Thirteen colorful New Deal-era murals line the walls inside the Bronx General Post Office on the borough’s Grand Concourse. They stretch all the way to the 20-foot ceiling, towering over everyone who walks through the doors. Rendered in egg tempura on plaster by artist Ben Shahn and his wife Bernarda Bryson Shahn, the paintings embody the might of American labor and industry.
But until recently, the murals’ future, as well as that of the grand historic lobby that they occupy, was in doubt.
The cash-strapped Postal Service first proposed shuttering the “underutilized” post office building in 2012, along with 16 other post offices in the Bronx, citing the need to cut costs and reduce the size of its infrastructure in New York and around the country. The building itself, completed in 1937, was granted landmark status in 1976, but the interior was never given the same protections, despite its reputation as an awe-inspiring public space that brings a little bit of wonder to Bronx residents’ everyday lives.
A campaign to save the murals, spearheaded by New York Congressman José Serrano and artist Jonathan Shahn, the Shahns’ son, was instrumental in making sure that future New Yorkers will be able to enjoy them. The campaign was unique from the start.
“The Conservancy teamed up with Congressman Serrano and the mural artists’ son to get a petition signed from a vast group of artists,” explains Alex Herrera of the Landmarks Conservancy. Collectively, Serrano, Shahn and the Conservancy got signatures and letters from hundreds of artists and art experts, and convinced the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission that the murals absolutely needed to be saved. The building and murals have personal significance to both men -- at a public hearing at the post office, Serrano spoke about how ever since he arrived in the Bronx from Puerto Rico as a 6-year-old, the building has stood out as “something special” to him.
On December 17, 2013, the Commission voted to designate the lobby an interior landmark. While this doesn't afford the works of art complete protection, it does grant the Landmarks Commission the authority to weigh in on any development that might hide or damage the murals in the future.
Furthermore, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, an independent, non-profit preservation entity, has accepted a preservation covenant from the United States Postal Service, which will allow the conservancy to inspect the space at regular intervals, and will bind current and future owners to comply with federal preservation standards. USPS will continue to own the murals once the building is sold, which is also when the covenant will take effect. The Postal Service has said that it won’t close the post office until it has a replacement space lined up, and as of right now, there’s no hard and fast time frame. As of February, Congress had instructed USPS to suspend the sale of any historic post office until March, amid concerns that the sale of the buildings may violate preservation laws.
So what will become of the Depression-era building? “It could be reused like Moynihan Station,” says Herrera. This transformation, which has been in the works for 15 years, involves re-envisioning Manhattan’s grand James Farley Post Office as another train terminal for nearby Penn Station. Additional options for the Bronx post office possibly include retail or restaurant space.
Ben Shahn, a Lithuanian-born American artist, died in 1969. He was most known for his works of social realism, or works that draw attention to working class subjects. His work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum, and the Museum of the City of New York, as well as the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. His wife, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, was an American painter, lithographer, and photographer.
While the Bronx General Post Office’s future is unclear, one thing is for certain: People in the Bronx will be able to see and be inspired by the Shahns’ work, and the public space they are housed in, for years to come.
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