Monday, December 8, 2014

Historic Post Offices of Louisiana, Part III: Baton Rouge

Oh my goodness, has it been this long since the first two of our trilogy? I had planned to write about how I was harassed by a misinformed U.S. Postal Inspector while taking the photo you'll see below (an Inspector who utilized the words "domestic terrorism" and attempted to get the U.S. Marshals to confiscate my camera; no, that didn't happen)... and then describe the federal lawsuits that have resolved that it's perfectly acceptable to photograph anything visible from a public street, sidewalk, or plaza. But we're better than that. So, onward.

The downtown post office in Baton Rouge, also known as the main office retail unit, is located in a '60s-era Federal Building across the street from the old Main Post Office for Baton Rouge, which now serves as a Federal courthouse. (A third Federal building was constructed in 1990 next door to that.)

Let's take a look at a map of the downtown postal operations in Baton Rouge:

In the map, the 1930s old post office is located at the north side of Florida Street; the 1966 facility you see below, on the south side.

Here is my photo of the '60s post office / federal building taken from across the street. (The Inspector and two ill-trained rent-a-cops can be seen at the right side of the image. Here's the point at which I was about to have a very interesting afternoon.)

Here is a photo of the exact same building taken by a Google Street View car the same month. That car's afternoon was probably less eventful.

There's not too much else to say about the 1966 post office building. It has a large carrier station in the back. The old building (now-just U.S. Courthouse) across the street is much more architecturally interesting. That's partly because I like the architectural flair of the 1930s. The General Services Administration (GSA), which manages the building, describes the nuances of the architecture as well as the building's historical significance. But first, here are a couple of images. The first two are mine from this past April. The next three are from the National Archives collection in College Park, Maryland. The cornerstone demonstrates that construction of the building began in 1932, during the administration of Herbert Hoover. The building was completed the following year, once FDR had taken office.

Baton Rouge, LA: Old Post Office and U.S. Courthouse

Baton Rouge, LA: Old Post Office and U.S. Courthouse Cornerstone

From the National Archives; photos taken upon building completion, May 12, 1933:
Baton Rouge, LA: Old Post Office and U.S. Courthouse, 1933

Baton Rouge, LA: Old Post Office and U.S. Courthouse rear, 1933

Baton Rouge, LA: Old Post Office and U.S. Courthouse detail, 1933

The Neoclassical building was designed by architect Moise Goldstein and built by the firm of Algernon Blair, contractor, whose company was responsible for the construction of at least 20 post office/federal buildings in Louisiana during this era. The building sits on a granite base though is clad in limestone. The total floor area is 57,000 square feet and the building underwent a substantial renovation in 1995.

The building's site has been owned by some government—initially state, then municipal, and finally federal—for nearly 200 years, serving as a state penitentiary, a park, and even a community center.

The GSA writes:
"The passage of the Public Buildings Act of 1926 precipitated a period of building construction that was unprecedented in the United States. The Public Buildings Act specified that the office of the Supervising Architect of the Department of the Treasury would be responsible for the design and construction of all public buildings. Due to the failure of over half the nation's architectural and construction firms in the Depression, many of these buildings were designed and constructed by local firms, as was the Baton Rouge building. Many of the federal buildings of this period exhibit streamlined design and lavishly finished interiors featuring marble and aluminum trim, and well-appointed courtrooms. The Baton Rouge Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is representative of this period of construction in the United States."

The GSA also posts a couple of low-resolution photos, taken 2003, to its website. Interior photography is prohibited within this building, so these images are the best we've got. Here: the ceiling, a pillar, a staircase, and a lamp.

I'll leave you now with a couple of architectural detail photos that I took, once the Marshals correctly determined that, from a legal perspective, everyone should leave the architectural tourist alone! I think the pictures came out quite nicely.

Let's admire the ironwork above the front door:

Now, let's look at the stone eagle above that (which, if you observe closely, looks just as it did 79 years ago in that enhanced photo from the National Archives that appeared earlier!):

Finally, the eagle in its setting above the front door. There's immaculate stone-carving work to accommodate the iron detailing as well!

For the sake of completion, the basement of the massive Louisiana State Capitol building contains a postal station as well. What's interesting about that building is that you can get a great panoramic view of the state capital region (and of one of the largest oil refineries in this hemisphere) from the wraparound terrace of the building's 24th floor.

