A Post Office Moves, And Our Civic Realm Loses Another Piece of Its Soul

The Postal Service's decision to move the William Penn Annex to smaller quarters may be practical, but it's also yet another example of the ways in which we value civic space less and less by the day.

Somehow, you feel a little more noble waiting in line in a lobby like this. | Photo by Leah Kaufman from Philly Love Notes

Somehow, you feel a little more noble waiting in line in a lobby like this. | Photo by Emma Fried-Cassorla from Philly Love Notes

Chances are you’ve gotten impatient waiting in what seems like interminable lines at the William Penn Annex post office at 9th and Market streets.

Doing business there probably ranks up there with a visit to a PennDOT license center as an example of bureaucratic soul-crushing.

But the William Penn Annex has a saving grace, and that’s the space in which you wait in line. With its black-glass writing counters, its granite columns and walls, and its high ceilings with golden metallic light surrounds, the post office lobby has a dignity and elegance that rubs off on the patrons who use it.

Thanks to the United States Postal Service’s announcement that it is proceeding with plans released last month to move the William Penn Annex to a 19th-century commercial building in the 700 block of Arch Street, that saving grace will disappear.

The post office at 9th and Market, part of what’s now known as the Robert N.C. Nix Jr. Federal Courthouse and Post Office, was one of a slew of government buildings erected during the Great Depression: 1937, in this case. Whether they were grand, like this building and its contemporary at 29th and Market streets, or modest, like the dozens of post offices in neighborhoods across the city, they had as a common element design features that were meant to ennoble the citizen in some way. Those features may have been murals celebrating local history, like the ones at Southwark Station, or soaring spaces that used elegant materials to add a sense of grandeur to them, like the service lobbies at both the old main post office and the William Penn Annex.

And if the recent past is any guide, the new space will have none of this at all.

When the Postal Service sold its old building across from 30th Street Station to the University of Pennsylvania, it moved its counters into the 1950s garage diagonally across 30th and Chestnut. This space is certainly serviceable, and it’s bright thanks to a wall of windows on the Chestnut Street side, but that’s it. You could just as easily be waiting for a fast-food burger here as you could be conducting civic business. In fact, there are fast-food restaurants that have more visually inspiring interiors.

Is this the product of an age where many believe that the government (or agencies that function like it) can never spend money right? Or is it a symptom of the diminished regard many hold for the civic realm?

It might not be the latter, for there have been some uplifting civic spaces created in the past few years — perhaps none more so than Dilworth Park, which finally gave Philadelphia City Hall the front yard it deserves. But consider City Hall itself. That Second Empire wedding cake was meant to make a statement about the importance of the city, and it succeeded at doing that spectacularly. The city also spent a spectacular amount of money making that statement. Now, 114 years after its completion, I think most of us would agree that even after factoring out possible graft, it was money well spent. Yet we seem unwilling to consider spending even half as much today to create equally important civic spaces.

In the case of the Postal Service, this may be a problem that can’t be fixed, given its mandate to be self-supporting and its persistent operating losses. But surely there must be some way that we could break off a chunk of change to create places where the mundane task of interacting with the bureaucracy becomes less bureaucratic once again.

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