Excavating the Farley

An interior hallway connects a series of small individual offices in the Farley Post Office Building. | All photographs by Margaret Morton; click to enlarge and begin slideshow

Since it opened on Labor Day, 1914, a vast post office building has presided over the entire block of Eighth Avenue stretching between 31st and 32nd Streets. It has had multiple names, and as many lifetimes. Between gleaming Boticcino marble walls, gold-leafed ceilings bearing the seals of the International Postal Union’s ten member nations, and the Corinthian colonnade with its Herodotus inscription, the public side of the building announced the Postal Service as a noble enterprise. The interior was scarcely less impressive — nearly an acre of mail-sorting space, a system of pneumatic tubes, mechanized conveyor belts, and a starting staff of 1,667, with an expectation to expand within the 1.4 million total square feet of space. The New York Times declared it “the most elaborate post office in America,” and possibly the largest in the world. Built directly over the train tracks leading to Pennsylvania Station, the post office was the work of the same architects as New York’s grand rail depot, McKim, Mead, and White. The two buildings stood as twin symbols of American progress and industry.

The building’s size and significance only continued to grow. The General Post Office (as it was dubbed in 1918) expanded in 1934 to an annex one block away, connected to the main building by a tunnel. By the mid-1950s, 10,000 people worked in the Eighth Avenue building. In 1967, the Times boasted that Manhattan handled one-tenth of all U.S. mail at Christmastime, as much as the entire country of Belgium. Most of it passed through the General Post Office. But just a year later, articles lamented the outdated hand-sorting technology and held the “imperial gift-wrap job” in disdain. Something more modern was called for. So began the Office’s slow decline. By the end of the century the Postal Service had moved most of its business out of the James A. Farley Post Office Building (renamed in 1982 for the postmaster who oversaw the annex, which closed in 1967). In 2009, for the first time in nearly a century, it ceased 24-hour operations.

The building has endured, relatively unchanged. Penn Station was demolished in 1963 and replaced with a congested, subterranean warren. It was an instant mistake, and New Yorkers have been trying to take it back ever since. Recently, the Farley building has found itself at the center of Penn Station’s redemption story. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was among the first to champion expanding the train station into its old sister-building in 1993. Though nearly every step toward renovation has been the subject of bitter disputes, abrupt reversals, and false starts, the USPS finally sold the Farley building to New York State in 2007.

Now Governor Cuomo has announced a $3 billion, two-phase project that intends to put the Farley at the center of a bustling national network once again. The new plans call for a tunnel connecting Penn Station to a new Farley extension, where soaring glass ceilings will join new construction to the bones of the old Farley building. The post office will remain in the front hall, selling stamps and envelopes under the seals of the Postal Union, but the majority of the building will be given over to Amtrak and the Long Island Railroad for platform access and baggage services, and to developers for retail space. And of course, the building will have a new name, for a new chapter in its history. Below, photographer Margaret Morton guides us through the vacant spaces inside what is poised to become Daniel Patrick Moynihan Train Hall, documenting the fleeting window between two lifetimes. –O.S.

A shuttered service window along the periphery of the oldest sorting room.

In February 2012, I embarked on a photographic study of the 1.4 million square foot James A. Farley Post Office Building. At the time, the United States Postal Service was using less than fifteen percent of the building; entire floors had been unoccupied for more than a decade, and others were in the process of being dissembled and their functions relocated. Much of the interior had fallen into disrepair. Water damage from rain and leaking pipes was evident throughout the building, particularly on the upper floors. Ceilings had crumbled onto faded carpets, plaster walls had dissolved into the texture of ancient ruins, and mold stains left organic shapes that traveled down walls and onto windowsills. Left on my own to wander throughout the building with my camera, intrigued by what might be discovered in the massive spaces behind the historic lobby and service windows, I welcomed the solitude — the freedom to make discoveries and to imagine what once had been through what remained. Over the next several months my exploration evolved into an excavation.

A corridor of service windows on an upper floor; unclaimed or unaddressed mail (including, at one point, loose bees) would be deposited here.
The interior of an observation gallery that overlooks one of the sorting rooms.