Baton Rouge, LA: Capitol Station post office:
Baton Rouge, LA: Capitol Station post office

Well, thus concludes this Louisiana postal trilogy. I'll work to update this a couple more times by the end of the year. Until next time,
Evan the Traveler

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Historic Post Offices of Louisiana, Part II:
Thibodaux and Houma

During a trip this spring to Louisiana I came across several historic post office buildings that have since been converted to other uses. Out previous post presented photos of three post office buildings in Plaquemine, Louisiana dating from 1936 to the present. Today we turn to two good-size Bayou towns, Thibodaux and Houma.

Let's rekindle our geographic bearings:

Thibodaux, Louisiana

Thibodaux, population 14-15,000, is the seat of Lafourche Parish and its post office was established in 1840.

The old federal post office building in Thibodaux looks a bit different from most that you've seen before. It was constructed in 1925-6, before the massive New Deal post office construction push—the building is asymmetrical, it has small ventilation windows above the actual windows and its cornerstone is marble. In earlier photos the building is more striking; you'll notice the Spanish tile roof and (presumably) white stucco exterior.

The historic post office building is located at the south side of West 5th Street between St. Louis St. and Green St. However, it no longer serves as such; postal operations were relocated when a new federal building was constructed a bit less than half a mile south along Canal Boulevard, the city's primary north-south thoroughfare. The '20s post office building now serves as an annex facility for the offices of Lafourche County.

Old Thibodaux post office, 2014:

Thibodaux, LA: old post office
Thibodaux, LA: old post office cornerstone

Old (then-new) Thibodaux post office, Jun. 5, 1926:

Thibodaux, LA post office, 1926
Thibodaux, LA post office, 1926 (rear view)

The 'new' federal building along Canal Blvd. between West 9th St. and West 10th St.; the second photo also shows the 1966 Lyndon B. Johnson cornerstone.

Thibodaux, LA post office
Thibodaux, LA post office with cornerstone

Thibodaux also hosts a Contract Postal Unit at Nicholls State University. The operation is housed inside the Donald G. Bollinger Memorial Student Union.

Nicholls State University Contract Postal Unit, Thibodaux, LA

Houma, Louisiana

The county parish seat of Terrebonne Parish in the Bayou received two gorgeous buildings around the city's central square as a result of the New Deal (the south side of Main Street, between Church and Goode): (1) the 1934-5 former post office building and (2) the stately 1937-begun Parish Courthouse.

The old post office building at 7861 Main Street in Houma, LA was constructed in 1934-5 and served until the completion of the Allen J. Ellender Federal Building—a rather standard ugly mid-to-late century building, located a few blocks away, that will disappoint your retinas later in this post.

Here are two photos of the then-recently completed post office building taken May 17, 1935: Houma, LA post office, 1935
Houma, LA post office, 1935 (rear view)

The old post office is privately owned, and for some time served as a nightclub that was appropriately called "The Old Post Office Club." However, when I visited this spring it appeared that the building served no discernible public purpose. That said, the building appeared to be in good shape. Below, photos of the old Houma post office from this year, including photos of the cornerstone and an honorary (nonfunctional) postbox affixed to the right of the building's main entrance.

Old Houma post office, 2014
Old Houma post office cornerstone, 2014
Old Houma post office: old postbox, 2014

Here is the site of the current post office in Houma. The building at left houses various federal offices, while the post office is at the right.

Houma post office, 2014

There are three Contract Postal Units (CPUs) in Houma, but that's the subject for perhaps another post.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Where are They Now?
Historic Post Offices of Louisiana: Plaquemine

During a trip this spring to the Bayou I was able to find and photograph several historic post office buildings in southeast Louisiana along the way from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Each of these offices is no longer occupied by the Postal Service. As an added bonus, I will show you photos of each of these early-century buildings from when they were brand new, using photos recently scanned by yours truly at the National Archives.

As always, here's a map showing where we'll be for this and GP's next couple of posts: the cities of Plaquemine, Houma, Thibodaux, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Plaquemine, Louisiana

Plaquemine, population about 7,000, is the seat of Iberville Parish [Louisiana's equivalent of a county]. Its post office was first established in 1822. Located at 23430 Eden St., the historic 1935-6 Treasury Department-funded (New Deal) post office resides in historic downtown Plaquemine near Bayou Plaquemine [think: river that enters the Mississippi], though the building currently lies opposite a large vacant lot with the massive Saint John the Evangelist Catholic Church looming just beyond.

