Sale of Palo Alto post office prompts nostalgia, uncertainty

Historic building could be used for another public facility or rezoned for commercial use

When Palo Alto's downtown post office opened in 1932 on Hamilton Avenue, it was like no other post office in the nation.

Designed by local architect Birge Clark, the building showcased all the notable features of the Spanish Colonial Revival style that Clark helped popularize in the second and third decades of the 20th century -- a smooth, stucco exterior, copious arches and tiled roof.

But while the design looked like it would fit right at home in Palo Alto, where there are nearly a hundred Birge Clark buildings, it seemed a bit too Spanish (or at least too Californian) for the U.S. Postal Service. When Clark went to Washington, D.C., to present his blueprints, the postmaster general -- looking for something more traditional and "stately" -- ridiculed his design, according to an account from the Palo Alto History Project. Clark's associate Joseph Ehrlich recalled that the postmaster pushed away the blueprints and said: "Don't you know what a U.S. post office looks like?"

Minutes later, however, Clark told him that President Herbert Hoover, an old friend with whom he'd had breakfast, already gave the go-ahead, and the postmaster relented. When the post office at 380 Hamilton Ave. opened, it became the first building to be designed specifically for this use, said Palo Alto Historian Steve Staiger.

"It's a beautiful building. The federal government wasn't used to doing buildings like that," Staiger said. "It was the first post office that was purposefully built to be a post office. The previous post offices in town had been always rental buildings."

After eight decades of fulfilling the role for which it was designed, the building is now poised for major change. As the Weekly first reported on last Friday, the U.S. Postal Service plans to sell the building next year and move its operations to a smaller facility in a location to be determined. James Wigdel, spokesman for the postal service, said the building is about twice as large as necessary.

The building's sale is part of a nationwide effort the cash-strapped agency is undertaking to cope with years of multi-billion dollar deficits. It also plans to sell its buildings in Menlo Park and Half Moon Bay and move operations to smaller branches.

Wigdel told the Weekly all the services of Hamilton Avenue office would continue in the new branch. But several residents who were patronizing the downtown post office this week said they were disappointed about the proposed change, which could significantly transform one of Palo Alto's best-known downtown icons.

Resident Shannon Griscom, who was downtown Tuesday afternoon, called the building "an architectural treasure" and lamented the fact that future residents will not get to experience the building performing the function for which it was designed. She said she was saddened by the U.S. Postal Service's decision.

"This is the type of building that makes people appreciate a place like Palo Alto," Griscom said. "It feels like we're selling our history."

At the same time, the sale creates new opportunities for developers and city officials in a choice downtown location just a block from City Hall. The site is zoned PF (public facility). This means the new site will either continue to house a public facility or get rezoned to accommodate other uses, Planning and Community Environment Director Curtis Williams said. In either event, the buyer of the property would have to proceed with caution and clear various procedural hurdles before modifying the building, which is listed on both the city's inventory of historical buildings and the U.S. Department of Interior's National Register of Historic Places.

If the building were to be rezoned, it would probably be used for commercial or office uses, much like other facilities in the surrounding area, he said. Sometimes developers who purchase land zoned for public use include an option in their agreement that allows them to walk away from the sale if they fail to get the zone change, Williams said.

The fact that the building is historical and that it's owned by a public agency could complicate the sale and extend the timeline for its completion.

"When most agencies sell public property, there's a pretty elaborate process that includes, among other things, offering it to other public agencies first," Williams said.

Councilman Pat Burt said he is interested in exploring other public uses for the historic building, including as a possible site for the Development Center. The city currently leases space for its permitting operations at 285 Hamilton Ave., across the street from City Hall. The site's zoning designation could lower the building's appraised value and allow the city to get a good deal.

Burt does not, however, expect the building to help the city with its long and thus far unsuccessful search for a new police headquarters. The building would not meet the seismic requirements for a public-safety building, he said.

He hopes the facility could remain public, though.

And while the transition would surely impact downtown Palo Alto, Burt noted that the sale was prompted by factors far outside the city's control.

"It's an historic building for Palo Alto, and it's a very attractive building, and I'm assuming and hoping that it would remain with the same design," Burt said, "But other than that, the fact that the postal service is going to sell it is driven by issues way beyond Palo Alto."

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Like this comment
Posted by Becky Sanders
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 22, 2011 at 10:37 am

If I had unlimited resources I would buy it and turn it into an alcohol free mixed use art space for the high school crowd -- coffee house, art show, concert venue, open mic, dance, poetry slam, homework habitat, workspace to do charitable works for the community, that kind of thing. And have it run by high school/college kids with strong management by responsible adults with partnerships with locally owned small businesses who could foster teaching kids business and management skills. That's what I would do...

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 22, 2011 at 10:48 am

We have already had a wonderful church in downtown turned into office space. Borders is vacant and its future is uncertain. The Post Office (which I confess I have never used) also has its future in jeopardy.

I sincerely trust that the use of these buildings in the future will not keep the majority of us out of being able to view them. I wouldn't call these buildings particularly historic but I would call them heritage buildings and as such important for the community as a whole to be able to use.

Please keep our heritage buildings available for public use and patronage - whatever use they next become.

Like this comment
Posted by Denizen of Palo Alto
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 22, 2011 at 11:42 am

Becky, I like the way you think! Can you post something on craigslist so that maybe we could start an organization that could think about doing this? With the kind of money in PA, starting a non-profit for the purpose you outlined wouldn't be that difficult.

