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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 4.15.2010

 

Post-Post Office Space

What should happen to the $2.5 million Art Deco building?

by Suzi Steffen

For sale: One historic downtown U.S. post office, Carl Morris murals and all.

In a town whose record of preserving historic buildings downtown hovers in the range of dismal to horrifying, the sale of the post office leaves nightmares in the heads of politicians, art-lovers and fans of history.

Located in what was then the heart of the city, the 1939 building began as a solid example of town-hall democracy and civic connectedness, but it now sports a Northland Realty sign. The threat of losing public access to some of this architectural and artistic gem has Eugene-area folks doing everything from sending letters and emails to Congressman Peter DeFazio to asking the City Council for help to starting preservation groups through the mayor’s Facebook page. But with a recession on and a hole in the city budget, the next move is unclear. 

Who will buy the post office? Who would renovate the space? What could the building at 520 Williamette become? Ideas abound, but several factors stand as obstacles for the most popular plans. 

 

A Public Jewel

Local artists, art historians, politicians and preservationists worry about everything from losing public access to the two WPA-era Carl Morris murals to dealing with another vacant building downtown, albeit one whose architectural details and interior art make it more than just another piece of property.

“I think [the post office] is one of our jewels,” City Council member Alan Zelenka said at an April 12 City Council meeting. “We have done a terrible job in this community of saving our heritage and our history, especially our architectural history.” 

That doesn’t mean Zelenka or other city officials think the city of Eugene should buy the building. “We have a $6 million budget hole,” Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy said in an interview. 

At the April 12 meeting, Zelenka said, “I don’t know that there’s anything the city can do, but I’d like to see it stay as the historic building it is now.” The post office was listed on the National Register of Historic Properties in 1986, with its unique exterior details and Morris murals giving the impetus for protection.

Because buildings on the Register require specific maintenance and permissions for remodeling, any new owner would have to commit to keeping the structure in good condition. A query about the post office on Eugene Weekly’s Facebook site garnered several ideas, with a majority saying that the building should become art museum, art gallery or combination art gallery/museum/social space (and a significant minority wanting a McMenamins movie theater to move in). Local artist Paula Goodbar suggested that the building become “a focal point for ‘Old Town Eugene.’” That’s a suggestion arts advocate Marc “Time” Gunther brought up at the City Council meeting as well.

The area around the post office isn’t necessarily Old Town-y, however. Bob Hart, the director of the Lane County Historical Society and Museum, said, “It’s certainly not going to be a Main Street project or anything like that.” Part of the reason for that is Hwy. 99 running through downtown, and part is the postal service itself. 

The USPS also leases a large lot behind the old building. The lot wraps around from 5th Avenue to Olive Street and has a bit of space on 6th Avenue as well. The blue-roofed building on that privately owned lot serves as a space for distribution and maintenance for post office trucks, cars and vans. It’s not exactly Old Town-attractive. 

 

Why Can't It Stay?

“The back of the building can go away as far as I’m concerned. It’s just a giant warehouse,” Zelenka said to laughter from other members of the council.

But the back lot won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, according to Ron Anderson, customer relations coordinator of the Portland Postal District. The postal service plans to keep on leasing that portion, and as a matter of fact, would like to lease back the lower floor of the historic building for a couple of years as well, keeping both the teller windows and the post office boxes as central town services for Eugeneans. Anderson said that those services would move to another, unspecified downtown site after the USPS moves out of the 1939 building.

Many people would like the space to remain what it is right now. “We want it to be a post office,” said Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy. “I think there’s a waiting list for post office boxes.” 

As Anderson said, new, leased space would contain post office boxes, but in the historic building, form may be as important as function. Tina Rinaldi has been an arts administrator in Eugene for years and now serves as the program manager for the UO’s Arts and Administration program. She said that many Eugeneans have sentimental associations with the post office, herself included. “When I moved to Eugene in 1993, while I was buying a house, I got a post office box, and I just kept it.” Rinaldi let her box go a few years ago, but she asked the question that EW heard from many people: “Why can’t it continue to be a post office?”

The emotional attachment comes from more than a post office box experience, said Larry Fong, curator at the UO’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. “These public buildings were significant because they [became] the core of the city center, the city plaza,” he said. The government that built WPA-era post offices “thought — not too dissimilar from a library — that there’s always going to be an assemblage of people coming in and going out.” 

