When the U.S. Postal Service first proposed selling off the Bronx General Post Office in 2012, the plan was quickly denounced by politicians and protested by the community. The facility, a New York City Landmark completed in 1937, had become a vital part of the neighborhood over the course of several generations, and residents did not want to see it closed down. But the postal service, facing $15.9 billion in debt, was resolved to sell off its assets, and YoungWoo & Associates and Bristol Group purchased the four-story, block-long building in 2014 for $19 million. During the past year, most of its interior spaces have slowly been dismantled, with offices, lockers, and mailboxes auctioned off and hidden rooms and catwalks emptied out to make way for a different future.
The new version of the Bronx post office will be called Bronx Post Place, and it is being branded as "a crossroads for community, commerce, and culture." Mindful of the building's important role in the neighborhood's fabric, and undoubtedly aware of the increasing wariness of gentrification and the "feeding frenzy" of development in the South Bronx, the new owners have created a cheerful, unthreatening plan for the structure, which will include a rooftop restaurant, a lobby marketplace, and flexible office spaces, all with an emphasis on local businesses and entrepreneurs. "Everybody that I've met in the Bronx has a story about the post office, whether they remember standing in line with their parents, or they have a relative that worked there," said Christine Nebiar, the director of marketing and innovation for YoungWoo. "So it's great that we will be able to give it a use that will keep in line with a community hub experience. And of course, the post office will still remain."
Inside the Bronx General Post Office today, postal operations are slowly being reduced to a smaller footprint in space the agency has leased from YoungWoo & Associates. In the emptied sections, the layers of history have mostly been stripped away. Bathrooms, walls, and drop ceilings are being removed, revealing enormous arched windows, but the last few artifacts that remain paint a bleak picture of a claustrophobic and micro-managed workplace. A series of leftover signs hangs throughout the complex, offering warnings about a wide range of behavior, including the temptations of mail tampering, the dangers of unsafe footwear, and improper bathroom techniques like toilet paper misuse, excessive loitering, incorrect flushing, and the overconsumption of paper towels.
An even more elaborate remnant from this Big Brother mindset is found in a dusty system of hidden ladders and concealed catwalks, which were used by postal inspectors to silently creep from floor to floor. Lurking in pitch black hallways, they peered down through peepholes, surreptitiously spying on their colleagues, who could never be sure when they were being watched from above. Some employees decorated their work stations with personal signage, either sincere religious pleas or commentaries about their fragile mental health.
The future of the Bronx Post Office will certainly be sunnier, as its dark interior spaces are illuminated and the public is invited to visit off-limits parts of the building for the first time. "We will be able to open this building up, and make it feasible for people to access it," said Nebiar. "We'll be opening up the windows and doors. People will be able to hang out on the promenade." The fate of the building will also be more positive than that of several New York Landmarks nearby, which have either been abandoned or destroyed. A short walk down the Grand Concourse is the recently demolished P.S. 31, a landmarked 1899 school that the city left to decay for decades, while up the street, the upper floors of the Andrew Freedman Home remain empty and rotting. Further north, the hollowed out Kingsbridge Armory is still waiting to be transformed by its developers and the Gould Memorial Library is seeking millions of dollars for urgent repairs, while to the east, the old Bronx Borough Courthouse has been left vacant by its owner for over 30 years.
"Many of these buildings were built in the optimism of the early 20th century," said Simeon Bankoff, the Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council. "Over the course of the century, as there was economic disinvestment, nothing happened with them, and they started being regarded as these giant white elephants." The government's decision to jettison the Bronx General Post Office is just one small part of a much larger, ongoing divestment of historic civic infrastructure, which is occurring at a city, state, and federal level, and which has left New York City with empty schools, hospitals, firehouses, police precincts, and courthouses. "I think that people actually reusing these old buildings in the Bronx is really important," said Bankoff. "They offer a purpose, and their existence, I believe, really helps anchor a community."