An uncanny stillness filled the vast sorting room floor, disrupted only by the sound of my footsteps as I traversed the 40,000 square foot space. Hovering beneath the ceiling on thin metal columns, an enclosed walkway snakes its way 35 feet above the sorting room floor. Looking up, only the evenly spaced black slits or reflective dark squares would have indicated where a security guard was monitoring the workers as they sorted mail below. These inspection corridors loomed over all of the building sorting rooms, some even connected between the floors. The interiors were dark, cramped, and airless.

Dust along an office wall traces the shapes of filing cabinets.
Mold and water damage on the windowsill of a large open office space.

Although unoccupied floors of the freestanding building were unheated, the building’s upper floors felt surprisingly warm from the winter sun. I made my way through labyrinthine passageways and endless corridors of empty offices, differentiated only by the echoes of what had been removed — a line of dust traced where a row of file cabinets had been pushed against an office wall; the depression in a carpet evoked a manager’s desk; geometric shapes had been pressed into a thick layer of dust where potted plants must have been balanced on a windowsill. Artifacts were everywhere, from portrait paintings leaning against a wall in the elegant Postmaster’s Suite to a child’s hand-drawn holiday card left taped inside a shuttered service window. Sculptural fragments that had once rimmed the building’s roofline were stacked on wheeled carts in a dark recess beneath the grand exterior staircase that ascends from the street to the post office lobby.

A sign on the wall of a sorting room.

By spring, the building’s silence would be interrupted by the shrieks of seagulls protecting their nests on the roof, and the murmurs of pigeons perched along windowsills a floor below. Sunlight angled throughout the rooms, illuminating winter shadows to reveal what once had housed a complex and thriving organization.

Light filters through a small office overlooking the room used for equipment repair.

At its peak, the Farley’s workforce encompassed a community of thousands of women and men.  The building was a sort of self-contained company town that included massive sorting rooms on every floor, men’s and women’s locker rooms that also accommodated mail carriers, a cafeteria with a kitchen, and a large dining area as well as small lunchrooms on other floors. There were offices for administrators, managers, and supervisors; rooms for window service training, public affairs and communication, business and law departments; a photography studio, darkroom, and drafting area; and extensive police and medical facilities. Maintenance of the building, equipment, and vehicles took place on-site in specialized workshops.

Lockers in the process of being removed from one of the many locker rooms found throughout the building.
Safes are found throughout the building. Some are dated 1912, others 1935.

The offices of the Postal Police stretched for two blocks along a mezzanine hallway overlooking the lobby, with additional offices on the fourth floor. This federal law enforcement agency comprised detectives, inspectors, administrators, uniformed officers, and its own jail. Medical facilities included rooms for assessment, a clinic, offices for doctors and nurses, and a darkroom for processing x-rays. Abandoned signs and deserted rooms cannot fully capture how dynamic this system must have been. But details and materials communicate distinctions between shared, semi-private, and private workspaces — a rough outline of the organization’s structure can be seen in the space that once surrounded it.

The rooms of the Medical Officer’s suite.
The Postal Police offices occupied rooms on multiple floors.

In some places, the details implied a hierarchy. Offices ranged from the modest — a row of cages along the wall of a sorting room floor, each enclosing a desk, chair, and file cabinet — to the grand — the three adjoining rooms of the Postmaster’s Suite. A series of floor to ceiling windows filled the rooms with light and looked, at least initially, onto the McKim, Mead, and White Pennsylvania Station, which had been completed four years earlier. The largest room in the suite had an ornately painted ceiling; another was vaulted and still another had a white marble fireplace. Graceful chandeliers hung throughout the suite. And there were two private washrooms. Other spacious private offices along the same third floor hallway had reception rooms and individual washrooms.

The postmaster’s suite on the third floor, with the original oil portraits stacked against the walls before removal.

Details also hinted at what went on inside the offices — and sometimes opened more questions than they answered. In one area on the fourth floor, dark wood doors displayed managerial titles in hand painted lettering on glass, decorated with gold leaf. Elsewhere on the same the floor, long enfilades of small, anonymous offices created the illusion that upon entering the interior passage, a visitor might never reach the end. On one side of the hall, each small office was paneled in warm wood, with a dark wood door, doorframe, and molding. On the other side, the offices were painted gray, with cool gray walls, doors, doorframes, moldings, and carpeting. Though architecturally the same, these passages felt entirely removed from one another, conveying a totally different sense of purpose on each space.

An enfilade of small individual offices on an upper floor.
On the same floor, another enfilade of offices has a very different feel.

