U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service
III. Evaluating a Post Office For the National Register of Historic Places
To qualify for listing in the National Register, a property must have significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, or culture, and retain integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. Determining whether or not a particular property, such as a post office, possesses these characteristics can be accomplished by following six steps designed to reveal whether or not the post office represents one or more significant themes in American history, and whether or not the post office possesses characteristics that would make it a good representative of those themes. This approach may be used by those conducting a survey to identify significant post offices as well as for evaluating a specific post office.
First, obtain information about the specific post office based on physical inspection of the building and on documentation of its history. Next, identify the appropriate historic themes within which the post office should evaluated. Each theme should consist of a geographical context, a particular cultural or historical development within the geographical context, and a specific time frame. Themes must be significant in American history, as demonstrated by scholarly research.
Outline the characteristics the post office should possess to be a good representation of each theme. It should be possible to organize these characteristics according to the National Register Criteria: what physical features are necessary to represent a type, period, or method of construction? What associations suggest significance within a town's pattern of economic development? (8) Also evaluate the types of integrity that are important for each characteristic, and list the features that the post office should retain to possess that type of integrity.
Remember to determine if any aspect of the post office's history or present condition might place it into a category of properties not generally considered eligible for the National Register, and therefore requiring special justification. Finally, apply the list of characteristics, types of integrity, and any special considerations to the post office under evaluation.
The first step in evaluating a potential historic property is to identify the type, functions, and history of the property being considered. The basic information to obtain for a post office, which falls into the National Register category "building," includes dates of design and construction, architect(s) and builder(s), construction materials, style, the class of the post office, and period of service. The researcher also should learn whether or not the building has been altered (interior or exterior) and when these alterations occurred; whether it was designed and built specially for use as a post office or became a post office later in its history; whether it was combined within another type of building, such as a courthouse or Federal office building; and the names and periods of tenure of the postmasters. Additional information may be important, including the local introduction of innovations such as rural free delivery and parcel post, the location of previous post offices in the community, the availability of additional services besides mail delivery at the post office, and pertinent information on works of art.
Identify Historic Themes
Once the "biography" of the post office has been compiled, the next step is to analyze it in its appropriate historic context. This context may include important historical events and trends that influenced the community or State where the post office is located, as well as important themes in the development of the nation. It may be helpful to check with the State Historic Preservation Officer and local historical and preservation organizations, as they may already have developed historic contexts within which institutional and civic buildings can be analyzed and can recommend important source materials. (9)
Geographical context is an important consideration in evaluating any type of property for the National Register. Properties listed in the National Register must possess significance when evaluated in relationship to other properties locally, statewide, or nationally. The geographical context provides the perspective for studying appropriate architectural and historical developments. It also defines the areas within which to identify other sources with similar characteristics if this is necessary. The information required to demonstrate the significance of a post office will vary according to whether it is significant to the community, the State, or the entire nation. It may not be necessary, for example, to describe the development of local architectural style for a post office that is significant as an important prototype for Federal design standards nationwide. This information is essential, however, if the post office has no distinction on the State or national level, but is a significant example of its architectural style in its community. The three levels of significance are not mutually exclusive; a post office may be significant on any or all levels. Information concerning appropriate historical or architectural developments must be provided for each geographical context within which the post office may be significant.
Local significance is often difficult to evaluate because there may be many similar properties in the area or in other communities throughout the State or the country. Whether or not the property under consideration is significant to its community depends on the historical development and architectural character of that community as well as on the attributes of the property. A 1930 Colonial Revival post office might be historically or architecturally significant in one town where the style is rare, while a nearly identical one could be undistinguished in another area where there are numerous better examples. That is why it is essential to learn the historic events and trends that are important to the locality of a post office before trying to determine the qualities that would make it significant. Historic factors important to the community may include national or State developments, but the post office must be more than merely a local example of a property associated with these developments. The way in which the post office is significant to the community, State, or nation in representing these particular historic themes must be clearly stated.
An evaluation of State significance requires a similar knowledge of the appropriate historical and architectural developments within the State in order to evaluate a property on that level. Because post offices that are significant on the State level are often important examples of standardized Federal designs, it may be necessary to be familiar with the designs used in a particular State, or even to initiate a survey of post offices in the State before evaluating the significance an individual post office. This type of information may also be necessary in assessing artwork designed for post offices. Data and photographs should be consistent for all buildings throughout the State and will provide a comparative framework for identifying standard and unusual architectural designs and important characteristics of the artwork. The information can also be useful in determining the relationship between Federal policy and State or regional history.
