Much More Than Mail: Old Post Office Building Reveals Intrigue and Complexity of a Federally-Owned Landmark Property

Article excerpt

There's a lot to be said for a building that has survived not one, but two attempts to demolish it.

The Old Post Office Building in Washington, D.C. was completed in 1899. Located in the Federal Triangle, it was the first building erected on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. Originally it was the headquarters of the Post Office Department, but today the historic landmark is a mixed-use building with more than 450 federal agency office tenants and 32 food and retail vendors.

PRESERVATION KEEPS BUILDING

The nine-story granite building's 315-foot clock tower is its defining feature. It was the first major steel frame building built in Washington and was the second tallest structure in the city when it was built, exceeded only by the Washington Monument.

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The massive scale, rusticated granite base and arched openings reflect the Romanesque Revival style, yet the building also contains other design influences like the Byzantine sculptural capitals, French Gothic dormers and roof sculpture, and French Renaissance detailing.

While the Old Post Office Building is currently a protected national landmark, its fate was not always secure. In 1928, the McMillan Commission Plan for the development of the Federal Triangle called for the demolition of the property because it did not conform stylistically to the classical Beaux Arts design concept favored by the commission, according to information from the U.S. General Services Administration, which manages the building. However, lack of funding due to the Great Depression saved the building.

But, in 1964, the building found itself at risk again with plans to level the building, preserving only the clock tower. This time, a campaign by a local preservationist group called "Don't Tear It Down" and the National Endowment for the Arts, headed by Nancy Hanks, saved the structure. Congress subsequently honored Hanks' dedication to the building by naming it and its adjacent plazas the Nancy Hanks Center.

During the 1970s, several protective measures continued to keep the building in place. President Nixon issued an executive order in 1971, calling for the protection of federally-owned historic properties. His actions resulted in the Old Post Office Building being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

In 1976, passage of the Cooperative Use Act allowed leasing of space in federal buildings for commercial, cultural and educational purposes. The Old Post Office Building became the first federal building to take advantage of this. The General Services Administration renovated and restored the property and set a new standard for commercial use of similar types of properties.

"The mixed-use approach and its high-quality restoration work have received national attention as a model for other preservation efforts," said Bart Bush, assistant regional administrator for the General Services Administration's national capital region.

WEARING MANY HATS

Property managers of the Old Post Office Building must juggle a number of standard property management duties, combined with more specialized responsibilities required in a landmark federal building.

"A [General Services Administration] property manager typically wears many hats. …