responsibility and budget cuts, but what’s right about the size of your post office when it’s closed down for good?  You’d think a postal service VP would understand that.</p> <p></p>

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The Postal Service wants to make it easier to close post offices

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The Postal Service has filed formal notice through the Federal Register of a proposed change to the Discontinuance (closing) process for Post Offices (39 Code of Federal Regulations).  If approved, this change would allow the Postal Service to make the Rhinecliff Post Office a "retail branch" of the Rhinebeck Post Office, which would make it much easier to close the Rhinecliff P.O.  

The proposal is open to public comment for the next two months.  You can read more about that in the Talking Points provided by the National League of Postmasters, and also see the Action Alert.

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Senate bill could close small post offices

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There's a bill coming up in the Senate that would make it easier to close small rural post offices like Rhinecliff's.  Bill S3831 would eliminate the restriction against closing a post office for solely economic reasons.  That means the Postal Service could set up something like a "closing panel" that would have the power to close any post office it deemed uneconomical.  It would probably mean closing thousands of small rural post offices.  You can read more about the bill and what it would do in this article.

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What you can do

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The plans to close small rural post offices are being done in the name of cutting budgets for fiscal responsibility, but this doesn't really make sound financial sense, and it would be a huge blow to Rhineclifff.   We hope you'll join us in opposing these plans.  The community can make a difference.  Here's what you can do:

First, please add your name to the online petition and write a short comment about what the Rhinecliff post office means to you.  The petition is  here.  We'll publish the comments on the website and send everything to your congress people and the Postal Service.

Next, send an email message to your representatives in Congress asking them to vote against Senate Bill S3831, and send a message to the Postal Regulatory Commission opposing the change in regulations.  You can do emails here.

If you want to write a letter and put a stamp on it, you can find the addresses for your representatives, along with some boilerplate, here.

 If you have any suggestions for this site or the campaign to save the post office, click on the contact link.  You can email your friends telling them about this campaign, here.

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New Deal Post Offices for Sale

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During the New Deal, the federal government built over 1,100 post offices, and many of them are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  According to the National Register website, during the decade of the New Deal the government built three times the number of post offices it had built in the previous 50 years.  Many of these post offices were built by the Public Works administration, and while there was a strong desire to complete projects quickly, "the PWA also stressed the importance of high quality in order to ensure 'public works of an ensuring character and lasting benefits, according to its 1939 report.  That's partly why so many of these post offices are now on the National Register.

The New Deal also commissioned murals and sculptures for many of these post offices, as well as for libraries, schools and other public buildings.  A thousand post offices in the country "continue to house this uniquely American art for people to enjoy as they go about their daily lives" (US Postal Service website).

As Marlene Park and Gerald Markowitz write in Democratic Vistas: Post Office and Public Art in the New Deal, "The New Deal sought to make the national government's presence felt in even the smallest, most remote communities. . .   The post office was 'the one concrete link between every community of individuals and the Federal government' that funtioned 'importantly in the human structure of the community.'"  The post office "brought to the locality a symbol of government efficiency, permanence, service, and even culture."

The US Postal Service is dismantling the institution of the community post office and the rich legacy of the New Deal.  The USPS has announced that it will be closing as many as 2,000 of its 32,000 post offices and auctioning off the buildings.  As of May 2011, about 200 post offices have found themselves on the closing list,  Many of them, like the Century Post Office in Raleigh, are significant historic buildings.  At least 12 of them were built by the New Deal. 

At this rate, something like 120 historic New Deal post offices could be closed and sold.  They will be converted to real estate offices, retail showrooms, and restaurants.  Most are not likely to remain public spaces, and they will certainly not continue to remind citizens of their link to the federal government.  Moreover, while they are almost all located in downtown areas and serve people on foot, their services will usually be consolidated to annexes and office parks on the outskirts of town and require a car.

The director of the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum once said that the New Deal murals "constitute a great national treasure . . . and the buiidings that house these works represent a vaulable and important American asset" (quoted in Preserving the People's Post Office by Christopher Shaw).  It's one thing to close a small, underutilized, retail post-office outlet in a shopping mall, but closing downtown post offices and selling off valuable architectural resources that belong to the public is a shame, and it shouldn't be happening. 

Below are stories about some of the New Deal post offices that have already closed or that may be closed and sold off.

(Photo credits: "Waiting for the Mail," by Grant Christian, 1938, in the Nappannee, IN, Post Office; "Legend of James Edward Hamilton–Barefoot Mailman," byStevan Dohanos, 1940, West Palm Beach, FL, Post Office)


 

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