The histories of the postal service in America and of Federal construction policies provide a chronological framework for assessing individual post offices, and place them in the context of national historical patterns. These factors, as well as the broader historical and architectural movements in this country should be considered in evaluating possible national significance for a post office. A post office that may not be nationally distinctive may be significant to its community or State as an important representative of a nationally significant theme. In these cases, the appropriate local or State context must be established.
There are many ways in which a post office may be significant for its role in the historical development or its relationship to the architectural character of the community, the State, or the nation. Theoretically, a post office could represent significant themes in almost all of the areas of significance used by the National Register. (10) Identified themes must be significant in American history on the local, State, or national level, as demonstrated by scholarly research. The chart on pages 8-9 list some of the themes that post offices could represent in their role as communications centers. Time frames are not included as they would vary according to the particular post office, locality, and relevant historic factors. In addition, of course, a post office could represent a theme by virtue of associations totally unrelated to its design or function as a post office. These themes should also be considered when judging a post office's historic or architectural significance.
After information on a specific post office has been outlined and the appropriate significant themes identified, it is possible to determine the characteristics the post office should have to be a good representative of each theme. It is not sufficient to show that the post office relates to a particular theme, or even to describe the role the post office played within that theme, although these are important steps in the evaluation. It is also essential to identify the significance of the post office's role within each theme. Characteristics may consist of historic associations, architectural features, or potential to impart information. The characteristics should be organized according to the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. (11)
Major features of a building, either exterior or interior, contribute to the identity and character of the building, and therefore, potentially to its significance, whether or not it might be possible to remove and preserve them separately. Historic woodwork; lighting fixtures; ornamental marble, grillwork, or other material; artwork; and other features that form integral parts of a post office should be considered in evaluating significance and integrity. In some cases, these features may include equipment, spatial arrangement, and other aspects of the post office's working area.
Like all buildings, post offices may be significant solely or primarily for the quality of their interiors. This does not mean that any painting hanging on the wall of a post office could qualify the building for the National Register, but artwork that forms an integral part of the building may possess significance that derives wholly or in part from its placement within the post office, and may make it eligible for listing. In particular, this may apply to murals that were commissioned by the Federal government specifically for the buildings in which they were placed, and that were either painted directly on the wall or painted on a base adhered in a fashion intended to make them a part of the wall. Murals, sculptures, and other artwork commissioned as part of the Federal program to support the arts during the Depression and to adorn Federal buildings may be significant in the history of artistic expression, as the works of important artists, as representative examples of Federal policy, for their social impact, or for the information they convey about American--including community--life and culture. The Federal government kept records on the competitions, artists, subject matter, media, and installment of such works, and they should be available from the National Archives if they cannot be located in local or regional offices.
Some of the characteristics by which a post office might represent a significant theme are listed on pages 11-13. Not all of these characteristics will apply to every post office. As stated above, the characteristics that a particular post office must possess to be eligible for National Register listing will depend on the history of that post office and the important themes with which it can be associated. Also, because it is impossible to enumerate specific characteristics without knowledge of specific themes, the list outlines general characteristics that might qualify post offices for listing in the National Register. These characteristics should be much more specific when applied to an individual post office. For example, the features that make it a good example of an architectural style, or the aspects of a city's period of growth represented by the post office must be clear. Because each post office and its related themes will be different, examination of a particular post office and its themes may reveal additional or different characteristics than the following ones.
11 See appendix B, CFR 36 Part 60, How to Complete the National Register Registration Form, or How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation for definitions of the criteria.
Physical and Associative Characteristics
In addition to meeting criteria A, B, C, or D, a property must retain its historic integrity. Historic location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association must be considered in determining whether a post office retains enough of its important features to convey its historically significant appearance or associations. (12) Precisely what features an individual post office must have to possess integrity depends on the themes selected and the reasons the post office is significant within those themes. Post offices, like all properties, change over time. The retention of integrity depends upon the historic period of significance, and the nature and degree of alteration since that period. Once the appropriate significant themes and the reasons for the post office's significance have been determined, it is possible to establish whether the post office is significant for its original or altered character. Although it is not necessary that a post office retain all the physical features it had during its period of significance, or that it possess all seven types of integrity, it must retain the essential physical features that enable it to convey its past identity and character and therefore its significance. The features a post office should retain to possess types of integrity important for its significance should be added to the list of characteristics necessary for meeting National Register Criteria.
