Berkeley’s main Post Office: Wake up to what we’re losing

Even given the generally high quality of U.S. post offices, Berkeley’s downtown one is a standout. The building has got charisma to spare. And that’s why I was shocked when I read Steve Finacom’s Daily Planet article on June 25 that the U.S. Postal Service had put it up for sale.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, since I’ve been watching the USPS’s accelerating fire sale of historic and architecturally distinguished post offices on the indispensable Save the Post Office website for over a year, giving special attention to the large number of public buildings thrown onto the market in California.

In addition, the USPS Properties for Sale website, displaying some of our property pending for sale, makes no distinction between large and hideous mail-sorting facilities and downtown gems even if — like Berkeley’s — they are designated landmarks and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For the USPS, and its designated real estate agent, it’s all just real estate as the Postal Service progressively liquidates itself.

Nearly a century ago, the Supervising Architect of the Treasury gave Berkeley something special, a colonnaded building modeled on Brunelleschi’s famous Foundling Hospital in Florence. Built in 1914 at the same time as the Campanile, the post office was intended to harmonize with the stately neoclassical buildings that John Galen Howard was designing for the State University just a block away, as well as with San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition then nearing completion across the Bay.

Over the years, it has managed to escape the tacky remodelings that the USPS has inflicted on its other historic properties. Its high-ceilinged lobby, marble, oak, and brass fittings, and its two New Deal artworks are a far cry from the vestigial retail outlet that the USPS has said will replace it in unspecified leased space once our post office is off its hands.

As with elsewhere in the U.S., the announcement that the public’s property would soon be up for grabs was made by fiat with virtually no public notice and no consultation with the community that depends upon the services that the building provides.

Berkeley has begun to wake up to what it is about to lose and is asking why and for whom. Two events will inform the community. On Sunday, July 15, a meeting was held at the Berkeley Arts Festival Gallery. And on Friday, July 20 at 7:30 pm, the city is invited to learn more about what is at stake here and elsewhere at the Hillside Club and to prepare for the July 24 City Council meeting when the Council will consider a measure asking the USPS to rescind its sale of what we all own.

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Dr. Gray Brechin is an architectural historian, geographer, and long-time Berkeley resident. He is the Vice President of the National New Deal Preservation Association and author of "Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin."