Walking Tour #22: The Main Street Post Office, Born in the Great Depression

The historic downtown's Main Street Post Office, dedicated in 1935, the year the WPA was formed.  (Photo, September 29, 2012)

   Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
   Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
   Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet and lime;
   Once I built a tower, now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime                             
                                        Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? song lyrics, Yip Harburg, 1931

   Sometimes, a post office isn't just a post office.  You might walk right by our historic downtown post office without giving it much thought.  It's worth a closer look.

   Seventy-five years after the Pony Express and twenty-eight years before the introduction of the zip code, Huntington Beach opened the doors to the Main Street Post Office in 1935.  It was a big deal.  Specifically, a New Deal.

A reminder of the deep economic despair faced by Americans in 1935, a family from Oklahoma flees the Dust Bowl via Route 66 for better days in California.  (Photograph, Dorothea Lange)

   The country was digging its way out of the Great Depression.  The stock market dropped 89 percent (it would take more than two decades to recover to the 1929 level).  Banks failed.  Unemployment rose to 25 percent by 1933.  Unhappy with President Hoover, people gathered in "Hoovervilles" (makeshift shantytowns), flew the "Hoover flag" (empty pockets turned out), kept warm with a "Hoover blanket" (newspaper), and drove a "Hoover wagon" (a car towed by a horse because the owner couldn't afford gas).

   In 1933, came the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.

   Post offices sprung up in small towns around the country, supported by the New Deal's Civil Works Administration and later Works Progress Administration.  It was an effort to create jobs and stimulate local commerce.  When your town was selected for a New Deal post office, it represented hope.

   Huntington Beach's post office was designed by architect Louis A. Simon (1867-1958).  Simon used a similar plan for post offices across the country; you'll find a mirror image of our post office in Santa Paula, California.*

Left: The cornerstone on the Main Street Post Office. (Photo, October 2012)

   The building's architecture is considered a "restrained" style, with the minimal ornamentation preferred by the U.S. Treasury Department at the time.  Simon also designed the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, D.C.

   From tiny Yerington, Nevada to the Village of Haverstraw, New York, to the growing town of Huntington Beach, the New Deal post offices often represented the first federal building in rural communities.

   The grand opening of the Main Street Post Office was greeted with banners, speeches and music.  It was a proud, patriotic moment.  Telephones were not yet common and a modern post office meant we were officially connected to the rest of the country.  We were worthy of an important federal service.

Left: The Main Street Post Office, officially called "Beach Center Station." (Photo, October 2012)

   The photograph of the Post Office's December 1935 dedication is still featured in the lobby, in an original glass-fronted "community bulletin" case, 77 years later. 

Right: Dedication ceremony in 1935. (Photo courtesy of Stockteam.com)

   In 2009, we learned our historic Main Street Post Office was considered non essential by a struggling U.S. Postal Service.  It is one of 100+ post offices in California listed on a closure list in 2011.

   "Retaining all its architectural integrity to the present day," reports the California Preservation Foundation, "the Huntington Beach Post Office is one of the last historic structures left on Main Street and is a local landmark."

   In Eureka! The Postal Service finds gold in California, the Save the Post Office blog notes post offices are a key element of livable, walkable downtowns, "Historic post offices are highly prized by their communities.  They anchor the downtown area, help local businesses, enable people to walk to the post office, and elicit pride of place.  People may complain about the long lines, but they love their grand old post office."

   Evidence of post office love?  Inside the Main Street Post Office lobby on an October afternoon is a poster with finger-painted handprints from Mrs. Taylor's first grade class at Peterson Elementary School proclaiming, "Hands Down Our Main Street Post Office is the Best!"

Inside the beautifully maintained Main Street Post Office.  Seeing a letter inside your glass-front post office box was--and still is--one of life's simple pleasures.  As of October 2012, it appeared every box was in use. (Photo, October 2012)

   The Save the Post Office blog continues, "California has fourteen historic post offices that have been sold, put on the market, or planned for sale — the most of any state in the country...using fifty years old as a rule of thumb for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, over a hundred California post offices are eligible and 24 are currently on the Register."   

   A list of California's historic post offices can be found at http://www.savethepostoffice.com/eureka-postal-service-finds-gold-california  At 77 years old, the Main Street Post Office is considered eligible for listing on the National Historic Register (some on the List are younger).

  This is another piece of Americana worth seeing.  If you're visiting Huntington Beach, drop your postcard to those back home at our Main Street Post Office.  For locals, if you haven't visited this historic post office in a while, time may be running out.

Directions to walking tour stop #22:  From Pacific Coast Highway, head two blocks inland on Main Street; our historic post office is at the northeast corner of Main Street and Olive Avenue.

Box number one at the Main Street Post Office.  Tooled brass surrounded by wood moulding, with hand-painted numbers---early 20th Century craftsmanship. (Photo, October 2012)

Dark polished wood frames the window that looks out on a busy Main Street. (Photo, October 2012)

Locals only.  The hand-painted mail drop inside the Main Street Post Office. (Photo, October 2012)

Left: Photo posted in 2009 on O.C. History Roundup, OCHistorical.blogspot.com.  
 Below: Photo taken October 2012.  The same two bicycles parked in front.

*Editor's Note: To view the Santa Paula, California post office---our identical twin---see http://livingnewdeal.berkeley.edu/projects/santa-paula-post-office-santa-paula-ca/

A thought-provoking editorial on post office closures, Who owns our downtown post office?, can be found in The Berkeley Daily Planet at http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2012-07-13/article/39999?headline=Who-Owns-OUR-Downtown-Berkeley-Post-Office-News-Analysis---By-Gray-Brechin

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