Like this comment
Posted by sharin
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Im so sick of losing all the Palo Alto landmarks. Palo Alto is losing all its charm with the infiltration of ugly new buildings, ugly modern condos, stupid startup companies (facebook, etc). Downtown Palo Alto sucks now.

Like this comment
Posted by Becky Sanders
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 22, 2011 at 3:05 pm

@Denizen I have not had much luck with Craig's List for some other efforts I have undertaken. I end up getting robo-spammed. Maybe I am not using it properly... why don't you post something and I'll look for it... what do you say? Or do you have any other ideas... Thanks, Denizen.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 22, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Editor -
I noticed that today's story mentioned the role Herbert Hoover had in authorizing the plans for the old Palo Alto post office. This is something I pointed out in comments to an earlier story on the post office that you ran last week. Web Link
Is this a case of both of us Googling the same story or did my comment prompt the update to the story?
No problem either way - I'm just curious.

Like this comment
Posted by Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Dec 22, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Gennady Sheyner is a registered user.

Hi Steve,

Thank you for your comments. It was actually Palo Alto City Historian Steve Staiger who told me about Herbert Hoover's role in authorizing the plan for the downtown post office.

Also, former mayor and local-history expert Gary Fazzino informed me today that Birge Clarke was close to the First Lady, Lou Henry Hoover, and that its was actually Mrs. Hoover who prevailed upon the president to approve the design.

Thanks again.


Like this comment
Posted by Denizen of Palo Alto
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 22, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Becky and all interested: I set up a posting on CL under Peninsula Activities with the words Post Office in the title.

Like this comment
Posted by Bambi
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 23, 2011 at 1:41 am

Great story. Sad to think Palo Alto one of the most sought after and expensive areas in the USA can not keep their own Post office / Landmark open. One of our local 5 BIG Developers want to help out? How can we keep from losing such history and architecture and protect our valued Postal offices from disappearing. Ah the internet cause and effect. Paying bills online and keeping us all personally disconnected from our traditions like the Post office line. Hard to believe that will be a mere memory soon. Whats next we pump our own gas and bag our own groceries and pay online and maybe one day we will not even go downtown and run into one another standing in line anywhere. Progress. Apps. Wish I had a crystal ball to see how this all transpires. I will miss the ability to run down to the local Post office. Be bored in line and talk to locals and strangers I meet.

Like this comment
Posted by Floyd
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 23, 2011 at 9:50 am

Whatever it becomes please leave the lobby and the exterior intact.
Please don't let it become another Starbucks.

Like this comment
Posted by USPS parcel customer
a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 23, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Another attempted fire sale liquidation of our dwindling public endowment. What is next to go -- national parks? "Must sell post offices to pay current bills. No discussion, must happen immediately, USPS management knows best. Don't need 20th century relics -- payday loan shops can cover." Hard to believe that the present landmark P.O. can't adapt to 1) support PO boxes and counter service, 2) protect historic character of building, and 3) house profitable businesses in remaining 80 percent to make the venture financially viable. Not the American way? Too bad folks, time to innovate or lose it all.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 23, 2011 at 2:15 pm

I suggest putting the Development Center below Police Services and keeping the Birge Clark as a chill space.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 23, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Actually, now that I read Becky Sanders' post --which I agree with -- it reminds me that I had been meaning to suggest that we could lay off the entirety of our civil servants and replace them with high school kids fulfilling a public service extracurricular -- keeping Jim Keene and maybe Lalo Perez as their gurus -- as sort of a cross between John Wayne "The Cowboys" and Jimmy Stewart's "Mr Smith Goes to Washington". It would work better than what we have now where development staff, planning staff and most others have been beaten into a submission to work for the big six developers and ignore the rest of the 57,000 citizens/ residentialists.

Becky, we do have "unlimited resources" in that there are more of us than there are of them and we have the talent to enact all of these civic enterprises if we can just learn to work together and get our so-called representatives to slow down the pace of the sell-off, to work to the speed of a democracy and not an industry. ("Palo Alto Process" is just a smoke-screen term and propaganda by the developers -- most people agree that after 100 years of legacy burden of proof should be on those who want to change things, not vice versa; I'm an ultra-conservative in that sense).

If our leadership actually votes to change zoning of the post office from public to private then democracy is indeed as dead as Epictetus.

Like this comment
Posted by Raj Kanodia
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 24, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Palo Alto should buy the building and lease it back (or some part of it) to the USPS for a nominal fee. Remaining space, if any, can be used for social services.

Like this comment
Posted by Marianne Mueller
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 26, 2011 at 11:45 am

For goodness sake, it's a Birge Clark. I agree with ideas to keep the post office for a community/public use and also keep the "fixtures" aka post office windows, tables, etc as part of the whole.

Like this comment
Posted by Mrs Mercury
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 27, 2011 at 6:42 pm

The postal service is in trouble, and that's because it's being run as business. It's not a business, it's a vital public service and should be funded by the government. If it were a true business, it wouldn't cost 44 cents to send a letter to remote rural residents, hard-to-reach places, Hawaii and Alaska, etc. The USPS has been given an impossible task, and the degradation of our mail service and wholesale sell-off of its assets is just the tip of the iceberg.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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