James Farley Post Office (all photographs by the author)
Accompanying my friend to update her passport one blistery winter afternoon last year, she led me to a building in Midtown Manhattan so impressive that I couldn’t believe I’d never seen it before. Somehow lost among the other overwhelming structures of Eighth Avenue, the James A. Farley Post Office building is two city blocks of marble.
Squashed between Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, the hulk was built in 1912, and is proudly inscribed with the unofficial creed of the United States Postal Service: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. A vital structure for all the eccentric diversities and vital amenities of the postal service, the James Farley Post Office is home to Operation Santa, a program begun in 1912 which authorizes postmasters to respond to children’s letters to Santa Claus. It was also instrumental in maintaining service levels after the September 11th attacks, and until the economic downturn in 2009, was the only post office in New York City open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Inside, the building is just as grand; its ceilings seem to be a mile high (40 feet, in reality) and paneled in what looks like gold (but is actually wood), and the individual booths have an old school glamor of another century. The contrast of people walking around in their street clothes is surreal. As my friend waited in line, I wandered the ground floor. Just as I was about to look around the stamp shop to kill time, I noticed a small gallery off the main corridor.
Ten glass boxes filled with random objects related to the postal service had been pushed up against the walls. Inside, there were things ranging from the original minutes for the proposal of City Hall to a bunch of mail inspection patches, advertisements for the Pony Post, a leather carrier mail pouch, and the lyrics to a song called the “Mail Man Blues.” Some things had fallen over, everything was covered in a sheen of dust, and all the glass was dirty. A vintage collection of international mail paraphernalia was arranged inside original service counters, the assortment of objects including photos of the original post office at City Hall (since demolished), 19th century telephones, whiskey bottles, wooden tubes for mailing liquids, vaseline glass mailboxes, metal crates from the 1920s for mailing eggs, wooden and leather postcards, and letters from prisoners of the world wars. There were 146-year-old envelopes from original mail delivered during the Civil War, canceled stamps dating back to the 1800s, as well as brass postcards.
Although currently nearly empty (roughly 90% is currently vacant) and far more forgotten than it should be, the James A. Farley Post Office is slated to become Moynihan Station, an extension of Penn Station, with the redevelopment estimated at $147 million.
As I was inspecting a seemingly irrelevant pin shaped like a cowboy boot, a group of workers opened a door behind one of the cases and squeezed out from behind. “This is my new favorite museum!” I beamed at them. Grinning at us, two kids who’d come upon this hidden-in-plain-view secret, one of them responded, “Yeah. It’s a funny little corner.”
JAMES FARLEY POST OFFICE, New York, New York