The Fort Lee Post Office was constructed using funds allocated by the Department of Treasury as a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program in 1938. In the late 1930’s, the US Postal Service dramatically expanded and improved its facilities across the country to provide employment and broadened services. Like many New Deal projects, the Fort Lee Post Office was designed in the colonial revival style, which pays homage to the architecture of the nation’s founding.
Often the interiors of facilities built during New Deal initiatives were further enriched by artists working on behalf of the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, and the Fort Lee Post Office is no exception. Beginning in 1934, the Section of Painting and Sculpture instituted “48 States,” a national competition commissioning artists to create public art for post offices. The Fort Lee Post Office participated in this competition resulting in four large-scale compositions by the muralist Henry Schnakenberg that were installed in the building. The four murals chronicle the city’s history; they show scenes of the Lenni-Lenape, the Revolutionary War, the early years of the film industry, and the present day (circa 1940).
Part of the American realist tradition, Schnakenberg’s oeuvre largely focused on New York and the New England countryside. His work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and collected by the Whitney Museum of American Art in its formative years. Collections housing his work today include the Metropolitan Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Today the building stands as an important reminder of Fort Lee’s roots as a small trolley suburb in the first decades of the twentieth century. The building’s style is in stark contrast to Fort Lee’s current rapid and modern development. Under the leadership of Mayor Mark Sokolich, nearly $1 billion of investment has been directed to sixteen acres of land directly east of downtown, and the now seemingly diminutive post office sits amid high-rise towers and large-scale, mixed-use development.
In 2016, the US Postal Service agreed to relocate to a new facility that will be attached to a recently-constructed municipal garage behind the historic post office building. After they vacate the building, the city plans to demolish the historic structure and replace it with a one-acre passive park. The Postal Service accepted Fort Lee’s proposal, on the condition that the city remove, conserve, and reinstall the Schnakenberg murals in the new facility. While the city has agreed to sponsor $180,000 in conservation treatment for the murals, it has yet to make public announcements about the timeline for demolition of the 1938 building. Without action now, the building will likely be destroyed in the near future.
The Fort Lee Post Office building’s historic architecture and location have made it the symbolic heart of the Fort Lee for nearly 90 years. Architecture of the 1930s is on the decline in Fort Lee and throughout New Jersey. Residents of Fort Lee are mobilizing to save the building, writing to the Mayor asking that the building be saved and reused. For instance, the building could become an education or civic center surrounded by a smaller park, converting current parking lots around the building into landscaped areas. Many post office buildings have also been successfully adaptively reused as by private entities as offices, restaurants, and the like. Preservation New Jersey supports residents’ calls for rethinking the redevelopment plan to incorporate the post office intact.
Dr. Michael Puma