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When the Day for Night art and music festival opens this weekend in Houston, it will sprawl inside and out of a historic post office that once seemed doomed to demolition. The Barbara Jordan Post Office is a behemoth of a building on 16 acres at the edge of the Texas city’s downtown, with a distinctive concrete grid facade.
Opened in 1962, the post office was designed by Wilson, Morris, Crain & Anderson, who subsequently got the major 1965 Astrodome project, and it incorporated Cold War–era touches like a bomb shelter. Later the facility was renamed after Civil Rights leader and congresswoman Barbara Jordan. The post office closed in 2015 as part of a consolidation move following a $20 billion cut in the postal service budget, something which caused post office closures across the United States. Many of these purpose-built buildings were then in limbo; the USPS in a memorandum of agreement on the Barbara Jordan Post Office’s sale stated that it “anticipates demolition.”
Houston, as with other cities, has been reconsidering the adaptive reuse potential of these spaces, especially with the nationally visible preservation battle over the Astrodome. The post office happens to be near the 1920s Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, which was decommissioned in 2007, and in 2010 was planned for destruction by the City of Houston. However, it’s been reimagined as a subterranean art venue that takes advantage of the echoing acoustics and cavernous size, with a series of projects hosted by the Houston Arts Alliance.
The post office is now owned by developer Lovett Commercial, which is converting it into a multipurpose space called Post HTX that guards its architectural history. Frank Liu, Jr. of Lovett Commercial told Hyperallergic that they see its position as an important site of connection between different districts of the city.
“During the bidding process, Lovett was the only company that had interest in preserving the historical landmark while others were mostly interested in tearing it down and building new apartments or office buildings,” Liu stated. He added that in “a city with relatively few historical remnants, we feel it is vital to the city’s culture to reimagine our landmarks in a contemporary fashion.”
Similar to the Buffalo Bayou cistern, Day for Night will work with its industrial setting that stretches more than 1.5 million square feet. Musicians like Blood Orange, John Carpenter (yes, the film director), and Aphex Twin will take over the surrounding parking lots; inside, among the broad halls and matrix of columns, 14 artists are creating interactive art installations, such as Shoplifter’s hairy “Ghostbeat” sculptures and witchy “Crimson Lotus” light work by Damien Echols. On one floor, “Björk Digital” by the Icelandic singer will fill five rooms with digital and video work, including “Black Lake” which premiered at her recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
Liu noted that often “visitors still perceive Houston and Texas as a very conservative place with cowboys, boots, and cattle,” but it is incredibly diverse with a “large and highly motivated arts community.” Yet the city’s huge suburban area can make its interactions fragmented. “With over 400,000 square feet of existing building structure and 16 acres of land, we have a unique opportunity to create a ‘city within a city’ to attract interdisciplinary creatives to live, work, and play in a dense, centralized hub with the intention of creating an infrastructural exchange of information for new ideas to develop and be showcased,” he said.
Post offices are not always easy to reimagine into metropolitan resources, particularly one as large as the Barbara Jordan Post Office. Nevertheless, around the country there has been growing attention to their reuse. For instance, in New York, the Bronx General Post Office is undergoing reconstruction into a multi-use commercial space that will simultaneously protect its Depression-era murals, which were threatened by the building’s sale. Following Day for Night, the Houston post office will host a pop-up market for Super Bowl visitors in February, another pre-reconstruction initiative. By continuing to engage the public with this blocky, Modernist colossus, the project emphasizes that midcentury architecture like this can be reborn rather than rubble.
Hyperallergic is a media sponsor for Day for Night. The festival will take place at the Barbara Jordan Post Office (401 Franklin Street, Houston, Texas) on December 17–18.