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Monday Morning Brief | James A. Farley Post Office in New York City

May 23, 2016 08:00 AM

Watch as Scott catalog senior editor Marty Frankevicz discusses the history and architecture of the James A. Farley Post Office, a short walk from the Javits Center in New York City.

Full video transcript:

Good morning and welcome to the Monday Morning Brief for May 23, 2016.

When I was in college many years ago, I went on a tour of some lower Manhattan buildings. A history professor from Columbia University led the tour, regaling us with all sorts of fascinating details about New York’s history and towering buildings. We even got to enter buildings on Ellis Island before they were restored.

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If you will be attending World Stamp Show 2016, which will open this coming Saturday, May 28, at the Javits Convention Center in New York, you may have some free time. If a tour like the one I took is available, go for it! But if you need just a brief break from the show, and you appreciate all things postal and architectural, the James A. Farley Post Office is only a short walk away.

The post office is an architectural gem on 8th Avenue that opened in 1912. It was across the street from the original Pennsylvania Station, which opened in 1910 after the completion of the first tunnel under the Hudson River. That tunnel allowed freight and passengers to travel directly to Manhattan rather than having to take a ferry from New Jersey. It made perfect sense to place New York’s main post office right next to its most important hub for transportation to the west and south. 

The post office was officially renamed to honor Mr. Farley’s governmental service in 1982. Farley is perhaps the best-known postmaster general amongst stamp collectors. He’s famous for making imperforate, ungummed sheets of stamps, dubbed the Farley issues, available to collectors. But that was only after it was discovered that he was exclusively presenting such items to a number of government officials.

In the mid-1930’s, under Farley’s tenure, an annex to the post office was built. The structure then covered the entire immense expanse of real estate between 8th and 9th Avenues and 31st and 33rd Streets.

Both the post office and the original Pennsylvania Station were Beaux-Arts masterpieces designed by the McKim, Mead and White architectural firm. They designed plenty of grand buildings, including the Low Memorial Library of Columbia University and the New York University Library, both of which have appeared on United States stamps.

Above the massive columns on the post office’s facade is the inscription, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” There are perhaps no words ever written that reflect the importance and stature of the postal system of 100 years ago. Those words were never the motto of the postal service, though most everyone thinks that they could have been.

A brief history of postal services of other countries is related with inscriptions in the upper corners of the building that cite the achievements of men like Sir Rowland Hill and Heinrich von Stephan. Like collecting stamps, a visit to this post office can be educational, if you know where to look.

The Farley Post Office’s ornate ceiling decorations in the main hall are emblems and coats of arms of various foreign nations. They are beautiful examples of the public art of that era that has largely disappeared. Also inside are some displays of postal equipment and of course, the philatelic window.

But alas, that which is open to the public at the Farley Post Office is pretty much it. Now mail largely goes by airplanes or trucks, not by trains. There is little going in the rest of the post office building. New York state has offices in the annex part of the building towards 9th Avenue. Most of the rest of the space is empty. There is a ghost town creepiness in an abandoned building. But for those who have been on tours behind these closed doors, there is also plenty remaining that shows how bustling the building once was.

There has been talk of converting some of the empty space into an extension of Amtrak’s train terminal in the neighboring Penn Station. But like many public works in New York, it takes a long time for plans to come to fruition. Because the Farley Post Office is on the National Register of Historic Places, it won’t meet the same fate as the original Pennsylvania Station, which was demolished in the 1960s.

For Linn’s Stamp News and the Scott Catalogues, I’m Marty Frankevicz. Enjoy your week in stamps.