Determine the Need for Special Justification
Certain types of properties do not ordinarily qualify for listing in the National Register. These include properties that have been moved from their original locations, reconstructed buildings, and properties that have achieved significance within the past 50 years. These properties will qualify for the National Register if they are integral parts of historic districts that meet the criteria or if they meet other special requirements. A building that has been removed from its original location may be eligible if it is significant primarily for its architectural merits or if it is the only surviving structure most importantly associated with an historic person or event. A reconstructed building is eligible if it has been "accurately executed in a suitable environment and presented in a dignified manner as part of a restoration master plan, and when no other building or structure with the same association has survived." (13)
A common characteristic among post offices that could preclude acceptance is relatively recent age. In many communities, early post offices were not housed in buildings constructed specifically for postal services, but shared space in residences, stores, or offices. In addition, existing postal facilities have periodically become inadequate in the face of growing populations, increasing services, and advancing technology, and have had to be replaced or consolidated. For these and other reasons, many communities contain post office buildings that are less than 50 years old.
Because the National Register deals with "historic" properties, the program provides a working definition of the line separating historic from contemporary periods by establishing a policy that eligible properties should be at least 50 years old. This requirement provides a reasonable historic perspective from which to evaluate properties, and helps ensure that judgments of significance have withstood the tests of time and scholarly analysis and are not merely the results of passing interest or enthusiasm. (14) Properties less than 50 years old may be accepted if they are exceptionally significant. Exceptional significance does not necessarily mean national significance. Properties may be exceptionally significant within their communities or States by virtue of their extraordinary impact in certain periods or fields of history, as rare or exceptionally intact examples of particular fragile or transitory types of resources, or for their relative age or importance in communities that are young or retain few remnants of their past. Decisions about a property's exceptional significance can be made only after comparing it to other properties with similar associations and qualities within the appropriate geographical context. The reasons why the selected property is considered exceptionally significant must then be explained. This requires knowledge of the area and the type of property being considered to allow the identification of qualities that distinguish a resource as exceptional among a field of similar properties. Post offices determined not to be exceptionally significant should be reevaluated when they reach 50 years of age.
A post office less than 50 years old may be exceptionally significant for its role in post-war communities and transportation systems, for the private architect or architectural firm that designed it, for its architectural style, or for innovative use of materials. Because post offices built after World War II were frequently designed by local architects, they may better reflect the local community's values than did previous post office styles.
Evaluate the Property
At this point in preparing for evaluation, the following steps have been completed: identification of the post office; research on the history of the post office and of the geographic area in which it may be significant; identification of the significant themes within which to evaluate the post office; organization of the ways in which the post office may represent these themes according to National Register Criteria; identification of the appropriate types of integrity and the physical characteristics necessary to possess them; and a check of the National Register Criteria for a list of properties not ordinarily considered eligible. It is now possible to evaluate the post office against a list of characteristics to determine if it meets National Register Criteria. The list of characteristics consists of the ways in which the post office should represent significant themes, the features necessary to retain integrity, and (if applicable) the additional justification for properties requiring special consideration.
If the post office has the characteristics listed under the criteria, retains integrity, and meets any special considerations for properties not generally considered eligible, it is eligible for the National Register. It is not necessary for a post office to have every characteristic on the list, but it must possess the most important ones for significance and integrity, plus those for additional justification if required. The number and combination of characteristics necessary to assure eligibility will depend upon the strength of associations or architectural merit, the degree of significance of various themes, and possibly on the number of other resources in the same context with similar associations or physical characteristics. A post office that is an excellent example of its style in the State and retains its principal qualities of design and workmanship should be eligible for the National Register regardless of the existence of other buildings in its style. Similarly, if a stylistically undistinguished post office had a postmaster who, through his appointment as postmaster, played a significant role in local politics, or who introduced postal services having a dramatic effect on local business, and if that post office possesses integrity of location, material, feeling, and association, it should be eligible. A post office that was the most important center of county government administration and service during a specific period, and that retains integrity of location, materials, and feeling, should also qualify. In each of these cases, reasons that the architectural features are excellent, the postmaster's role was significant, or the post office was the most important government center must be specified, not merely assumed from a general statement.
In some cases, a single quality or association under one of the criteria and the retention of the most important quality of integrity may be sufficient to demonstrate that the post office is eligible for the National Register. When the quality or qualities of significance, or the significance of themes, are weaker, however, a combination of characteristics may be necessary to justify eligibility. In marginal cases, it is necessary to compare the post office's qualities of significance and integrity to those of other properties within the same themes to decide which property or properties best represent the significant themes. The post office may or may not surface as the best or one of the best examples of a theme. In some cases, a survey conducted to identify these properties for comparison may reveal a related group of post offices, or post offices and other properties, all of which meet National Register Criteria. If the post office is the only identified property in its theme, that will strengthen the case for listing in the National Register, but there may be instances where a post office that is the only surviving representative of an important theme fails to possess a strong enough justification of significance or sufficient integrity to meet National Register Criteria. If a post office is determined not to be individually eligible for the National Register, it may still be eligible as part of an historic district that qualifies for listing. (15)
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