When the old Mesa post office opened more than 83 years ago downtown amid the depths of the Depression, it was a sign that a remote desert outpost had arrived as a growing city.
Because the city had 6,000 residents, the federal government deemed Mesa worthy of its first post office – and first federal building – rather than a contract station inside a general store or a drug store, explained longtime Mesa historic preservationist Vic Linoff.
Now the mothballed building is getting a new lease on life as an 8,000-square foot meeting space that can be divided into two rooms and used for community events, wedding receptions and other events.
Back in the 1937, the postal project had been considered important enough that Postmaster James A. Farley, an influential confidant of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, showed up for the dedication.
“Just imagine a city of 6,000 getting a post office. It was kind of unheard of. To get recognized by the feds, I think it raised the spirits of the city,’’ Linoff said. “It serves as a big accomplishment for the city.’’
As time went by, the aging building was bypassed, just like downtown in general during the city’s meteoric growth to the east.
The building has mostly been vacant for the past 20 years and a plan to give it a new life as the Mesa Historical Museum fizzled about 10 years ago during a political dispute.
Mesa officials spent $600,000 on removing asbestos from the building and planning to turn it into the museum, but all of that came to a halt when the museum could not prove it had the assets to cover the operating costs.
Now, the gutted building on North Macdonald Street is on its way to reuse.
The prototype is Phoenix’s A.E. England building, built in 1926 as an automobile dealership and now used in conjunction with Arizona State University’s downtown Phoenix campus for similar purposes.
Mesa voters approved a $7.4 million bond issue in 2018 to revive the post office building as part of a much larger $196 million authorization for a wide variety of civic improvements.
The next of several important steps is for City Council to approve a $75,843 contract tomorrow, Jan. 25, for hiring a construction company to plan and initiate the project.
“It’s been sitting vacant so long. We would like to turn it into a community asset,’’ said Dyan Dwyer Seaburg, community facilities manager.
“The objective of the project is to renovate the Historic Post Office to serve as a venue for community type events, such as workshops, fitness classes, meetings, receptions, etc.,’’ she wrote Council.
“The project has been delayed due to COVID-19, but we anticipate construction beginning in the fall of this year, and taking approximately one year to complete,’’ with an opening planned during fall 2022 or early winter of 2023, she added.
Linoff said the building’s exterior looks much the same as it did during its heyday.He said the purpose of the building and what it symbolized for Mesa was more important than the architectural style.
He said he is excited to see the city renovate the building after the disappointment historic preservationists experienced when the museum plan was scraped. When the federal government donated the building to Mesa in 2002, the city was required to use it for a public purpose.
“I’m just glad when we can save any historic building,’’ Linoff said. “Historic buildings need a good use. Just a building standing there is a monument. It will be a point of pride.’’
Ron Peters, a Mesa architect who specializes in historic preservation, prepared the plans for the building’s ill-fated conversion into the historic museum.
The idea at the time was to have three museums located within a short walk of each other – the I.D.E.A. Museum, the Arizona Museum of Natural History and the Mesa Historical Museum, which remained at Lehi School miles from downtown.
“It’s been almost 20 years,’’ Peters said, but there has been little progress beyond the asbestos removal. “I’m tired of them spending a lot of the public’s money and not doing anything.’’
A letter from Peters in 2013 to a state preservation official outlined the post office’s history, from its design by federal architect Louis Simon in 1936 to 10 examples of it popping up repeatedly as a prototype in Wisconsin, Kansas, Nebraska, Arizona and Oregon.
Peters said the building is a good example of Federal Moderne architecture that was standard at the time, but noted it is “not as elaborate as others.’’
Despite a major addition in 1959 and turning it into an office building for the U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Department, “the original 1936 post office has remained much the same as when it was constructed,’’ Peters wrote.
Vice Mayor Jen Duff, who lives in a historic downtown Mesa neighborhood, said she is glad to see the long dormant building brought back to life.
“It’s right in the middle of downtown. There’s not a better place for public use,’’ she said.
Someday, guests attending an event at the newly-renovated post office could also create some spinoff business for restaurants, bars and coffee shops, Duff said.
Duff said it’s hard to find meeting space for a mid-sized event in Mesa, creating a potential niche for the post office.
“We had to do something. If you hold onto a building, and you don’t do anything with it, it falls apart,’’ she said.