Regarding the sale and preservation of historic post offices and their art: An open letter to the Inspector General

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Last summer, the USPS Office of Inspector General announced that it was doing an audit investigation on the preservation and disposal of historic post offices.  The audit was due out in October, but the release has been postponed until later this year.  The audit announcement itself has been removed from the OIG’s website, but there’s an archived version with some of the comments that had been received here.

Gray Brechin, Project Scholar of The Living New Deal Project at U.C. Berkeley, has been lecturing, writing, and organizing to stop the sale of historic post offices, many of them built during the New Deal.  He recently submitted comments to the OIG concerning the audit.  Here’s Dr. Brechin’s letter to the IG.

Dear Inspector General Williams:

The USPS is, effectively, selling the public’s art collection along with the historic buildings for which it should be a responsible steward.  Although these works of art that were commissioned by the U.S. Treasury and paid for by American taxpayers — including architecture — are theoretically protected by preservation covenants held by third parties, in many instances such as Venice, CA, Birmingham, MI, and Palm Beach, FL, they are no longer freely accessible to the public and have thus become the de facto possessions of those who have bought the buildings containing them.

Moreover, virtually no consideration has been given to the fact that these unique works of art were commissioned for specific places and spaces.  Thus, to radically change the function of the building for which they were intended — to convert a public postal lobby into an office building, for example — diminishes their worth. This is especially the case if, as so many murals and sculptures do, the art commemorates the history of the postal service and the often heroic work of its employees.

The art works were also not designed to be portable, so moving them to other locations — as in Ukiah, CA, and Bethesda, MD — also diminishes their value, especially if they were designed to have a sequential narrative that may be scrambled once removed from the space for which they were intended.  In a case such as “America Under the Palms” in the Princeton, NJ post office, the artist designed the mural to accommodate architectural features such as a postmaster’s door and/or a vaulted ceiling that will ill suit any other location to which the art might be moved.

Furthermore, although I believe that Dallan Wordekemper has been conscientious in his attempts to restore art works and locate those that have been lost, the parameters of his employment as both Real Estate Specialist and Federal Preservation Officer pose a conflict of interest in which the demands of the former may override those of the latter, especially when his superiors in the USPS are monetizing the public’s assets in order to sell them.

As Jill Korte has remarked in her comments on this audit: “The Federal Preservation Officer (FPO) appears to have sole discretion in deciding whether New Deal artwork in U.S. Post Offices may be removed, sold, lent, or otherwise disposed of.  There is a total lack of transparency.  USPS staff and the general public cannot possibly determine from [USPS] Handbook RE-1 the basis upon which the USPS FPO decides it is proper to remove, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of post office New Deal artwork.”

As with so much else in the current management of the USPS, these decisions that seriously affect the public’s interest and property are made in total opacity with no chance of appeal.

Finally, it has long been my worry that the USPS would — using the excuse of the fiscal exigencies imposed upon it by Congress — sell those artworks since its management claims to own them.  The public must have access to the appraised value of the artworks apparently compiled by the USPS.

As to the question posed in the audit announcement, “Considering its financial constraints, what should the Postal Service’s role be in maintaining historic assets?” it should engage in long-term leases rather than sales of surplus space to insure a continual revenue stream while maintaining essential retail services in the buildings for which those services were intended.  It should also offer more services — such as postal banking — rather than less and poorer in demeaning spaces.

The current contraction of services under PMG Donahoe is nothing less than an engineered death spiral that will result in the liquidation of the USPS, including the historic assets that it should hold in trust for those who paid for them.

Sincerely,

Gray Brechin, Ph.D.

Project Scholar, The Living New Deal Project
Department of Geography, U.C. Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720

(Photo credit: Edward Biberman’s “Story of Venice” mural, from the Venice, California post office, now under restoration by the new owner of the building, Joel Silver, and to be available for viewing “by appointment”)

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