Historic Plaquemine post office:
Historic Plaquemine, LA post office

Historic Plaquemine, LA post office

The historic building is now occupied by two high-end home décor shops: Cabinets Unlimited, which opened in 1990 and "specialize[s] in beautiful custom cabinets and furniture for new construction or remodels," as well as other custom wood carving products; and Garden On Eden, founded 1999, which specializes in "fine imports from around the world."

Unfortunately, since a lot of Garden of Eden's merchandise is outside the entire front of the property has been enclosed by a several-foot-tall iron fence. This means it's difficult to get up-close and personal with the old building and, for example, get a good look at the cornerstone on the right side of the building. But never fear! Your intrepid postal enthusiast was able to slip his camera at such an angle that he was able to get a couple of good looks for you one late March weekend.

Historic Plaquemine, LA post office

The rather obfuscated post office cornerstone:
Historic Plaquemine, LA post office cornerstone

There was no New Deal artwork in the old Plaquemine post office.

Going Postal suspects that the historic post office was sold as late as 1990, at which point Cabinets Unlimited moved into the New Deal building and a new post office building was constructed. (When exactly? It's not clear at this time. As our friend Kelvin has noted in the comments below, the structure you see here possesses ca. 1970 postal architecture.) Intrepid post office voyager John from Maryland took this photo of the Plaquemine post office in 2000:
ca. 1990 Plaquemine post office

Which brings us to now: The present Plaquemine post office is a USPS-owned facility about a mile south of the historic post office and has been occupied, according to USPS's Owned Facilities Report, since Aug. 2000. It is located just across the train tracks that (and yes, you and your car will have to wait if some cargo is coming through).

Plaquemine post office, 2014

The following never-before-publicized photos of the just-completed historic Plaquemine post office were taken for the U.S. Treasury Department on Nov. 3, 1936.

Plaquemine post office, 1936

Plaquemine post office, 1936

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Yes, Fracking Way: A New Post Office in an Oil Boom Town

It is exceedingly rare in this day and age that the U.S. Postal Service opens a new Post Office. I mean an entirely new, USPS-staffed, postal retail operation. The fact is it just doesn't happen. Sure, there are plenty of 'new' post offices around at new locations; but those are nearly always the result of: a) a consolidation of two retail facilities into one at a different location; b) the downsizing of a post office to a new location within the same ZIP code once its carriers have been moved to a different facility; or c) the reopening of a post office that had previously lost its lease. In other words, very rarely do you see a physical net gain of a postal retail facility when a 'new' post office opens. But a completely new postal retail unit is exactly what the oil boom town of Williston, North Dakota received as the Badlands Postal Store opened on July 1.

(But what, you ask, about all these new Contract Postal Units (CPUs), Staples pretty-much-CPUs, and Village "Post Offices" (VPOs) USPS keeps opening up? No, we're not counting those, because those aren't staffed by actual USPS personnel. The Badlands Postal Store is, and I say USPS's Dakotas District should be commended for not taking the typical 'cheap' route to provide an expansion of postal retail services in Williston.)

Where is Williston, you ask? It's in a very remote corner in what was, before the advent of hydraulic fracturing, a very sleepy part of America. How remote, you ask? The town is more than 600 miles from the nearest million-person population centers. Minneapolis is 620 miles away, about the same distance as Williston is to Calgary up in Canada. Put in East Coast terms, that's the distance from Boston, past New York and D.C., all the way to a point 70 miles south of Richmond, Virginia. But these days Williston is at the center of the U.S.'s hottest job market.

Of course, there's a map for that.

The population of Williston has ballooned from 13,000 in 2009 to more than 20,000 today, and the growth shows no signs of abating. Much of the new development has occurred to either the north or west of the city's core, with particular expansion north along U.S. 2. The location of this new post office reflects this; it resides north of the town's airport, bringing the post office three miles closer to large commercial and industrial developments that have been built north of town over the past few years. Makes sense to me.

Williston, ND Postal Map:

(If you're interested in getting a sense for the recent growth patterns in and around Williston over the past few years, the author recommends studying the 'historical' satellite imagery available on Google Maps, which presently dates as far back as 1995.)

As the city has grown so too have the demands on Williston's post office, with customers fretting over the ever-longer lines and wait times. North Dakota Senators Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven have been championing a new post office in Williston for some time; Minot's KMOT covered the opening and quotes Senator Heitkamp: "We have been struggling for many years. ... We've been trying to get upgrades to the Williston Post Office. As the post office is struggling financially across the country, I think sometimes it's very hard to convince them to make investments in a place where they don't have a lot of familiarity."

