Fond memories of the Old Post Office

John Kelly
Columnist February 29, 2012

My recent column about the bells of the Old Post Office prompted John Galuardi to write. John retired from the GSA in1982 and is very well acquainted with that building, as are many Washingtonians who have a fondness for the castle-like structure.

John said the clock in the handsome tower is electric now but was originally mechanical, its movement powered by a large weight suspended from a cable that was wound around a drum.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“However, one day the cable slipped off the edge of the drum and the weight went hurling down and hit the floor below,” John wrote. “There was an office below that point, and the man sitting at his desk got up to do something when the weight broke through the ceiling and onto his desk.”

It was a close shave for him. Unfortunately, it was an even closer one for James P. Willett. He was the city’s postmaster when the building opened in 1899. On Sept. 30, 1899, Willett fell 90 feet down the elevator shaft to his death. An inquest determined that a barricade across the open shaft was “insufficient.” (Willett is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.)

In the 1960s, Silver Spring’s Arnold Hauser worked at the U.S. Information Agency, which had its offices in the building. He was a TV technician and liked exploring the nooks and crannies of the Old Post Office. USIA made pro-America films to be shown in foreign countries, and production crews would occasionally use the tower as a backdrop. Arnold remembers one drama about Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn that was taped up there because of its atmosphere.


The Old Post Office as it looked when it was being used as a place to put small federal offices. (Photo by GSA)

Peter Feibelman is a D.C. architect who said one of the marvels of the building is that it wasn’t designed to hold bells at all. The Congress bells, don’t forget, weren’t installed until 1983. The architectural firm SOM and the structural engineering firm Cagley & Associates had to figure out a way to install them, modifying the tower to accommodate the weight of the bells as well as the stresses that occur when the bells swing.

“The tower reinforcing solution was conceived after James Cagley and team toured several ancient bell towers in England,” Peter wrote. “They weren’t looking for a trim, modern solution but looking for an ancient solution to the structural requirements of heavy, moving bells inside a stone-upon-stone tower.”

Their nifty solution — based on methods in practice for centuries — ensures the bells ring safely today.

Finally, Thomas Bower hopes that the Trumpification of the grand building won’t mean the obliteration of the name Nancy Hanks.

Hanks was the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, which had offices in the Old Post Office. After her death in 1983, the building was named after her.

“She was a prominent leader for sharing the artistic genius of America with all citizens,” Thomas wrote, “and she was one of the saviors of the building which carries her name when others sought to destroy it.”

Oh, deer

Several readers wanted to bring me back down to Earth after Tuesday’s ode to anticipation — and to the tulips a-sprouting in my front garden. Oh sure, they wrote, you can wait for your beautiful tulips, but someone else is waiting for them, too.

Deer, wrote Fairfax’s Kathy White, think tulips are “cupcakes made especially for them to devour in one gulp.”

Cupcakes? Cindie Marx said deer think of tulips as “bonbons,” adding, “Pepper spray helps, on the blossoms.”

George Newton of Waterford has pretty much given up on tulips. “They don’t seem to like the leaves,” he wrote of deer, “so I am left with several leaves surrounding a tall skinny stem that was to be a flower, but became a meal for the deer. Good luck. If you have deer, you will need it.”

Fore!

My column about the eventual demise of White Flint had Washington’s Ed Franklin feeling nostalgic — but not necessarily about the mall. Oh, he supposes he’ll miss that mighty monument to commerce, “but my fondest memories will always be of the golf course nestled in the hills alongside Rockville Pike. That’s where I spent my afternoons just after leaving the army in ’57.”

That’s a reminder that wherever you look around here, there was something there before that. And before that, all the way back to the dinosaurs. When the White Flint golf course was built, there were probably people who mourned the woods or farmland that were lost to make way for it.

To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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