An Adaptive Re-use of U.S. Post Office Buildings

Erika Reuter, who recently graduated from NYSID’s post-professional MFA-2 program, was inspired to design an adaptive re-use solution for US post office buildings, preserving these structures while also highlighting their role as community-building centers. We interviewed Erika to learn more about her project and its modular design, which is adaptable to post offices of various sizes.

While US post offices are among this country’s most revered landmark buildings, with over 1,100 constructed across the nation during the New Deal, they are being increasingly abandoned or demolished. The decrease in snail mail, budgets, and the overall decline of town centers are all cited as causes for the post office vacating these structures. Many of these same post offices are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Public Works Administration emphasized the importance of high design and quality in order to ensure "public works of an ensuring character and lasting benefits" as it was described at the time.

The re-design of post offices has been a hot topic lately, from a recent New York Times article on the sale and re-design of historic post offices nationwide to the re-make of the iconic Farley Post Office in Manhattan, called  “one of the most mythic and elusive” NYC development projects in a New York Observer article.  What inspired you to take on post offices for your thesis?

I’ve often imagined re-designing a building for an entirely different use, something that I might never get to do working in a firm.  When it came to my thesis, I was inspired by social need. Converting abandoned, centrally-located post offices into enclosed hypermarkets (a supermarket/department store) gives both a new life for these landmark buildings and an opportunity to revitalize post offices and town centers nationwide.

They are often beautiful buildings, sometimes even historically preserved. Even the so-called “ugly ones” have a unique quality about them. Can you describe your project?
I took the idea of the “big box store” and instead of driving far away to get to it, I started with vacant post offices located in the center of towns and transformed them into easily accessible, customized local retail markets. This can work anywhere in the country.  The idea promotes a local business model and supports walking, echoing the successful practices of other towns and cities that are revitalizing their communities through the re-design of downtown areas.

Does the name Marche apply both to the market concept and walking?
Yes! In French the word 'marche' means 'market' and 'marcher' means 'to walk'. Markets and bazaars have traditionally had a important role in building communities all over the world. Historically, post offices were actually the first buildings in American towns, giving a name to places in the middle of the wilderness and functioning as a gathering place for settlers. I originally played off the way some give Target a French accent and pronounce it "Tar-jay" with an accent on the "e" to make it fancy.

How does the design of Marche involve and engage the community?
Besides the central location, inside the vast, completely gutted space is an actual house. The front of the house is where the local products would go. For example, in the rendering above the local area is set up as a farmers market. The idea is that everything outside the house is local and community related while everything inside the house is a Marche product. An actual house inside of a space is unique, for a mass merchant retail space it is unheard of, but exciting.

I took the concept of cross-marketing from internet shopping and stores like Ikea, with their lifestyle vignettes. The design challenge was to create a frame that could house these vignettes while providing space to stock products.  This is one element of the design that could be customized from one store to the other, but the modules inside are always the same. The overall corporate design system also had to be modular so that it could be placed anywhere.

The details speak to the original use of the spaces as post-offices, can you tell us about some of those?
The roof structure is covered in a compressed cardboard material which provides a warmth similar to wood but without the weight.  It also is a subtle reference back to cardboard boxes used by post offices.  The “pick-up” area is set up so that shopping carts can nestle into the counter allowing customers to load up at the pick-up area and then go their car.  Above this area is a faded Marche logo that is supposed to represent a post office rubber stamp referencing the original transactions of the space.

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Erika's thesis project, and those of other graduates, can be viewed at the MFA Thesis & MPS Studio Projects Exhibition at the NYSID Graduate Center, 401 Park Avenue South at 28th Street, 3rd floor, NYC. By appointment only; the exhibition will be on view through September 13, 2013.

View more of the student thesis projects here.

Phyllis Greer