Williston's Herald writes that postal service improvements have been made throughout the region, including the addition of 460 post office boxes in Parshall, 90 miles to the east. This said, the author observes that of the ten closest post offices to Williston, several have already been converted to Postmaster-less POStPlan operations: the towns of Trenton, Alexander, Arnegard, and Bainville [MT] now possess four-hour post offices, while Epping and Cartwright have been downgraded to two-hour operations. Should the populations in these smaller communities expand and should additional services be required, would these offices, too, receive reinstated hours and improved treatment?

Back in Williston, the Badlands Postal Store—located at 4315 9th Ave. W, Unit 411—possesses 2,800 P.O. Boxes available for rent. Its inaugural retail operating hours are 9:00am to 4:30pm. The office itself is open 24/7 to enable maximum access to P.O. Boxes as well as a self-service kiosk in the lobby.

(P.S. USPS, if you're reading this, note that your online Locator tool woefully misplaces the Badlands Postal Store on a map. The location is north of the airport, not directly west of the main office downtown! People will get terribly lost if they obey your map.)

Gary S., a friend of Going Postal, visited the Badlands Retail Store on its opening day and provided the following photos and much information for this report.

The Badlands Retail Store is so named because it is resides in the new Badlands Town Center development, which, according to town documents, is to be a 5.5-acre retail center built near what will be a large new housing subdivision and Williston's Walmart. Groundbreaking occurred on June 24, 2013 and stores are slated to open throughout this year. (According to a developer, "100% occupancy" was hoped for "by the second quarter of 2014".) That said, the Badlands Postal Store became the first commercial operation to open in the development on July 1.

The following are opening-day photos.

Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store

Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store

Gary writes: "At first I thought I had the wrong place, as the parking lot was completely deserted, but then I saw the Postal Service banner on the building. I arrived about 2 1/2 hours after the post office opened and not a customer was around. The clerk told me that it had been a slow morning. Obviously, word about the new post office had not gotten out yet. I saw three clerks, they were mostly just getting things straightened away in the building."

There was still clear work to do at the new facility. Only temporary banners were in place let customers know that a post office was open. (The author suspects that a permanent and backlit Sonic Eagle sign will be installed.) The door didn't yet have the stenciled lettering with the name of the post office and its hours of operation. Furthermore, the flagpole and an exterior blue collection box were not yet in place. Finally, there was not yet a postmarking device unique to the facility (only a hand-me-down from the Williston MPO). But with the Postal Service progress takes a little bit of time, and these issues will in all likelihood be resolved by the time the shopping center reaches full commercial steam and customers become more aware of the location.

One of the great things about post office openings is that you're usually allowed to take photographs inside with minimal-to-no hassle, because USPS wants to show the facility off! First-day interior photos at the Badlands Postal Store show a clean, modern facility. All the counters, customer work areas, and waste receptacles feature USPS's current faux-blue marble-atop-wood trim design motif. All work areas featured a complete collection of postal service [Insurance, Certified, etc.] forms. At the retail window three clerk stations were fully set up and ready to serve customers (though, based on the above first-hand observations it will take a while before post office traffic reaches full steam).

Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store customer lobby
Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store

Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store retail counter
Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store

Finally, here is a photo from the P.O. Box area. Relish the background view out the window: it's probably the last time you will see the landscape so comparatively pristine.

Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store P.O. Box area
Williston, ND: Badlands Postal Store

Going Postal hopes to check back with the Badlands Postal Store in a few months, when the post office is more polished and we will likely find a much busier scene.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Texarkana: The Post Office in Two States

Among the more than 31,000 postal retail operations currently active across the U.S., the downtown post office in Texarkana is definitely among the most unique post offices. It makes for a nice, quick visit if you find yourself along this part of I-30.

Texas became the 48th state into which I set foot, on August 5, 2012. It was the first time I'd first set foot into a state on Federal/postal property: the Downtown Station post office of Texarkana—the city that's "Twice as Nice," if you believe the water tower off I-30—is perfectly bisected by the Arkansas/Texas state line. The state line is appropriately marked by State Line Avenue, along which northbound traffic is in Arkansas and southbound traffic is in Texas. This means that the photo below was the effective result of a jaywalking misdemeanor I was able to commit in two states at once. Not that anyone cared—only one car passed me that sweltering [95°] Sunday afternoon, and the driver shrugged off my daring photo op maneuver as old hat.

