“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
From atop its Corinthian capitals, the Farley Post Office calls out to us, announcing to Eighth Avenue its interior bustle of workers sorting and stamping and sending papers and packages to all corners. Its expanse, stretching the entirety of the block between Eighth and Ninth Avenues and overtaking all of the space between 31st and 33rd Streets, hints at the scope of the operation going on inside of its stone walls. No single vantage point can take in the entire structure; no single view can describe the variety of space and activity that must be behind that important motto. Grandeur and centrality sing above the mess of horns passing by. Just as the range of columns on the eastern facade hearkens back to Rome and Greece and other features draw upon the luxuries of the European Renaissance, the words inscribed on the building find their source in Herodotus, a reference to the dogged determination of ancient Persian couriers: this is not a structure built solely for function, but also to raise the Postal Service in its rightful place of civic and urban importance.
If you think about where the building is located and can imagine the spread of the railyard below the street, you might allow your mind to see the great packs of post hoisted from the mailcars attached to each passenger train stopping under the building, their patrons heading into the embrace of Pennsylvania Station’s skylit vaults across the street. The packages went up into massive voids – none of the Beaux-Arts flourishes seen on the building’s exterior distracting from the work at hand – where hundreds of hands facilitated the last century’s chosen form of mass communication. Above, an ingenious mess of massive steel trusses, an impressive showing of technology (and of space) at a time when, further downtown, six or eight people would crowd into a single room to live and work. Along the building’s flanks, in long ranges connected by rows of open doorways, worked those who managed and tended to those hundreds of hands. A hospital wing sat across from a canteen; accountants looked in on geographers and route-masters and postage designers. On Eighth Avenue, just behind the columns and beneath Herodotus, brass-framed windows facing New York’s grandest transit masterpiece, Pennsylvania Station, sat the Postmaster, his lavish quarters acknowledging and inspiring the importance of the Postal Service in a nation spreading across an entire continent. If the old Pennsylvania Station sung the glories of rail service, the old Post Office sung those of paper-and-stamp.
None of this, of course, is actually there. Any claims the building may lay to being a post office depend mostly upon the ability of our urban collective to imagine a past that has long since departed, gone the way of the majestic transcontinental trains that once trundled into the first Pennsylvania Station after many days on the run. Perhaps we are deluding ourselves, allowing the stamp window at the top of the steps to imply far too much about the structure behind it or placing too much trust in the red and white and blue trucks that sleep behind the old garage doors on 33rd Street. Perhaps we relegate the building to the order of things that we do not quite understand, viewing it as some mysterious machine sending us unexpected postcard among so many unwanted catalogues and credit card solicitations. Or perhaps we want to believe that, in a city like ours, such grandiosity could not be anything but important, purposeful, necessary. (And perhaps all of these are really the same thing.)
Here is what is really inside the Farley Post Office: A working stamp and package counter, once a 24-hour affair but recently a victim of cut budgets; a storage area for unused mail trucks; a massive, column-free hall beneath steel trusses and surrounded by secret staircases, empty of all activity but festively lit by portable construction lamps; several more floors of emptiness, in various states of cleanliness, obstruction, and inhabitability; row upon row of abandoned offices and work rooms, the alignment of their open doors making for an eerie urban pathway; rooms labeled for the Museum or the Clinic or the Library that was once within; the wood paneling and antique clockwork and bronze patterning that decorate the several rooms of the Postmaster’s quarters; signs and petitions and models of ideas once pondered; other things we do not know about.
All of this is a way of pondering when a building stops being a building, when it somehow crosses an invisible line between building and ghost. This isn’t some abandoned warehouse or derelict tenement we know to avoid because it is no longer a space for people; this is not a building that makes us wary of its dinginess or begs us to pine for the day it no longer mars the scape our city. This is a monument in stone next to the country’s busiest transportation hub, the survivor of McKim, Mead, and White’s Midtown twins, a landmark that hundreds of thousands of people see everyday, and – just inside its doors – an ongoing, if underserving, place of business. It participates actively in the life of our city.
Yet the Farley Post Office is but a shell: it is what we see that we consider important, and all we see is the outside. To most of us, nothing else exists. If we are to believe in the depth of Governor Cuomo’s recent commitment to a reinvention of the space as the new home of Amtrak in New York, then even the possibility of fulfilling the building’s original – and named – purpose is gone. That the new transit hall will be named Moynihan Station – memorializing the senator who initially had the idea to convert the space, and eclipsing the name of the Postmaster General who actually got the structure built – suggests the extent to which the Farley Post Office has ceased to be a true building.
Will we call it the Moynihan Station at the Farley Post Office, just to keep the name and thus the image circulating in our minds? Will the new concourse, bustling underneath the old trussed ceiling, be adorned with photographs of what once was, to awaken our wonder that such grandeur could have once been so abandoned and so necessary? Will we, as we rush down the steps to our waiting trains or pause for a coffee while we wait, finally feel some sense of atonement for what others did to the first Pennsylvania Station? Does it matter, if an outdated memorial can find some new, responsible use in a new era?
Ghosts haunt us because we cannot understand what they truly are or why they do what we purport them to do. They frighten us because they are invisible to us, supposedly inhabitants of the next world but seemingly still part of the current one. We imagine them. Buildings, usually, are different: we don’t have to wonder about them because they continually tell us about themselves, because they are decidedly of this world. Inside the Farley, behind its fabled service windows, lies something altogether different, something which reminds us that the city is living, growing, changing, and, sometimes, passing on to the other side.
James A. Farley Post Office (formerly General Post Office)
New York, NY
McKim, Mead, and White (1912)
A selection of Margaret Morton’s photographs of the Farley Post Office’s abandoned spaces can be seen at the Urban Omnibus: http://urbanomnibus.net/2016/10/excavating-the-farley/