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Post office gone, hardly forgotten

Pioneer Courthouse activists renew their fight on the building's behalf

A belated backlash is beginning to take shape over the mid-March closure of the post office in Portland's historic Pioneer Courthouse.

Only now, with the distractions of peace marches and war fever fading, is it sinking in for many people that for the first time in 127 years, they can't walk into the city's oldest landmark building and mail a letter.

And the grumbling is mounting.

'That's where we've always gone,' said Kristyn Faglie, who works in the Pacific Building, just across Southwest Yamhill Street from the courthouse. 'It's a historic place. Do you know why they did that? I don't get it.'

Post office activist Sam Oakland, a former Portland State University professor who has waged a long-term fight for the historic post office, said that people are furious that it's gone.

'A historic post office is part of culture, especially this one in Portland, dead center in the middle of our cultural center,' he said.

Mike Teskey, president of the Historic Preservation League of Oregon, agreed. 'If you look at the symbolism of downtown, a post office is an important symbol of livability,' he said.

Teskey opposes both the post office's departure and the General Services Administration's plan to modify the landmark building to put in underground parking for the judges who work there.

'It's such an important contributor to the local economy Ñ people do a lot of business at the post office,' he said.

Built in 1875 as a post office, customs house and courthouse for a Portland that still didn't have paved streets, the stone Italianate building was designed by A.B. Mullett, whose other works include a number of notable federal buildings, including the San Francisco Mint and the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C.

Now, signs posted at the barricaded entrances to the closed post office tell would-be customers that the two nearest post offices are six blocks to the north and south. The main post office is 15 blocks away.

The GSA evicted the post office in advance of renovations to the building. When work is completed, in about two years, the other tenants of the courthouse, three 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges, will return. The post office eviction is permanent.

That is, unless U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer blocks GSA plans for the 1875 building, the second oldest courthouse west of the Mississippi River.

Blumenauer, who said Congress appropriated $16.6 million for a project that was intended only for a seismic upgrade and historic renovation of the courthouse, has asked the congressional subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management to call a halt to the expanded plans.

A letter from the subcommittee to the GSA could stop the project, Blumenauer said.

'We've been contacted by hundreds of people, in downtown especially, who use that post office,' Blumenauer aide Tom Markgraf said. 'The downtown needs postal service.'

When it was operating, the Pioneer Courthouse post office 'served 1,500 people a day and was the most profitable post office in the entire state of Oregon on a per capita basis Ñ that's what the post office tells me,' Markgraf said.

The number of users 'certainly underscores the role the post office plays in the central city,' said John Czarobski, a spokesman for the Portland Business Alliance, which supported both Blumenauer, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Gordon Smith in their efforts to keep the post office.

GSA spokesman Peter Gray said, however, that the agency is merely responding as the manager of the federally owned building to the request of the federal appeals court for more room.

Jon Kvistad, regional director of the General Services Administration, called the addition of parking a post Sept. 11, 2001, necessity for the judges' security.

'People played politics with the facts,' he said, referring to the battle over the plans.

Historic preservationist Teskey contended that the GSA is off base with its proposal.

'GSA has turned it completely around in my perspective, taken the money and used Sept. 11 security as a specious rationale to take the project in a bad direction,' he said.

To add parking, Kvistad said, the curb cut will be moved 22 feet along Southwest Morrison Street, to the middle of the block across from the Meier & Frank department store.

No new excavation is needed because the basement is already there, although a new garage door will be added, he said.

'Nothing is being done extra to facilitate parking except putting concrete down on the floor,' Kvistad said.

Markgraf disagreed; he said the basement ceiling is so low that excavation will be required. He also predicted that the GSA's expanded plans will cost more than the $16.6 million appropriation.

Pioneer Courthouse is ranked third nationally for historic importance among GSA properties, according to Blumenauer.

The GSA has conceded that completing its plans would have a potential adverse impact on the historic quality of the building. As a result, the agency is meeting with historic preservation interests for an agreement on mitigation measures. Mitigation would not alter the plans for a garage but would require the GSA to record and document the history of the building, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for decades.