Written by Priya Chhaya
There’s a museum here in Washington, D.C. that has always been one of my special favorites. Although it isn't located on the National Mall or in a place where tourists can easily stumble across it, this museum tells a particularly interesting story about the American experience - a story filled with travel and inventive technology - and of the importance of the written word in communications across the United States.
This is the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum. While the museum boasts an impressive collection of stamps (and a great online database of objects called Arago)—the stories it tells about connecting people to people and communities to communities are a testament to the role of the United States Postal Service (USPS) in the American way of life.
The buildings that house the postal service also have stories to tell and often serve as the community gathering place. A few weeks ago the USPS released its post office closure list – a list that will help streamline operations and allow the agency to try and curtail some of its budget deficits.
And though it is inevitable that preservationists will not be able to save or find new uses for all of these buildings—some amazing architectural and historically important structures—I know that people are looking at their post office and asking: What’s next? Forum recently published “Right-Sizing the Mail: Advocating to Retain or Reuse Historic Post Offices” an article by Elaine Stiles that looks at the options for these post offices while also providing resources to those who are going to be affected by the closures.
And if you are interested in learning more about the role of mail in the United States, check out the wide array of online exhibitions on The Postal Museum's website. The history of the USPS shows time and again how these buildings served as a gathering point in small towns and urban neighborhoods “from sea to shining sea.”
There will also be a session at the National Preservation Conference in Buffalo this October. The Shrinking Federal Footprint: What Communities Need to Know will take place on Thursday, October 20 from 3:30-5pm. The session will include a discussion of the Postal Service and how communities are managing the impact of facility downsizing on historic resources.
Priya Chhaya is a program associate in the Partnerships Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.