May 12, 2017

Saving The Historic Lihue Post Office in Hawaii

  • By: Jared Foretek
Lihue Post Office exterior

photo by: Sabra Kauka

The United States Post Office is exploring the idea of closing the 1939 Lihue Post Office in Hawaii.

When the island community of Kauai found out that the U.S. Postal Service was planning to shutter and sell its historic post office in Lihue, it sprang into action just as it had as the post office's creation in 1939.

The Historic Hawaii Foundation organized a grassroots campaign to save the post office, even mailing coconuts—yes, coconuts— all the way to San Francisco to tell the Postal Service why their office is worth saving. They haven't declared victory yet; the Postal Service is soliciting another round of public comment. But the Historic Hawaii Foundation and preservationists throughout Kauai are promising to keep fighting.

We spoke with Kiersten Faulkner, Historic Hawaii's executive director, about the community and its battle to save Lihue Post Office.


photo by: Historic Hawaii Foundation

Coconuts with written messages of support for the Lihue Post Office were mailed as part of the campaign.

Talk about the history of the post office and why it’s so important to the Lihue community.

Lihue is the capital of the county of Kauai, and this post office is one of only two that were built during the Depression Era. So it was the first federal building on Kauai island. During the Depression there was a standardized architecture plan for all of the post offices, and the Kauai community rejected that plan. They said it did not fit in well with their island style and expectations. So an early activism campaign actually resulted in changing the design of this post office to fit in better with the community.

Do you see parallels between then and now?

I think Kauai has a reputation for being very active, and the community is very proud of its history and its heritage. So they will express that concern vocally. They did then and they do know.

What are the Postal Service’s reasons for wanting to move the post office?

They’ve actually been quite vague about that. Their initial presentation said that they were concerned about parking, that there are only a few designated parking stalls on the site and it’s located on a busy street. So they were concerned about access. But their proposed relocation site actually has worse access and the county of Kauai has a large parking lot directly across the street from the post office. The county has offered to designate those parking stalls for the post office to use exclusively and to install a crosswalk to connect the site to the parking stalls.

So they stepped up and offered a solution to the stated reason for the relocation. Unfortunately, the post office has recently said they felt they hadn’t explained their needs well enough and they were going to restart the entire public input process. So we’re really unclear about what problem they’re trying to solve. Because the problem that they said they were trying to solve has been solved. And yet they have not backed off on this plan. So it seems like a pretext for something else at this point.

What’s the latest on their plan?

The post office sent a letter to the mayor and that letter has now been posted. It simply says that they will restart and redo the public input process. They don’t provide any timeline, they don’t provide any steps, they just say that’s the plan. So we’re all in "wait and see" mode.

What’s the campaign been like so far?

What we’ve done so far is a massive mailing campaign under the first public comment period. That included printing and distributing postcards that had a pre-printed message of support for the historic post office that people could sign and add their own name and comments. We mailed about 750 of those. And then there was this coconut mailing campaign (116 were mailed), which was really more about sending a symbolic statement of support for the post office but not really having technical comments, obviously—it’s a coconut.

We had a lot of participation in those two mailing campaigns, primarily in the Kauai community. Our grassroots volunteers went door to door to drum up support and there was a whole coconut parade that was led by the mayor. It was very dramatic. And in addition to that, of course, we wrote technical comments on the details of the proposal.

It’s hard to know [what we’ll do next] without an explanation from the post office if they’re going to apply the previous comments to their redo. You would hope they’d take the postcards and the technical letters and the coconuts and say we will take all of that into consideration in our new process

How did the coconut mailing work?

The post office had said that they would accept written comments to a designated recipient in San Francisco. So the campaign was to send those written comments to the recipient in San Francisco and to send the message on a coconut.

It’s not as easy as it sounds actually, but the post office accepts oddly shaped packages, and messages on coconuts have been a kind of kitschy thing to do in Hawaii for years. So we thought that would be a way to get some attention and to make it personal and make it part of this community. It’s not just a standard message, but something that is very identifiable with Hawaii.

The process was first to gather coconuts because, well, you need a lot of them. And a hint for you in case you ever do this: the dry coconuts are better than the green coconuts because they weigh less… just in case you ever need that.

Then all the coconuts have to be cleaned because little bugs and infestations can live in inside, and of course you can’t mail that to another state. Then they hot glue-gunned the mailing address onto each coconut. Then the community got the coconuts to write their personal messages, they were gathered back again, they were cleaned again, then they were sent to the department of agriculture for inspection. So they had to be stamped and certified, then they were carried to the Lihue post office to be mailed.

This entire process took a lot of people and a lot of time and a lot of effort, but it was very attention getting, it caused a lot of engagement among the community. The process was also video documented by students at the local middle school, so that was a way to involve the next generation as well.

Preservation Tips & Tools: 10 Ways To Fight For Your Local Post Office

If the U.S. Postal Service decides to sell or relocate a historic post office in your town, here are ten steps you can take to protect it. As the fight to save the Lihue Post Office demonstrates, it's critical for the public to get involved, know their rights, and be persistent!

What are some of the changes happening in Lihue and how should the post office fit into the future of the community?

Lihue has been undergoing quite a bit of community planning and master planning, and they have identified Rice Street—which is the main street—as the core of the business district and the center of revitalization for this commercial area. And in doing that community plan they have identified historic preservation as a cornerstone. So the post office is one of the identified buildings especially because of its public nature and location. It’s directly across the street from the Kauai Museum, which is a historic building, and it’s next to a couple of other historic properties.

This revitalization plan calls for retaining and revitalizing each of these historic properties. It also calls for transportation improvements; a multi-modal approach to have streets that have opportunities not only for drivers but also for bicycles, pedestrians, easy crosswalks, better parking.

All of those pieces are in place, so when the post office announced its intention to move and sell the building it undermined all those efforts. That’s one of the reasons the community has been so engaged and so active. They’ve bought into this broader plan and this broader vision, and they feel like this attempt by the post office to undo that work would be devastating.

Is there a way for people not living in Hawaii to get involved?

All I can say is "stay tuned." If they’re opening another 30-day comment period, we would definitely want to hear from others that support our historic places.

Are you optimistic about how things will turn out?

I am. Another interesting thing is just how much support we had from our elected officials. Both of our senators, our governor, our mayor, the state senators, and state representatives, they all sent letters in opposition to closing the post office.

Senator Schatz serves on the Appropriations committee, which just passed the national budget. And he included in there a statement that says none of the post office money could be used to close or relocate rural or small post offices. That was pretty impressive. That kind of support and attention is incredibly valuable.

I think the grassroots activism with postcards, the coconuts, that really sent a message. Kauai is a small place and to have that kind of support from a very small community was outstanding. So I think it would be difficult for the post office to go against that kind of community unification. I don’t know what reason they would have to move it at this point. So I am optimistic but I’ve also learned that you can’t take anything for granted.

National Treasures: Historic Post Office Buildings

Local post office buildings have traditionally played an essential role in the lives of millions of Americans. Many are architecturally distinctive, prominently located, and cherished as civic icons in communities across the country. We're asking the U.S. Postal Service to establish a clear, consistent process that follows federal preservation law when considering disposal of these buildings.

Jared Foretek enjoys historic train stations, old bars, and interesting public spaces, he was an editorial intern at the National Trust.

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