Students, like others who pass by the tents pitched on the steps of Berkeley’s century-old Downtown post office, may well wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, we’re all using the Internet now instead of popping letters to Mom in those disappearing street mailboxes, and the lines at that post office and many others grow irritatingly long as the clerks who used to staff them vanish as well.
A recent article in The Daily Californian attributes U.S. Postal Service spokesman Augustine Ruiz as explaining that as a result of a decline in mail volume, the Postal Service only needs to retain 4,000 of its 57,000 square feet of space and that keeping ownership of the entire building would not be economical. Disposing of a tax-exempt property one holds to lease space elsewhere doesn’t make long-range economic sense, but doing so doesn’t enter into the accounting of current Postal Service management. That the public paid for Berkeley’s post office also goes unmentioned in the service’s press releases. Indeed, the very notion of the public good represented by the ennobling architecture of the Downtown post office as well as the buildings at the center of the UC Berkeley campus has faded in tandem with the right of every American to have quality and tuition-free education along with a cheap and efficient postal service mandated by the Constitution.
Take a look at the materials, craftsmanship and design of buildings such as Doe Library, Wheeler Hall, the Campanile and Hearst Gym. Equivalent to those of expensive Ivy League colleges, those buildings and others at the heart of what was once simply the state university represent that taxpayers and wealthy individuals previously believed students from even the remotest parts of the state deserved to to become fully-rounded citizens. They were elements of two Hearst-sponsored plans that sought to create an ideal City of Learning on the hills facing the Golden Gate Bridge. By 1914, the treasury allotted a generous bonus to erect a post office in Berkeley worthy of the nearby university. It was modeled after Brunelleschi’s famous Foundling Hospital in Florence, Italy. During the Great Depression, the Treasury Relief Art Project further embellished the post office with both a mural and a sculpture at the same time that the Works Progress Administration set female artists to work laying mosaics on the university’s brick powerhouse east of Sather Gate. Those mosaics celebrate the expansive power of the humanities.
The language of the public good is neither spoken nor understood by those who now run both our postal service and once-public universities. Postmaster General Patrick Donohoe let Mayor Tom Bates know that he feels Berkeley’s pain, informing the mayor that “the Postal Service is the first to acknowledge how important it is to preserve our historic buildings, which is why we are going through a lengthy and transparent process to assure their protection before they are sold.” Three months later, Tom Samra, vice president of facilities, wrote that though he was “sympathetic to the concerns raised by (the city, elected officials and numerous other parties),” he was denying their appeals so that there “is no right to further administrative or judicial review of this decision.” Though listed on the National Register and paid for by the public it serves, Berkeley’s post office and others don’t represent a trust to those such as Donohoe and Samra but simply real are estate assets to be flogged by their exclusively contracted agent CBRE, the broker chaired by UC Regent Richard Blum, husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Although not for sale yet, the decay of the classically inspired buildings at the core of the UC Berkeley campus suggests that those who run the university ever more like a business, rather than a public trust, regard them as plum sites of opportunity for more profitable ventures. While they have recently poured hundreds of millions of dollars into new sports and biotech facilities, buildings such as the magnificent women’s gymnasium designed by Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck as a memorial to UC benefactor Phoebe Hearst slouch toward ruin.
The physical decay and outright sale of what their builders intended as monuments of unaging intellect represents not just a betrayal of the public trust but also the loss of an ethical language that created a world-class university and universal postal service. We must recover that language to understand what is being taken from us and to whose advantage it is taken at our collective loss.
Gray Brechin is the project scientist of the Living New Deal based in the UC Berkeley Department of Geography.
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