At the April 12 meeting, Piercy acknowledged that even though she and most of the council would like for the post office to remain a post office, the assemblage of people isn’t around as much anymore. “The world has changed,” Piercy said. “We communicate in new ways.” 

In 2009, mail volume dropped by nearly 26 billion pieces, the USPS said in an explanation of its proposal to move to five-day-a-week delivery service (online at http://wkly.ws/ho). Selling a building that used to serve as a public plaza would barely scratch the billions of dollars in lost revenue from that kind of decline, and money is not what the USPS gives as its reason for wanting to get out of Eugene’s main building. 

“We’re putting it up for sale because it’s on the national historical register,” Anderson said, in a late March interview. “We’ve dramatically changed the way we process and deliver mail, and that’s necessitated a different configuration of floor space, [but] we can’t alter the building to use mechanized sorting equipment.”

Bob Hart, executive director of the Lane County Historical Society and Museum, said that Anderson’s take is not quite accurate. “That’s a myth about National Register properties. There are things you can change, particularly inside,” he said. In the case of this post office, the lobby floor, ceiling and three of the walls — including where the Carl Morris murals are located — are protected. The office space upstairs, the teller windows and the post office boxes, which are not the original boxes, could all be altered or taken out entirely. 

 

The Autzen of the Arts

Hart knows all of this intimately because the Historical Society took a good long look at the property, including several visits with tape measure in hand to find out whether the space could accommodate the museum’s collections.

Another myth, Hart says, is that the city of Eugene has to approve any sale of the post office because of its historic status. Still, any major changes to the building would have to be approved by city  Historic Preservation Planner Ken Guzowski. Guzowski explained, “If a new owner wishes to make any major alterations to the U.S. Post Office, the old building, [the review process] does pertain to the exterior of the old building, and there’s a historic alteration review for the lobby as well.” 

The Register designation requires upkeep on the outside to keep the masonry in top condition and climate control on the interior to ensure that the murals stay in good shape.

That might seem like the purview of an arts organization, though the money for preservation could be a problem. Tina Rinaldi said that many people in Eugene’s various arts communities reacted strongly when they heard the post office would be up for sale. 

Marc Time was certainly one of those. Along with artists Katie and Sean Äaberg (Sean created the Weekly’s cover last week), Time began posting photos and comments about the post office on his Facebook page. At a March meeting for those interested in the Eugene Storefront Art Project, Time talked about sending letters to Congressman Peter DeFazio, which Piercy said that the city had also done. In early April, artist Jerry Ross also sent a letter to DeFazio. DeFazio’s staff seems to be mildly interested in the issue, according to emails Ross released to EW.

In early April, Ross asked Piercy, who has about 1,300 friends on Facebook, to post to her page about his desire to “form a citizen’s committee seeking to purchase the historical downtown post office for use as a City of Eugene Art/Historical Museum.” Comments began to pile up, and the mayor posted a comment of her own asking those interested to contact Ross at his email address (ross@rio.com). “It would take a huge effort to make this a reality,” she wrote, “and a funding source.”

Ross knows it’s a long shot. “It’s wishful thinking,” he said, but he thinks the city manager should get involved. “Nobody in the city government has really stepped forward to say we’ll coordinate this with DeFazio’s office.”

Still, Ross’ new committee — Post Office into Eugene Museum, or POEM — has new members as a result of Piercy’s posting, and Ross has been energetic in his pursuit of DeFazio’s help. He also thinks the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art should take a look at the space. “We would need to raise millions of dollars for remodeling, making it seismically secure, but look, they’ve raised money; look what they do for Autzen Stadium,” he said. 

So should the UO’s big athletics donor get involved? Ross doesn’t think Phil Knight would be interested, but, he said, “There’s other families [with money] out there.” 

 

The Arts Decline

Back to the Lane County Historical Society and Museum. Would the space work? In a mid-March meeting, Hart said, the members and the board decided against the post office. For one thing, their stagecoach just wouldn’t fit through any of the doors — which are an issue for everyone who’s looked at the building. 

Hart said that he now would issue a caveat to the decision: If the USPS leaves both lots, and the back lot comes up for sale by the private LLC that owns it, the society would consider buying both. “If that were available, it would give us a campus and not just a building,” he said. He added that the old loading dock in the post office was bricked up but isn’t part of the Register listing. That dock could be reopened if the new owners had the money and got approval.

The Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts (DIVA) needs a new space after DIVA and the Lord Leebrick couldn’t come to terms for its current building. The post office seems almost perfect, at least in terms of location. “Because of the wonderful art in there, it could be a really great arts destination,” said Mary Unruh, DIVA’s executive director. “It’s got some potential,” she added, “but it’s not the best space.”

Unruh said DIVA is “not looking seriously” at the space, partly because of the back lot and partly because of money. But with the murals, the space remains quite a draw.

 

Populist Art

Without the Eugene post office’s two murals, Carl Morris wouldn’t have moved to Oregon. Former Oregonian arts editor Barry Johnson, who wrote the catalog essay for the Portland Art Museum’s 1993 “Carl Morris Paintings 1939-1992,” said in a recent interview that Morris was living in Seattle in the late 1930s. Like many other artists during the Great Depression, he was desperate for work when he applied for the Works Progress Administration commission for the new post office. 

“He found out he got [the commission] on Dec. 7, 1941,” Johnson said. WWII began for the U.S. that day after the Pearl Harbor bombings, but for Carl and his wife Hilda, it was the start of a new era as they moved to Portland, where Hilda found work as an art professor at the Museum Art School (now the Pacific Northwest College of Art, PNCA), and Carl worked on the two figurative, social realist murals for the north and south walls of the post office lobby. Morris and some friends installed the murals — Agriculture and Lumbering — in 1943.

Johnson, along with many people in Eugene, mentioned the J-Schnitz as a possible owner and tenant for the post office. 

“It would offer greater accessibility,” said curator Larry Fong about a downtown site. Fong said that many people wish the museum were open later, had better parking or were downtown. The J-Schnitz would benefit from having the murals along with its other Morris works. WPA murals in general were “a significant recognition of the livelihood of a community and its relationship to art,” Fong said, “and, in this case, Carl Morris’ extraordinary talents to express something tangible to the people living here at the time.” 

Jerry Ross doesn’t want the murals under the control of a private developer. “Those murals, as far as I’m concerned, need to be public property,” he said. “They were done during the WPA, and I feel like they’re part of the public domain.”

Johnson said that art done during the WPA “was for the people. It was the quintessential populist art.” If the building were bought by a private developer and kept off-limits to the public, he said, it would be heartbreaking. “Making it exclusive in any way is against the philosophy of Carl as a painter and the WPA. It would be tragic if it didn’t get to continue to fulfill that public mission.”

 

Pie In The Sky

J-Schnitz director Jill Hartz also knows how significant the murals are. “Our concern here is the preservation of the Morris murals,” she said. Indeed, the museum has been looking for a second space, possibly downtown, possibly a place where contemporary artists could work or have studios. But the post office won’t serve, she said. For one thing, the older building may have seismic and HVAC issues, Hartz said. She added that accredited museums have to adhere to security, climate and a variety of other guidelines that make it hard to partner with other organizations. 

The bigger problem for the J-Schnitz stems from the same cause that’s slowing everybody down. “We have no money,” she said. “It’s pie in the sky, sure, but we are not in a position here to be a player in any way.”

What about arts organizations in Eugene banding together, with the support of the city and DeFazio’s office, to buy and renovate the building as a center for the arts? Mary Unruh of DIVA said that a renovated space could work “for what I would see as a wonderful art central kind of space for Eugene where you’d have a museum, gallery and classrooms.”

The art center idea’s a good one, Barry Johnson agreed. “Maybe there’s an exhibit, but there’s a lot of instruction going on,” he said. “A making center instead of a viewing center: That would be in the spirit of the WPA for sure.”

The building itself would cost a buyer $2.5 million, and renovation estimates range up to $10 million. Mayor Piercy, like Hartz, thinks the building probably isn’t energy-efficient and would need seismic and HVAC retrofitting. 

“It would take somebody with a really creative vision and access to a lot of money,” Tina Rinaldi said. “Those of us in arts and culture would like it to be an arts center. But who’s got the money for that right now?”

Jerry Ross wants to keep hope alive. “I don’t have the power myself; I don’t have deep pockets,” he said. “I’m just blowing on the embers, keeping them alive, hoping to start a big fire.”