Let's show you a map and the building in question.

Texarkana downtown map with post office

Texarkana: Downtown Station post office

This federal building is indeed the only one of its kind that physically straddles two states, and it serves as a Federal Courthouse as well. As it turns out its location makes things a bit tricky. You see, the Constitution's Sixth Amendment dictates that "the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed." Meaning, if you commit a crime in Arkansas, you must be tried by a jury of your Arkansas peers. You'd also have to be tried in Arkansas. Similarly in Texas. So what's the architect behind a federal courthouse in Texarkana to do? Well, you could build two distinct courthouses, one on each side of the state line, or you could save the government a whole lot of money by just constructing one courthouse, physically along the state line. Inside the building, the courtrooms for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas lay within the western side of the building fully within Texas; while courtrooms for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas are fully within Arkansas. Savvy, no?

The United States Courts website thoroughly discusses the nuances of this situation.

A historic marker at the building reads: "Each state [Arkansas and Texas] had separate post offices until 1892," at which point the first joint post office was constructed on the state line. That building was demolished in 1930, and the present structure, constructed on the same site, was completed in 1933. "The base is of Texas pink granite while walls are of limestone from Arkansas," the marker continues.

As these two old postcards show, the two sides like to have a little fun with each other...
Texarkana: Ass in Arkansas

Texarkana: Ass in Texas

Inside the postal lobby (according to my sources; alas, the lobby is locked on Sundays), the postal retail counter is located on the Texas side of the state line, while PO Boxes (with separate sections for Texas and Arkansas box mail) are located on the Arkansas side of the line. According to the General Services Administration (or GSA, which operates the building and runs this thorough webpage describing the architecture and renovations of the building): Although the postal lobby, located immediately beyond the first floor elevator lobby, has undergone repeated modifications since construction, including the introduction of an inappropriate post office box "hut" and customer corral, it retains much of its original character.

Many photos of the building are available at the GSA's website, though only one includes the post office lobby and the aforementioned "PO Box hut". Sadly, the photos, taken in 2003, were taken with a shoddy camera and are of subpar quality. But, they're all we've got and nonetheless one can get a basic sense of the postal lobby with this picture:

GSA photograph: Texarkana post office interior

From the looks of it one might need to pass through security to enter the postal lobby. It is possible that packages being mailed at the facility must be scanned by security, as is the case at Providence, Rhode Island's downtown Annex Station post office, which also houses federal court facilities.

There are other notes of postal interest as well. For example, the postal management center (District) responsible for the operations in Texarkana—Texas and Arkansas, is based in Dallas. USPS's Dallas District is responsible for the operations for every ZIP code in [northeastern] Texas beginning with '75', and only those ZIP codes, except that it also oversees operations within the 71854 ZIP code for Texarkana, Arkansas. Every other ZIP code in Arkansas is subservient to USPS's Arkansas District.

I think it's interesting to see how Texarkana plays out in the postmark arena.

Here's a Texarkana cancellation from 1966 that uses the city's Texas ZIP code:
Texarkana Postmark 1966

... and a more recent cancellation that uses Texarkana's Arkansas ZIP code:
Texarkana Postmark 2006

This postmark, from a since-discontinued carrier annex in Texarkana's Texas half, keeps things simple:
Texarkana, USA Carrier Annex postmark, 2006

There are just a handful of analogous administrative crossover instances in the country, most of which involve communities in Appalachia, including: Bristol, TN/VA (whose three Tennessee ZIP codes are not managed by the USPS's Tennessee District, as one would expect, but rather by the neighboring Appalachian District); South Williamson, KY 41503 (managed by Appalachian instead of the expected Kentuckiana, based on its ZIP code); and South Fulton, Tennessee 38257 (Kentuckiana instead of Tennessee). In a similar vein, Fishers Island is the only community in New York that has a Connecticut ZIP code, 06390, owing to the fact that the Fishers Island ferry that carries the town's mail is based in Connecticut. But that's another post.

Texarkana's [now-]downtown post office served as a regional mail processing hub until its operations were moved into a rather generic building on the Texas side of town in 1971. The building's address is 2211 N. Robison Rd., 75501.

Texarkana: Main Post Office

As a result of USPS's Area Mail Processing program both originating (to-be-cancelled) and destinating (to-be-delivered) Texarkana mail now gets processed in Shreveport, Louisiana, 70 miles away.

Postmark scans used in this entry were kindly provided by Kelvin Kindahl from his personal collection.