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Preservationists keep watch over historic downtown post office renovation

Crews are working to preserve the character of the historic post office building on Church Circle as they turn the mail rooms into offices for state workers.
Crews are working to preserve the character of the historic post office building on Church Circle as they turn the mail rooms into offices for state workers. (Jeffrey F. Bill / Capital Gazette)

A carved pineapple adorns the cupola, stately arches curve over the windows, and stone laurels drape like bunting from the brick facade. Embellishments grace the old post office in Annapolis.

From his firm across the street, architect Chip Bohl has watched the crews working to change this 117-year-old downtown showpiece into state government offices.

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“Hopefully, they’re maintaining the architectural integrity,” Bohl said.

Work is underway to add the post office to the complex of state offices and tunnels in the heart of Annapolis. The Department of General Services budgeted $16.8 million for the renovation. Crews began work in February, and they have proceeded under the close watch of local architects and preservationists.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on it,” said Glenn Gibson, an Annapolis writer and photographer. “The old post office was just an outstanding example of public architecture.”

Five years ago, state officials bought the building at 1 Church Circle for $3.2 million. The U.S. Postal Service continued to lease the building until it closed about three years ago.

The state legislative compound encompasses nearly 2 million square feet of office space downtown. State officials lease another 200,000 square feet of office space. They say the post office will help them to cut down on the costs of leasing.

Today, crews are working to remove any hazardous building materials and shore up the exterior.

“The building was falling apart,” Bohl said. “Columns of the cupola were literally falling off and sliding down the roof.”

Built in 1901, the 2 1/2–story brick structure is listed on the inventory of historic properties designated by the Maryland Historical Trust. State officials have said they intend to preserve the architectural features.

The grand old building has captured Bohl’s interest for decades, ever since he opened his Annapolis architecture firm in the 1970s. He has researched its history and says the building went up under an early 1900s program to build post offices that reflect the character of small towns across America.

The federal program continued between the 1900s and World War II. One went up in Centreville. In Easton, the post office was designed in Colonial Revival style. In Pasadena and Santa Monica, Calif., crews designed in Spanish Revival style.

“Every one of these buildings was custom designed,” Bohl said. “The federal government wanted to make a good, attractive, solid building on Main Street in every little town.”

Many of the post offices have been sold off to developers and transformed into condos, he said.

“They should be public, not turned into a fancy hotel or turned into private condominiums,” Bohl said. “But these are the times we live in. Privatization is the drumbeat.”

The Annapolis post office features the arched windows and patterns of darkened brick familiar to the city’s architecture. The golden pineapple on the cupola symbolizes hospitality. Decades ago, the FBI maintained an office upstairs. Bohl rented space inside during the 1980s and ran his architectural firm out of the second floor.

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Each day, he passed the ornate wood paneling, the carved woodwork, and climbed the grand marble staircase. He says it remains one of the most beautiful buildings in Annapolis.

“The Annapolis post office is historically important for showing that at one point the govt. ‘cared’ enough about architecture,” William Morgan of Columbia University in New York City wrote in a 1967 architectural review. “The building is solid and superbly built [compared to] junk the government builds today.”

In coming months, state officials will seek bids for a second phase of the project: interior work. Officials couldn’t say when the entire project will be done.

Once finished, the old post office will hold offices for the secretary of state and the governor’s legal office, said Nick Cavey, spokesman for the Department of General Services.

Bohl hopes to visit again when it reopens.

“Walking up and down those steps every day was just an architectural treat.”

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