The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Old Post Office building sees dreary final days

National Park Service Ranger Titus Early waits outside of the Old Post Office Tower entrance Wednesday – Clinton Yates/The Washington Post

On the last day open to visitors at Washington’s Old Post Office Tower Wednesday, a pair of building workers were the first two people up a glass-walled elevator, way ahead of the tour groups and history buffs looking for their last chance to get an unencumbered view of the city. For one of the workers, it was his maiden voyage.

“It was nice. It was very interesting, because I learned more about the building in 30 minutes than I did in six years” working here, said Jamain Morgan, 34, who lives in Maryland. “Seeing a part of history that you didn’t know was there, that’ll definitely stay with me for a while.”

Hopefully so, because as of Thursday, things are about to change at the corner of 12th and Pennsylvania. Even though the quirky food court and souvenir shops have been closed since January, the last tenants of the building, including the National Park Service which managed the property, will now prepare for the dump trucks full of money that Donald Trump is bringing to town. He plans to renovate the facility into what his daughter once touted will be “the finest luxury hotel in the world.”

But during during its final few days, the place resembled something more out of a Harry Potter movie than a potentially fine hospitality establishment. With wind and rain whipping through the tower, a spooky vibe was palpable. If you’ve never been, the ascent to the 9th floor takes nearly 45 seconds. Another smaller elevator takes you up to the 12th, the observation deck. That short ride ends with a ominous thud from the elevator. Eventually, the doors open out onto the deck. The booth set aside for the Rangers is spartan a best. On the last day, all it had was a telephone, a space heater and a pair of binoculars. Along with a Yule Log Holiday Songbook, dated Winter 2012.

Heading back down, the damp rails between the 12th and 10th floor  in the stairwell leave your hands sticky with rust. The partially terrifying descent, complete with window views of the narrow catwalks above the Bells Room, is enough to leave a lump in your throat. Most rangers said that the closing of the building, even if temporary, was bittersweet. There were mixed emotions, with some happy to think that the building will be upgraded but others unhappy to have to leave.

“Of course, anytime the park service has to turn away business from someplace, it’s painful,” said Carol Johnson, a public affairs officer for the Park Service. “It is a hidden gem. We really are into the history of D.C. and like to teach people about the places that we are interpreting, so, this is going to be a loss.”

The building, which opened in 1899, was the city’s first skyscraper. It was also the first government building on Pennsylvania Avenue and the first government building with its own electric power plant. Over the years it’s been home to protests, demolition efforts and in short, a tourist trap.

This week, many were surprised to find out their beloved pavilion was gone. “I came with my oldest son, it’s his 5th grade field trip. It’s the 42nd annual trip that our school has taken here,” Kendall Chance, 32, said. Her group was in town from Bremen, Ga. “I was really sad to see that the food court’s not going to be here. Because that’s just what you know. You come here to eat. You go in the tower. That’s just what you do,” she said.

The truth is, the building probably deserves its turn in the limelight. Even in its so-called heyday after being revived in the 1980s it left more to be desired. But with Trump coming in, that grand atrium might truly live up to the name, even if in a ham-handed, over-the-top fashion. Trump says he’ll keep the old charm of the Richardsonian Romanesque-style building.

But right now, it feels like anything would be an upgrade to the wearisome space that collects dozens of puddles on the floor after a rainy day. The building will still be owned by the General Services Administration, and the tower will still be run by National Park Service, but in the mean time, they’ll have to co-exist with Trump.

Nobody really knows how that relationship will work. Still, even on the last day, The Donald’s presence wasn’t well-known.  “It was something I just wanted to check off my list of seeing the Washington monuments,” Jeffrey Ryan, 28 of Chicago said. He was on a quick vacation and only learned of the real-estate reality show star’s involvement when I told him. “They’re putting up a Trump Hotel?! Wow,” he said. “Way to go capitalism.”