Much work still lies ahead for Bronx Post Place, which is not scheduled to be completed until 2017. By that time, the finished project may be part of a very different neighborhood, as a constellation of surrounding developments come to fruition. "The Bronx is the new Queens," The Real Deal proclaimed recently, summing up the projects which are currently altering the landscape and identity of the neighborhoods around the post office. These impending changes are a cause for concern to many. "I think there is room for everybody," said Bankoff. "But I don't want to see what's there now get sacrificed at the altar of some dreamy vision of the future….I think they should just let the Bronx be the Bronx."
The Bronx General Post Office was designed by Thomas Harlan Ellett, and "was executed in a style that combines classical simplicity with the sleekness of modernism," in the words of a NYC Landmarks plaque placed onsite.
"The lobby is adorned with thirteen murals depicting the occupations of American workers painted in 1939 by Ben Shahn and his wife, Bernarda Bryson." The murals were declared a NYC Landmark in 2013 and cannot be removed or altered.
Behind the current post office lobby, several large open floor plans are hidden. The entire building is 175,000 square feet, though most of the space is currently empty.
Grand windows on the second floor are slowly being uncovered, in an area that will become office space. "The next level up will be small, private offices. The garage area will be retail space," said Nebiar.
"These wood floors are original from the 1940s—they were meant to cushion worker's feet. We are going to keep them, and just refurbish them," said Nebiar. "They are beautiful."
The post office left behind desks, safes, and chairs throughout its warren of offices. "When we got the building, it was the same as when they opened it," said Nebiar. " A lot of furniture, mail boxes, offices, and lockers left over."
Most of the offices have since been emptied out. "The post office auctioned it all off. The employees got the first chance to buy it," said Nebiar. "And then we got second dibs. There wasn't that much we could keep as relics."
Some old equipment remains in the building. "It really was a combination of old world meets new world. They never removed a lot of the stuff that was put up in the 1930s," said Nebiar.
Broken clocks and old signs are some of the most prevalent leftovers, poignant reminders of the building's long labor history. "As you walk through, you see the layers get peeled back, which is an interesting thing to see in a building."
An art installation on the upper level, titled "Hands Around The World," is one of the cheerier artifacts from the post office's past.
The installation hints at the diversity of the post office staff. Each hand was individually decorated and labeled with a worker's name.
In contrast, a series of warning signs left behind throughout the building suggest a highly regulated workplace.
In the building's bathrooms, several different signs sought to control employees' behavior, with some reading "Toilet paper must not be used for drying hands" and "Ladies, please check to see that the toilet is flushed after every use."
Demolition crews are now removing the last remnants of offices throughout the upper levels. The project is set to open in 2017, and it will be Youngwoo's first in the Bronx.
On the building's lower level, a windowless recreation room holds an antiquated ping pong table, one of the largest objects left behind by the post office.
Nearby, cinderblock workshops and concrete loading docks will be replaced with new streetside retail and a building entrance connecting the back of the building to the lobby, bringing light to this dark interior.
In one dimly lit workshop, the post office left behind another friendly warning to employees, this time about the dangers of stealing or tampering with the mail. When the building was offered up for sale, just 40 workers remained. "You know, every building has a story to tell, but sometimes that story changes with time and with people and with culture," said Nebiar.
Constantly looming overhead, a system of ladders and catwalks allowed the post office to monitor employees at work. "They were there for security personnel," said Nebiar. "Back in the 1930s, how would you look over your staff? They didn't have cameras."
The catwalks still provide a unique view into the post office. "I don't think they will ever move to another building," said Nebiar. "It will still remain their home. They're just not going to be using the entire building anymore."
Back out in the sunlight, the roof of the building will soon open to the public year round as a restaurant and event space. "After decades and decades of everybody saying development is coming to the Bronx, it really finally is," said Simeon Bankoff, who hopes to see more landmarks brought back to life. "These buildings are important, because they really do literally mark the land and serve as social hubs."