April 10, 2014

City Unites to Save Berkeley’s Downtown Post Office

The main office of the U.S. Postal Service in Berkeley, Calif., is an Italianate building constructed in the early 1900s.

Sometimes, you don’t know what you have until it’s almost gone.

That’s what Berkeley, Calif., resident Mike Lonergan realized back in June 2012 when the United States Postal Service announced the closure of the city’s main post office downtown, and sale of the landmark building appeared imminent.

“I had been in that building many, many times, but I never paid much attention to it,” Lonergan says. “You take so much for granted until you almost lose it.”

Now active in Save the Berkeley Post Office, a grassroots group, Lonergan is like many Berkeley residents who have come to appreciate more than ever the 1914 Renaissance Revival-style building. Its architectural features, like its arcaded loggia and grand lobby with ornate woodwork and marble details, embody the ideals of the City Beautiful movement. And a lobby mural by Suzanne Scheuer depicting Berkeley’s history and a limestone bas-relief by David Slivka on the exterior arcade wall are two important examples of New Deal-era works of art.

Signs in protest of privatizing the post office are displayed between the Italianate columns.

Efforts to save the post office ramped up further when USPS officially put the building on the market last October.

Along with Save the Berkeley Post Office, a number of other activist groups have formed, such as the Berkeley Post Office Defense. Another Berkeley-based group, the National Post Office Collaborate, has mounted legal efforts to fight the sale of Berkeley’s post office and others around the country. And national group Save the Post Office has been vocal in its support of saving Berkeley’s downtown landmark.

In addition, the downtown post office has been the site of numerous rallies, protests, and other events to drum up support for the building, and marches in nearby San Francisco have been organized as well. Berkeley residents have shown up in droves to city council meetings and hearings with the postal service to voice their concerns.

Citizens have taken to the streets in nearby San Francisco and have organized several protests, rallies, and events to fight the impending sale of Berkeley's post office.

Other demonstrations have taken a more unusual approach. A local store showed its support for the post office with a Valentine’s Day-themed window display, using historic images of the building, old postal service uniforms, and protest signs. Local actor Josh Kornbluth has appeared at rallies and meetings dressed as Benjamin Franklin, channeling the first postmaster general of the United States Postal Service.

“In some ways, on a positive side, this has really drawn out the best of Berkeley,” says Harvey Smith, one of the early founders of the Save the Berkeley Post Office group and an adviser to the Living New Deal. “People have come together on this issue and have been very creative. They’ve brought some really unique skills.”

Further, Smith says, citizens and city officials alike, including Mayor Tom Bates, have thrown their unanimous support behind efforts to fight the sale of the building.

“The politics here in Berkeley can be pretty contentious,” Smith says. “With this issue, though, we’ve gotten amazing support from all sides.”

True to Berkeley-style protest, advocates against privatization set up tents to maintain a constant presence outside the post office.

One action the city has taken is the proposal of the Zoning Overlay Ordinance. This would place strict guidelines on new development to protect the architectural and historic integrity of Berkeley’s Civic Center Historic District, which includes the post office, city hall, high school, community theater, Veterans Memorial Building, YMCA, and farmers market.

“There’s been so much development in our Civic Center already,” Lonergan says.

Smith echoes those sentiments: “We don’t want to see some high-rise building taking its place.”

But these concerns are not unique to Berkeley. For Smith, Lonergan, and a number of other activists, the closing of post office buildings around the United States represents a much larger crisis.

Many signs and banners have been hung on and around the post office with slogans such as "Post office is open. Let's keep it this way," and "Our post office is not for sale."

“We’re monitoring this all over the country,” Smith says. “Every community loves their local post office. And we see no reason for them to be sold. … The only ones who would benefit are the private parties who would buy [the post office buildings] and attempt to develop [them]. That seems, to us, very un-American, to take something that was the public domain and then hand it over to the private sector.”

In the meantime, Berkeley residents are posed to keep fighting for their beloved local landmark.

“We all feel that this is a gathering place, where we come together as a community, and where we see our neighbors and friends,” Smith says.

Adds Lonergan: “The post office gives you a sense of place when you’re in Berkeley. Most of the civic things that have happened, and the community things that have happened, since I’ve been here have been centered around the post office. When you go there, it’s always busy. There’s always a sense of activity. It’s kind of hard to see what could replace it that would add that same level of activity, where people are coming in and doing business. It’s not something you want to lose.”

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

Now more than ever, we look to our history for courage, comfort, and inspiration. We've assembled a collection of resources to help our community stay engaged with the places we love.

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