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When architect Kevin Roche designed the Columbus Post Office in the late 1960s, federal buildings typically were built in the neoclassical style, with features such as the Roman
basilica of the U.S. Capitol building or the Greek columns of the White House.
The neoclassical style gives buildings a monumentality, which symbolizes the federal government’s brawn, and, with its allusions to Greek democracy and Roman law, projects integrity, said Columbus architect Louis Joyner.
But the traditional style of federal buildings posed a challenge for Roche, a proponent of modern architecture, which stands in diametrical opposition to neoclassical architecture, which draws inspiration from the past.
Roche, 91, said recently that he did not want to design one of those typical shed-like, small town post offices but wanted the building to reflect the federal government’s enormity.
Roche overcame the challenge by placing in front of the post office’s entrance an arcaded walkway with massive columns.
The brown, salt-glazed tiled columns give the one-story building a monumentality, Joyner said. But beyond it, Roche’s modernist style shines through. The building’s front entrance is pure modernism. It has a sheet of one-way glass that, from the inside, offers views of the outside and, on the outside, reflects the columns and Jackson Street.
The building’s south side, too, projects power, through its fortress-like appearance, featuring a thick stone wall that demarcates the customer parking lot, and the even taller towers that peer down on customers like sentinels.
The building’s 34,600-square-foot interior consists of essentially two sections. The east side houses post office boxes, retail counters and offices — which in the 1970s housed U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton. The western three-quarters contain the warehouse/work room, where postal workers sort letters and packages.
The post office employs 107 people, down from 158 four years ago, Postmaster Terry Muir said, as mail processing was consolidated in Indianapolis last year and the popularity of electronic communication has reduced the number of letters being sent. The number of packages being mailed, however, has increased by double digits in the past two years as people increasingly buy merchandise online and have it delivered via the U.S. mail.
The work room gets busy as early as 2 a.m., when mail starts to arrive from Indianapolis and gets processed locally to be delivered. Postal workers spend about 60 to 90 minutes at their desks to sort mail into vertical slots with numbers and/or street names underneath.
Once the mail is in the right sequence, it is placed into trays and onto the vehicle. The office has one desk for each of the 33 city and 21 rural routes. Each route has an average of 600 pieces of mail, Muir said. Nearby, a postal worker tossed packages into large hampers that carried signs such as “City 40” or “City 31.”
Desks feature some personal touches, such as an IU calendar here or a family photograph there, and some informational material, including a poster showing the back of a large dog as he appears to watch a postal worker. “Always carry dog repellant when out on the route,” the poster advises.
About eight feet above the workers, enclosed walkways cross the warehouse north-south and east-west to allow the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to secretly monitor, through several small one-way glass windows, what happens in the post office to assure the “security and sanctity” of the mail. USPIS employees can enter the walkways from the exterior without the postal workers’ knowledge.
“You don’t hear it. You have no idea,” said Muir, who has worked for the Postal Service for more than 34 years.
Up to 1,200 pounds of mail at a time is placed in cages and rolled out of the building’s west side to reach the docking bay area, from where the mail is loaded onto trucks.
Over the years, the warehouse floor and the flat roof have taken a physical beating, Muir said.
When Muir worked at Dairy Queen decades ago, her father — then a postal worker — requested that she bring soft drinks over as a treat for employees who were scrambling to respond to a significant roof leak.
Muir added that, while the exposed steel beams on the loading dock are beautiful to look at, they have proved popular with birds, not ideal for the human traffic and mail below. She said the Postal Service has tried to repel the birds in a variety of ways, including nets, electronic devices and even plastic owls and snakes.
Joyner said that he has grown to like the building a lot, both for its appearance and its role in downtown redevelopment.
When the parking garage was built across Jackson Street, it gave the post office a presence that it did not have before, he said.
“The context kind of developed around it,” Joyner said.
The post office, along with The Republic (1971) and the original Commons (1973), also provided an anchor around which the city’s downtown developed, Joyner said.
To make room for downtown revitalization, local officials bought a huge swath of land and demolished the buildings, including businesses, to make room for new structures, including the post office.
“It was a pretty gutsy move,” Joyner said.
He also said he likes the building because it conveys Roche’s boldness and certainty, especially the east side’s arcade walkway, with its rows of fat columns.
“That’s what makes the building … and the street,” he said.
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