The appearance of the Port Townsend, Wash., Post Office has changed very little since it opened in 1893. While standing in line today, locals still enjoy the unevenly worn marble floors, carved sandstone exterior and an unobstructed view of Port Townsend Bay.
Now the U.S. Postal Service wants to sell the building, a popular gathering place, and buy or build a new facility.
The oldest federally constructed post office in Washington state, and the only example of Richardson Romanesque design in a federal building in Washington, it was constructed as the "Customs House" and intended to monitor shipping traffic. Today, the U.S. Customs Service still maintains an office there, even though the ports of Seattle and Tacoma have long since eclipsed Port Townsend, population 8,500.
The post office has undergone several modifications in its 115 years, but it has never been made accessible to people with disabilities. Both public entrances have steps, and there is no elevator. Postal officials have tried to accommodate disabled people with a doorbell at the rear loading dock, but that approach creates safety issues and does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other access requirements, say disability advocates.
Last year, a local business that had operated a fully accessible postal substation ended its contract, catching the post office off guard and forcing disabled people—many of them retirees—to use the post office in the nearest town, 10 miles away.
As negotiations with replacement substation applicants dragged on last year, local disability advocates staged protests.
"It's unfortunate they seem to be taking this approach," says City Manager David Timmons of the Postal Service's lack of interest in upgrading the building to accommodate disabled people.
Postal officials insist that their interest in possibly selling the building has nothing to do with disabled access, according to spokesman Ernie Swanson. Instead, they point to a laundry list of operational shortcomings, including a lack of a women's restroom on the basement level, where some of the mail is sorted, and problems with the loading dock and parking lot. The building has been on a list of deficient buildings for some time, Swanson said.
According to Swanson, there's no deadline for a decision and little funding available to move to a new facility. It's possible that a new location would be chosen just outside of the city limits, he said.
Timmons, who oversaw the LEED-certified renovation of Port Townsend's 1892 City Hall in 2006, says the city wants to help the Postal Service achieve disabled access. "A can-do attitude at the post office would resolve that pretty quickly," he says.
City Council members have also expressed concern. The post office is in the city's National Register historic district, but it does not have the power to prevent sale of the building.
Deputy Mayor George Randels called on the Postal Service to stay put, and make building accessible to disabled people at long last. "I thought—perhaps I was wrong—the post office would come to their senses," he says.
Meanwhile, a new contract station is slated to open in downtown Port Townsend next month.