Sending Love Letters to ASU for Keeping the North Central Avenue Post Office
I fall in love with old buildings.
There's that odd little Flintstonian office building at Third Street and Clarendon, whose comically prehistoric rock-and-mortar façade stole my heart years ago. For a while, I had as my screensaver a photograph of the impossibly tiny stone cottage I drive past when I'm visiting Provence. And there's the little clapboard Victorian in Ohio that I fell hard for in 1976, whose dilapidated beauty I attempted to capture that year in an awesomely awful acrylic painting.
In Phoenix, my heart belongs to the downtown post office at 522 North Central Avenue. I love the stone steps leading up to the front door, over which a giant lantern sways in front of an elaborate glass-and-grillwork that's framed by concrete columns on either side. Inside there are ancient (and rather cheesy) Southwestern-themed murals, commissioned in 1938 by the Fine Arts Section of the Treasury Department and painted by La Verne Black and Oscar E. Berninghaus, that I always breeze past on my way to the rows of ancient P.O. boxes with their coppery metal doors, oversize keyholes, and little glass windows etched with gold and red numbers in an old-timey font.
Built between 1932 and 1936, the two-story structure's maiden name is The Phoenix Federal Building, as its construction was part of a massive federal program undertaken in an attempt to forestall the Great Depression. The gorgeous Spanish Colonial Revival building, which opened to the public in 1936 and housed the city's main post office for more than 30 years, is the only federal building from the period still standing here. And I love it. I go out of my way to drive past it, especially early in the day, when one can park in front of this big, beautiful building and ogle like mad.
Of course, I panicked when I read a couple of years ago that ASU had purchased the building for use in its new downtown campus. It would serve as a gathering place for students as well as housing the administrative offices of some ASU executives and the ASU police.
I assumed this meant that all the glass-topped, scrolled-metal mailing tables would be ripped out and replaced with computer stations so that 20-somethings could Twitter and Facebook; that those clever little glass-door post boxes would be yanked away to make room for iPod stations and study carrels.
I felt like my lover had run off with a teenager.
I called Donna Spini, the post office's customer-relations coordinator, to ask when ASU would commence gutting one of my favorite buildings, but she seemed confused.
"What are you talking about?" Spini asked me. "ASU wants us here."
It turns out that for the past 40 years or so, the post office has only ever leased the lobby of this building. The offices that now house ASU faculty were used by county marshals and district court judges. By the time ASU acquired the building, the post office had already outgrown the facility. After the university moved in, the only change made was the shifting of local carrier service from downtown to a nearby branch at 14th Street and Buckeye. And the only future modifications ASU has planned are designed to benefit postal customers, not to alter or deface the interior of this historic structure.
"The window section will probably get new counters," Spini mused, "and we've asked for a handicap stall for visitors who are doing business from a wheelchair."
ASU has also approved every restoration effort the postal service has requested, even agreeing not to pull out my fave vintage glass-front postal boxes, despite ASU's fears that the little windows promote identity theft.
"It seems like the stars are all coming together on this project," Spini says. "ASU is backing us on our plan to keep the post office here in all its original beauty. Sometimes, you can have your cake and eat it, too."
It's true. I know this because I'm writing this column from the living room of that old Victorian in Ohio, which I bought about 10 years ago. Which I guess makes the downtown post office my mistress, or something.
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