In some places, personal traces suggested the personalities and motivations of the individuals who had spent their working lives here. A skillful calligrapher had transformed a men’s locker room sign, identifying the door with an elegant flourish. A sign mounted at eye level in a private washroom off a sorting room read, “You are looking at the person most responsible for your safety.” In an office, two oval shapes were defined by dust on adjacent walls, clearly marking where small frames had faced each other across a corner — I could only imagine that two portraits once gently exchanged a gaze.

The washroom in a private office on the periphery of one of the sorting rooms.
A hand-painted sign on a locker room door.

The upper floors of the Farley held the most mystery — long hallways with missing floorboards led to colossal machines, objects of wonder from earlier eras. Obsolete technologies had been left in place throughout the building. The post-factum addition of electrical wiring was visible on the walls of most offices. Tangles of wires escaped from large metal boxes, the most remarkable a room-sized metal frame for an antiquated telephone system. Some walls held telephone handsets from early periods; in other places, only the wiring sprouted from the walls. In the accumulation of posters and signs that had never been discarded, and the many layers of wall paint revealed by the removal of built in bookcases and office furniture, many decades were present and passing at the same time.

The metal frame and tangled wires of an antiquated telephone system.
A machine (of unidentified purpose) along the wall of a sorting room.

Many of the spaces that I photographed have already been demolished, but in the process the beauty of the original structure has been exposed. The removal of the security walkways from the sorting room has exposed the monumental steel trusses which will be visible beneath a soaring glass ceiling when the mail sorting facility is transformed into a majestic train hall. In another adaptation, four original elevator shafts, that until thirty or forty years ago had been used to transfer large quantities of mail from the train platforms into the sorting room, will be used to unload checked baggage from the Penn Station platforms directly into the new Amtrak facilities.

The original sorting room, which will become part of the new train hall.

In the third floor men’s locker room, I found remnants of a home-away-from-home. Clustered in front of the only window were a water cooler, microwave, small table, and an upholstered armchair. Pink notices had been taped throughout, announcing the date by which the space had to be vacated. As I maneuvered my tripod through cramped rows of lockers, two men entered and sat down. They told me that their shift had just ended. Since this had been their locker room for many years, they still liked to stop by at the end of work. As I was leaving, I noticed a message scrawled in large letters on the end of a row lockers: “God Bless America + The Post Office.”

Sculptural fragments removed from the building’s roofline, stored beneath the grand exterior staircase.

This project would not be possible without the ongoing encouragement and support of Michael Evans, President of the Moynihan Station Development Corporation/ESDC and Frederick M. Bartoli, Transportation Project Manager. Bronson Fox, as former Vice President, Development, provided an invaluable introduction to the building.

Margaret Morton has photographed a range of spaces, from the alternative built environments created in public parks, vacant lots, and abandoned buildings by Manhattan’s homeless individuals, to the abandoned coal mines of eastern Ukraine and the otherworldly cemeteries found throughout the desolate mountain regions of Central Asia. Her books include The Tunnel: The Underground Homeless of New York City, Fragile Dwelling, Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives (co-authored with Diana Balmori), Glass House, and Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan. Morton received her MFA from Yale University School of Art. She is a professor in the School of Art at The Cooper Union and lives in New York City.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Douglas DuNaier January 26, 2017

As a former employee of GPO before it was changed to James A Farley I was always amazed at the grandeur of the building. The front steps and columns, the inside sales windows on the long hallway, the old elevators on both sides off the front lobby with the grand staircases. And all the other offices on the different floor all with the large wood doors with gold names off a long hallway that echoed your footsteps as you walked along.
I work there 1974-1978 before transferring to a facility at JFK airport where I still work today.
Thanks For the Look Back In Time when life was a little simpler and different.
I look forward to having a chance to see all of the pictures…

Patrick Sheary March 29, 2019

Nice pictures thanks for sharing. I do hope that the long awaited “transformation” into the train station will not result in a total gut job. It wold be nice to see some of the more significant interior details preserved and not replace with cheap drywall and banal modernist elements that look like everything else constructed today. The Postmaster’s office for instance is lovely, also I know the original lobby from the 1914 structure is magnificent. Re-configuring is fine in the context of making it useful for the present, but a certain proportion of the original interior elements should be retained. I would hate to enter this historic building only to find mostly modern interiors that do not connect architecturally with the monumental exterior.