Photographing the Santa Clara Post Office

I was recently able to photograph the interior and exterior of the old (but still minimally staffed and used) Santa Clara Post Office.   My photography was to support a report being written by Lorie Garcia, our honorary city historian, about the history of the structure.   I was looking to document the architecture and state of the building in hopes that it will be able to be listed as Significant to the City of Santa Clara.

Flickr pictures are here:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/56685004@N00/13118735105/in/set-72157642280014303

I was pleased to meet the Supervisor of the Post Office who was more than happy to show me around and then let me photograph virtually the entire structure.  There is an office for the former Postmaster, although the Santa Clara Post Office does not still have a Postmaster.  The entire basement is pretty much unused, except for storage.  (Note to self: I didn’t see an elevator.  How do they get heavy stuff down there?  Perhaps only down the exterior ramps?)   The heat has been broken for years although there was a repairman there today working on the boiler.

There are a couple instances of woodwork that are in very good shape.  There are lots of exterior wooden windows that are beautiful on the inside but covered with dense metal screens on the outside, presumably to keep sub or wildlife out of the windows.  Most of the furnishings that remain are 60′s – 80′s style office stuff.

By far the most interesting part of the entire building is the small network of not-so-hidden surveillance tunnels called “lookout galleries” (or LOG for short) running throughout the facility.  They didn’t have a view of the public areas of the post office – they only run through the “behind the scenes” areas for keeping track of postal employees.  The Lookout even runs through the men’s bathroom (which is in the basement) although the viewports in the bathroom have been painted over.

One unique feature of the LOG tunnels is the “breakout doors” which presumably allow postal inspectors to “breakout” of the tunnels and bust people as they catch them in the act of stealing mail.  Because the LOG tunnels are elevated a couple feet off the floor, all the doors to the tunnels are also elevated two feet off the floor.  To make the doors even more obvious, they are all placarded with large “NOT AN EXIT” signs, just in case you thought the exit doors from your room were two feet off the ground.

I found an interesting article on the Internet detailing these tunnels and the difficulty of maintaining such a thing in the current environment of building codes and accessibility:

I designed a Distribution Center for Zip Code 90017. At that time the USPS assigned a staff Architect to the project conveying all their “standards”. The most challenging part of the project was a suspended surveillance tunnel with one-way mirror viewports. The general public is not generally aware of these security measures. In this day of superior electronic systems, I questioned the need for these measures, but nothing has the legal standing of personally observing someone taking your property from the mail.

The Postal Inspection Service (Postal Police) worked on this aspect with us. Los Angeles was holding up a permit on this privately owned building due to “accessibility” concerns with the tunnel which changes planes abruptly, is painted flat black inside, and has minimum lighting. At a hearing we were able to persuade them that the tunnel could not be used by other than trained, physically fit individuals. The USPS owned central Distribution Center  for Los Angeles has what seems like a mile of these tunnels.

H. Thomas Wilson AIA
Pasadena CA

And here’s a youtube video of someone going through the LOG:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3MO-jNuYCU

There’s a whole book about this sort of thing called “Building Power: Architecture and Surveillance in Victorian America” by Anna Vemer Andrzejewski, available at fine booksellers everywhere.  And finally, the definitive word on Lookout Gallery design is the USPS’s Handbook RE-5, entitled “Building and Site Security Requirements.”  This document details design requirements for LOGs as of 2009.   Google will give you a copy.

I’m not sure if the tunnels are actually used by visiting postmasters anymore but all the tunnel access doors I found (which are very obvious because the door is two feet above the ground!) were indeed locked.  I would love to see inside the tunnels sometime, just for fun.

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