Inspired design of new National Postal Museum delivers first-class experience

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Post office architecture comes in all shapes and sizes, like the diverse communities it serves.

It can range from grand public monuments that provide landmarks for many urban centers, showcases of the best in neo-classical architecture, to sprawling distribution centers in the hinterlands, mind-numbing places that seem to gain attention only when a disgruntled postal worker goes on a shooting spree. In small-town America, the post office is the public face of the federal government, a gathering spot as well as a civic icon.

In their design of the $15.4 million National Postal Museum, architects with the Washington firm of Florance Eichbaum Esokoff King did not attempt to evoke any one particular style or building type. Instead, they drew inspiration from the two basic extremes that underline every aspect of the Postal Service: the sheer monumentality of the task of moving so much mail, and the relatively minuscule nature of the individual pieces of mail that must be moved.

This duality between the mammoth and the minute can be seen as a metaphor for the Postal Service itself -- the monolithic institution that is actually made up of a million different pieces.

It comes up again and again in the design of the postal museum --from the grand scale of the 90-foot-high atrium that serves as the main exhibit area to the tiny brass "acorn caps" on the escalators that take visitors there.

The result is a witty and engaging melange of postal imagery, a garden of philatelic delights. At its best, it makes you feel as if you are behind the scenes at the post office after closing time, free to roam around and explore the many gadgets and gizmos that move the mail but are never open to public view.

"Our whole effort has been to reflect this marvelous duality inherent in the Postal Service -- on the one hand, its civic monumentality, on the other hand, its industrial practicality," said architect Colden Florance. "The design is full of paradoxes, oppositions, contradictions."

Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the postal museum is located inside the old Washington City Post Office, a Daniel Burnham landmark at First Street and Massachusetts Avenue Northeast, next to Union Station.

Built in 1914, the post office served as Washington's main post office until 1986 and was recently converted to an office complex called Postal Square. It now houses federal agencies as well as a full-service post office. The museum is its centerpiece and crown jewel.

To get to the museum, visitors must walk through the restored public hall of the old post office. Its grandeur and classical details set just the right tone for the approach.

Stamp of authenticity

A new foyer directly off the public hall serves as a transitional space between the office center and the exhibits one level below. From this entrance, visitors can gaze into the main exhibit space, which is filled with objects used to transport the mail: mail planes, a stagecoach, a rail car. The entry is filled with architectural imagery inspired by the Postal Service, such as metal ceilings that recall the curved roof lines of mail train cars and light fixtures reminiscent of airmail drop towers.

Visitors move by escalator or elevator into the main exhibit space, which provides access to individual exhibits designed by the firm of Miles Fridburg Molinaroli. After self-guided tours that can last anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours or more, visitors can stop at a Stamp Store and a branch of the Smithsonian's gift shop. They leave by ascending the same escalator or elevator they used before.

Wandering through the postal museum, one cannot help but make comparisons to the recently opened U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

There, architect James Ingo Freed used imagery of concentration camps as the starting point for a powerful work of architecture that reinforces the gruesome exhibits on display inside. His design was all the more haunting because it is never literal, subtly evoking faraway places and events in muted and abstract ways.

Postal paraphernalia

The design of the postal museum is effective in the same way because it also never gets too literal -- this is a museum, after all, not a post office. Like the Holocaust Museum, too, the postal museum takes ordinary industrial objects, such as conveyor belts and sorting bins, and uses them to create beautiful spaces.

From the bronze railing in the shape of a cancellation mark to the standard-issue mailbags that hold posters for sale in the gift shop, the building is a cornucopia of postal paraphernalia, used in clever and unexpected ways.

Even the marble floor in the main exhibit space makes a subtle reference to mail -- with envelope-sized blocks bearing colorful stamp-sized squares in each upper right-hand corner.

One of the wittiest postal references can be found in the curved ceiling above the entry. There, the architects suspended a grid of steel panels silk-screened with the pattern of one of the Postal Service's most famous goofs: the 1901 Empire Express Invert, a 2-cent stamp on which a train was printed upside down.

Mr. Florance said the design team displayed the stamp above the escalator because, in that position, half of it would make sense to the people going down and half of it would make sense to the people going up. In other words, he finally found a good use for the defective stamp, while showing that the institution that produced it can be fallible.

An inherent conflict

The upside-down stamp brings up another aspect of the duality to which the architects alluded throughout the building -- the inherent conflict of depicting an institution that presents itself as being dependable and reliable ("Neither snow nor rain . . .") but that is ultimately made up of individuals with their own faults and foibles.

Mr. Florance said his team did not make a conscious effort to explore the contrast between dependability and fallibility, but he acknowledges signs of it may come through unintentionally.

"We were interested in giving the museum a sense of permanence and quality and purpose," he explains. "We didn't want it to look like an amusement park. It had to be an extension of the original building, which is all about dignity."

And so it is. On the whole, the museum provides a respectful, dignified look at the Postal Service. And yet the architectural juxtaposition of the grand and the intimate, the polished and the rough, gives it just enough of an edge to heighten the experience, while providing a perfect backdrop for the exhibits.

Museum planners might have further enriched the visitors' experience had they taken advantage of the post office next door and offered a behind-the-scenes tour -- such as the ones available at the U.S. Mint or the FBI building.

Still, the postal museum provides a wealth of information about a world that affects everyone -- but is known to relatively few. Not many people get a chance to spend time behind the scenes at the post office -- or would even want to. On many different levels, this is the next best thing.

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