Given the U.S. Postal Service’s significant role in the nation’s founding, it’s probably not surprising that it owns a number of historic properties. But when the historic institution needs to modernize and optimize its network of postal facilities, how should it handle its historic properties? This has proved an especially volatile question for those citizens most directly affected. A property is eligible for historic status if it meets the National Register criteria, which involve the property’s age, integrity, and significance. That doesn’t mean the property can never be sold or renovated, just that the Postal Service must follow certain regulations to consider the effects of its actions and engage in a consultative process to resolve negative impacts. Complicating the matter, the Postal Service can't readily determine how many of the 9,000 properties it owns (in its portfolio of 32,000 properties managed) are historic. It sold 22 historic properties between October 2010 and June 2013. As of last summer, it had another 25 historic properties up for sale and was considering selling another 28.

The sale or attempted sale of these properties has caused a firestorm of protest and resistance in some communities. Historic properties evoke strong emotions because the building or structure touches people in many ways. They are often seen as a connection with our past and a lesson for future generations. Combine these passions with the attachment that many people have to their local post offices, and it’s easy to see why the sale of historic post offices can be a lightning rod. Another factor is that some of these post offices were built during President Roosevelt’s New Deal and are decorated with murals and other artwork of the era. Citizens worry that they will lose access to the works of art inside.

The Postal Service is an institution in a time of change. It faces significant financial challenges as it attempts to right-size its network so it has the optimal number of facilities for its current mail volume – an amount that has declined since 2007. Occasionally, it will dispose of a historic property as part of its network optimization goals. Our recent audit report reviewed the Postal Service’s management of the preservation and disposal of historic properties and we found numerous areas for improvement. Notably, the Postal Service did not know how many historic properties it owned or what it cost to preserve them. Also, it did not collaborate with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to improve its preservation regulations compliance.

The Postal Service finds itself with competing obligations: Operating a less-expensive network to improve its financial footing versus the preservation of culture, history, and art. What do you think is the best solution? If it is to preserve these buildings, how should they be paid for?

Comments (11)

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  • anon

    Thanks for your post

    May 16, 2014
  • anon

    At the very least, the USPS should be allowed to give back such historical assets to the federal government when they no longer serve a business purpose. I understand the value of historic assets, but it shouldn't be in the postal services business plan to delivery mail and run museums. The Federal government can decide if they wish to preserve them, assign them to another agency or sell them to the public. It need not be a decision of the postal service

    May 14, 2014
  • anon

    On cloud computing I think you should update and catch up with Tech. On selling off assets I say no! don't sell. I fell that the postal service has a place in our future, Congress needs to step in and fix the postal problems. The American will never give up there Postal Service System.

    May 12, 2014
  • anon

    In his testimony to Congress on the Emergency Relief Appropriation and the Public Works Administration Appropriation Acts of 1938, Mr. Purdum of the United States Postal Service stated "The people of our country appreciate what Congress and the National Government has done with respect to the erection of Federal Buildings, and that appreciation comes from the people, regardless of race, creed, condition, or party affiliation. The Postal Service is the only Federal activity that brings the people of our land in direct contact with the National Government every day of their lives." To which U.S. Representative Edward T. Taylor (Colorado), Chair of the Committee on Appropriations, responded, "They see the American flag flying over the post office." "That is right," replied Mr. Purdum. Many of us today still deeply experience the appreciation of the federal post office architecture and the democratic nature of the USPS so aptly conveyed by Mr. Purdum in 1938. However, the United States Postal Service (USPS) of today seems to have lost sight of its stewardship and preservation responsibilities. The pro forma nature of the USPS' environmental review process shows the USPS' disregard, perhaps even disdain, for the public. Severing the public's connection with its history, its architecture, and its art is a significant environmental impact that the USPS has refused to recognize. The USPS needs to seriously analyze alternatives that will keep an operating USPS presence in its historic buildings while maintaining public ownership and public access. To accomplish this, the USPS could lease excess space to other federal or local government agencies or to nongovernmental organizations with compatible uses. Two other less desirable alternatives would be: 1) the USPS could hold ownership of the significant public portions of its historic properties with a condominium arrangement and continue to conduct its face-to-face business with the public in that portion of the historic property, or 2) the USPS could cede its historic properties to the National Park Service (NPS) so that a willing State or local government could purchase the property for $1.00 under an existing NPS program, with a condition/covenant that the significant public portions of the post office be leased back to the USPS in perpetuity. Thank you for your continuing investigation and the opportunity to comment.

    May 12, 2014
  • anon

    The Postal Service can't deliver the mail in a cost effective manner AND maintain these historic buildings in the fashion they deserve. From the Top to the Bottom, there is not one postal employee who wants to get rid of these historic buildings. However, the USPS is consistently pressured to cut back and reduce costs. These historic beauties deserve the love and attention to keep them preserved, but the USPS just can't do it anymore. They need to stay focused and deliver the mail. Everyone wants to privatize the Postal Service, but yet you won't let go. The US Postal Service is a great company, and some day you will all agree.

    May 12, 2014
  • anon

    Historic assets are owned by the people of these United States. They should not be sold for the purpose of allowing outside interests to benefit from taxpayers funds. It has been clearly stated in the ACHP investigation of the disposition of these historic post office buildings that the covenants are not enforceable. If a post office contains New Deal artworks then those works are "loaned" by the USPS to the new owner. In the case of the Bronx GPO and its incredible Ben Shahn murals, that means that the developer would have the benefit of $13 Million worth of art for NO compensation - the building purchase price is claimed to be around $12 Million. Why doesn't the USPS manage excess space in their facilities as does the GSA? Instead of consolidating services or looking for outside compatible uses to occupy these buildings they are just discarding them. It is contrary to several Executive Orders relating to historic buildings and spits in the face of the public who cherishes them, paid for and built them.

    May 10, 2014
  • anon

    Many of the historic post offices across the country were constructed not just to deliver postal services, but to establish a landmark federal presence in the community and to create distinctive and confident assets for these places during very uncertain times (ie The Depression). Also, these buildings were used as the logical repositories for a magnificent collection of American artworks commissioned explicitly to serve, and be readily accessible, to the (often downtrodden) public. As such, historic post offices carry a much more implicit mission for the public interest than simply providing mail functions. Were it not for the universal democratic nature of the Post Office throughout America, much of the cost and energy to provide and adorn these civic amenities might have instead been directed elsewhere. So, rather than historic properties being viewed as belonging to USPS to do with as they see fit, a more accurate reading would be that the Postal Service was tapped (for better or for worse) to be the agent for the federal government providing significant architecture and art to communities by the most logical and democratic means available at the time. The responsibility of stewardship and preservation that this confers should not be lost upon the modern-day USPS when counting numbers based solely on revenue and mail distribution channels.

    May 07, 2014
  • anon

    The U.S. Arsenal in my town was sold by the army and they put a preservation easement on the property which safeguards the historic elements of the property. In this way, it was able to dispose of the property AND ensure it's long-term preservation. It's difficult from my standpoint to feel sorry for the Postal Service. It received these buildings for free in the early 1970s. Maintaining them shouldn't be a question that has arisen recently.

    May 01, 2014
  • anon

    You have created a false dichotomy - financial footing versus historic preservation. The National Park Service faces budget deficits, too. Shall we privatize national monuments? What is also left out is that there are political forces in league with corporate interests trying to privatize the post office. There are many ways to improve the bottom line of the USPS but selling off our national heritage should not be one of them.

    Apr 28, 2014
  • anon

    There should be some kind of local announcements on the historic property persay alot of people end up really lost from things not making it to them always constantly moving. As for the post office i think our world has gotten too comfortable with having mail sent from buisnesses or other places that leave no paper trail and in order to stay professional every bit of merchant or distribution types of postage should be regulated and the general guidelines should be properly put in order to be sure to maintain our civil libertys as citizens in this world not just in the united states. Time has come swift with accuracy on many of things but theres no reason why we should not have the countrys moast valuable documents owned by the government prtected by places like the post office but theres no backup paper documents saying what our country is all about. Yet we need answers to questions like how would the poast office pay there employees if they hold onto historic documents. Do we rilly rilly want to see this union fall to peaces through the internet. NO we need to have those strategys put to play and places like the city librarys or our poast office or newspaper to be strictly mandated to carry city statistics and local gov official documents. So we dont end up being ran down by simple logistics. And "Terrorist" just look around what do you rilly see when you look at your hometown and people you know where isnt there a nightmare.

    Dec 30, 2014
  • anon

    I'm with Mr. Smith -- and want to add that this is not a yes/no situation -- we must find ways the National Park Service, the USPS, and those of us who want to preserve our heritage can all win--if not, we will all lose. I wish I could add to these comments some practical ideas for how this might work, but I'm sure there are solutions there is those who are more in the "know" than I will have an honest dialogue and negotiation. Get people involved outside of those yelling for privatization of our postal service.

    May 05, 2014

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