Although the U.S. Postal Service is now being forced to scrap its plan to end Saturday mail delivery, it’s still looking for ways to cut costs. Selling buildings is one option, and in February, the organization put forward a proposal to sell the Bronx General Post Office, a Depression-era building from 1935. Erected as part of a federal program to employ out-of-work architects, engineers, and artists, the block-long building was designed by Thomas Harlan Ellett and includes exterior sculptures by Henry Kreis and Charles Rudy. It was landmarked in 1976, which means it would be preserved from destruction in the event of a sale. However, that landmark status does not apply to the interior — and it just so happens that 13 murals by artist Ben Shahn cover the walls of the lobby.
Shahn painted the murals along with his later wife, Bernarda Bryson, in 1937. Titled “America at Work,” the murals were inspired by a Walt Whitman poem and include an image of the white-haired poet standing alongside a blackboard that features some of his verse. The rest of the paintings take up the the common Depression-era motif of labor, with celebratory images of larger-than-life workers picking cotton and rolling textiles. According to the New York Times, Shahn once said, “My idea was to show the people of the Bronx something about America outside New York.”
The New York Landmarks Conservancy is working to protect the murals in the event of a sale, and to delay any kind of transaction until protections are in place. “They [the murals] were part of the original building construction and are described in the Landmarks Commission’s designation report even though they are afforded no protection by the building’s exterior designation,” the conservancy says on its website. The organization is working with Congressman José E. Serrano, and Ben Shahn’s son, Jonathan Shahn, on its campaign, which partly dovetails with a larger, community-wide one to save the post office itself.
“We’re trying to save the building, period,” Serrano told the Daily News. “But at minimum, we’re hoping to get (them) to also landmark the murals which have historical and artistic importance.”
The sale of the Bronx General Post Office isn’t a singular phenomenon, either; it’s part of a larger trend of the USPS attempting to sell off historic buildings nationwide. The National Trust for Historic Preservation put historic post offices on its most endangered list last year.
As for the Shahn murals, a spokeswoman for the USPS told the Times in February, “There is no discussion at this time by postal officials about relocating the murals should a decision be made to sell the building.” It doesn’t seem like there’s been any change since then. In the meantime, the conservancy is urging people to write letters to Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Robert Tierney (email@example.com) to ask him to landmark the interior of the building.
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