Post Office unwrapped

By Charlie Bermant
Posted 12/20/23



The unwrapping of the Port Townsend Post Office last week drew holiday-related reactions but there is still a mystery about how much this particular gift will cost us.  

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Post Office unwrapped




The unwrapping of the Port Townsend Post Office last week drew holiday-related reactions but there is still a mystery about how much this particular gift will cost us.  

The building’s restoration began last March when the post office was wrapped in polyethylene film in order to restore the stone exterior to its original condition.

The new old post office is scheduled to open at the end of January, according to Postmaster Denise Judd.

The Post Office is a federally owned building and its restoration is a federal project. With this, a common assumption is a belief that it is a tax-funded project and therefore subject to disclosure requirements.

This is not the case. Representatives of the Postal Service have declined to disclose the cost of the project and are vague with regard to funding sources.

The Leader asked USPS representatives on various levels to provide the data with no success. In a statement PR officer Kim Frum stated, “The United States Postal Service is an independent establishment of the executive branch of the government of the United States. As such, tax dollars are not used to keep the lights on, pay our employees, or move billions of pieces of mail. The Postal Service instead relies on the revenue it generates from the sale of stamps, products, and services to fund its operations. USPS self-funding, and not tax dollars, is paying for the Port Townsend Post Office project.”

Queries to the project’s architect and contractor drew similar responses, as they say they are not allowed to discuss any details about the project or its cost.

The project includes, among other things, removing and replacing more than 100 historical windows to match current windows in appearance (a process that can require one week’s labor for each window), cleaning and repairing the existing sandstone façade, removing and replacing gutters to match current gutters in appearance, and restoring the roof-mounted flagpoles.

As a federally owned building, city-mandated permits are not required. There is nothing on record with the City of Port Townsend about cost and scope. Jefferson County assesses the building at $1.24 million. Windermere owner Michelle Sandoval characterized that assessment as “crazy low.”

The post office was built in 1893, when Port Townsend was poised to be a key trading hub in the Pacific Northwest.

It incorporates the Richardsonian Romanesque style, popularized in the late 1800s and known for incorporating 11th and 12th-century characteristics of Spanish, Italian, and southern French architecture styles.

The sandstone structure was the first federally constructed post office to be built in Washington state, and was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1991 as one of the Quimper Peninsula’s oldest and grandest buildings.

In 2012 USPS was set to surplus the building. The City of Port Townsend entered into discussions to purchase the building from USPS for $1: in return it would construct a mail sorting facility in the Port Townsend Industrial Park or another suitable location. Under the agreement, the Post Office would not move its retail presence. But the agreement fell through, according to then-City Manager David Timmons.  

The Port Townsend Post Office has drawn repeated criticism for its lack of compliance to the American Disabilities Act. The building is accessible through stone stairs on separate sides of the building. The building does not-and will not-include access ramps or an elevator.

USPS spokesperson Frum declined to confirm or deny whether the project would be ADA-compliant. Confirmation of its lack of compliance was available from other sources.  

People in wheelchairs have the option to go around the back of the building and hit a buzzer, at which time a postal employee will attend to their needs. This is a paltry solution, according to board chair of Disability Awareness Starts Here (DASH) Patricia Teal of Port Townsend, who has lobbied for disability access at the Post Office.

These previously unsuccessful efforts began anew in 2021 when the restoration plans were first discussed. In an April 2023 letter to Teal USPS representative Lisa Williams said there were no plans to install wheelchair ramps as part of the restoration.

Williams said that those with disabilities have the option of using the bell. Otherwise, they have the option to travel nine miles to the ADA-accessible Port Hadlock Post Office or go online.

(While all the DASH board members live in Port Townsend the organization’s PO box is in Port Hadlock.)

Teal said she was “dismayed” by this response. She is one who has difficulty with technology, and chooses to not pay her bills online. She also values the tactile aspect of regular mail.

“They refused to do this,” Teal said of the ramp installation. “And it’s not just about people with wheelchairs. Parents in strollers can’t get in, and seniors can have difficulty using these stairs.

DASH’s previous efforts led to the lowering of the bell by several feet, to the point where it can be reached from a wheelchair. This is a small victory, Teal said. If someone in a wheelchair can reach the bell, they will still have difficulty navigating the speed bumps on the driveway.

In her letter, Williams cited cost as a reason to not install ramps, as well as the post office’s construction prior to ADA requirements.

The building is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, something the Post Office has used to resist modifying the building for ADA access.

“This designation doesn’t mean that the building can’t be upgraded,” Teal said. “There are lots of creative ways they could to this that would be sensitive to the needs of a historical building.”

This is confirmed by the Washington State Architectural Historian, who said there are no rules that restrict the retrofit of historical buildings for ADA compatibility.