March 4, 2010

National Postal Museum, Part I: Victim of "Modernization"

All last week I tweeted with excitement about my day trip to the National Postal Museum here in Washington, D.C. Finally, on Friday, I was able to spend several hours at the museum, snapping pictures and ogling gorgeous stamps, reading letters of significance and learning about postal inspectors. While it was not my first trip to the museum, it was certainly my most enjoyable visit (probably because I was there alone and could take my time reading all the placards that interested me). Because the museum has so many pieces that I think will be of interest to you, dear readers, I have decided to break up the record of my most recent visit into multiple posts.

Originally the main post office serving the District, the museum building was designed in the Beaux Arts style, and was completed in 1914. The above two pictures are of how the lobby area would have looked when the building opened. On one side of the grand hallway are post office boxes, and on the other, mail windows where clerks would receive outgoing mail. And, in the middle of the grand lobby, wonderful, ornate marble counters.

Wait, back up, you might be saying - how it would have looked? Yes, that wasn't a typo. While it may not surprise you that the building had to be restored when the Smithsonian took over it's operations and turned it into a museum in 1993, it was not for the reasons you might think.

As it would happen, the lobby area was renovated in the 1950s. According to the docent leading the tour I was on, it had less to do with improving fixtures and increasing efficiency, than because the marble floors and plaster ceiling were held to be "dated," and in dire need of modernization. So, in the grand wisdom of our forefathers, the ceiling of the lobby was dropped, the lighting replaced with what look to be fluorescent light bulbs, and, again according to the docent, the marble covered with formica. Below is a picture of the lobby area taken during that (what I call) dark time.

While all of the original plaster work was destroyed during the modernization process, the lobby area has been restored with very well crafted and sculpted replicas. And, by golly, if you didn't read the placards, and ignored the fact that people were snapping pictures with digital cameras, you might just be able to make yourself believe it was 1914, and you were there to buy a sheet of 3 cent stamps to mail off a bundle of letters. Shoot, you might even want to complain about the rate hike, up from 2 cents, because of the war.

In the next post on my museum journey, we'll move into the exhibits! To find out more about the National Postal Museum, visit the museum website and take a virtual tour of the exhibits.


The Missive Maven said...

Oooh! Thanks for this wonderful post, and I look forward to the others! I'm a little disenchanted with the National Postal Museum website, and have enjoyed your photos so far much more than theirs. Keep 'em coming - until I can visit the NPM myself, your post is the next best thing. :-)

Lisa said...

Thank you so much for this post. I had no idea that there was a National Postal Museum. My son and I are planning our second annual trip to DC (air and space museum - his idea) and now I have a place to go to also and he might learn something there too!!! thanks