In the post office last week I heard a lady talking to a man on the line behind me. They both looked to be in their seventies, and the lady was lamenting the fact that the post office had done away with the two big stamp machines that used to stand against the wall. “It’s very annoying to have to wait on such a long line just to buy one 44-cent stamp,” she said. 

The man told her that he had gotten a letter saying that this post office, Old Chelsea Station, would soon be closing, and the lady gasped. “I didn’t get that letter and I have a post office box here!” she said. “And this post office is on the National Register of Historic Places!” The man said he had read in the newspaper that a lot of post offices are closing all over the country. “People don’t use the post office like they used to,” he said. “And then there’s the lousy economy.” The lady said she didn’t think they could do away with the post office entirely because it is promised in the United States Constitution, and the man replied, “Well, that don’t mean much.”

I thought of the letter I got a couple of months ago telling me that a post office somewhere up near the Port Authority would be closing. I had wondered why I got the letter, since I have never been in that post office. A woman I know from the neighborhood told me recently that she got a letter saying Old Chelsea Station was closing, but without giving any details. I looked around for a sign saying something about it and didn’t see one, but I noticed the bears in their panel of wilderness over the doors facing Eighth Avenue in the foyer. And like every time I’ve noticed them from the stamp line, I felt myself transported to some mountainous, misty place far away from the post office on West 18th Street.

Above the opposite entrance is another panel with three deer in it. I’ve always liked them and wondered about them, these handsome scenes that look to be made of metal. They’re almost colorless, and that, along with how high up they are, makes them very easy to miss. I stopped to look at them on my way out and noticed a signature at the bottom of each. I tried with and without my glasses, but could not read the name. So I came home and got my binoculars. When I looked at each of the panels through those, I could see all of their marvelous detail, just how hand-made they look, and I could read the signature, which is “P. Fiene.”

I went home to see what I could find out, and on the web site of the National Postal Museum I found this:

“Throughout the United States—on post office walls large and small—are scenes reflecting America's history and way of life. Post offices built in the 1930s during Roosevelt's New Deal were decorated with enduring images of the ‘American scene.’ In the 1930s, as America continued to struggle with the effects of the depression, the federal government searched for solutions to provide work for all Americans, including artists. During this time government-created agencies supported the arts in unprecedented ways. As Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's relief administrator said in response to criticism of federal support for the arts, ‘(artists) have got to eat just like other people.’”

I read that the work for decorating post offices in the 1930s was not commissioned through the WPA, but through an office of the Treasury Department called the Section of Painting and Sculpture, and Paul Fiene was a sculptor who received one of the commissions. He had his studio upstate in Woodstock, New York, and the two panels, called “Deer” and “Bear,” are bas-relief cast stone covered in silver leaf, made in 1938 for Old Chelsea Station, which was built in 1937. I read that Paul Fiene had studied at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design here in New York, and that he won first prize in a life class in 1917. Then he won the Prix de Rome, which he had to decline because he didn’t have enough money to get to Rome to accept the prize, and I imagine that he must have been very disappointed. But he must have been very happy to get the commission to create two works of art to decorate this Manhattan post office. Imagining a post office built during the depression and decorated with money set aside for just that purpose having to close for lack of funds made me feel very sad.

Then I read that the Canal Street station, also on the National Register of Historic Places and built in 1937, has a beautiful relief of its own, by an artist named Wheeler Williams, called “Indian Bowman.” In reading about it, I saw that this Wheeler Williams made lots of beautiful things. He was once president of the Fine Arts Federation of New York and founder of the American Artist Professional League. He was also a supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee and their search for communists. I don’t know why learning that surprised me, but it did.

Years ago I used to see Johnny Ramone in Old Chelsea Station all the time, in his holey jeans and leather jacket, opening up his P.O. box. Back then the notion of any post office closing would have been as hard for me to imagine as imagining Johnny Ramone being a conservative Republican, which, I just recently learned, he was.

The day before yesterday I went to the post office and asked a clerk if there was any truth to what was in the mysterious letters people were getting. “Well,” he said, “that depends.” I asked him what it would depend on, and he said, just as mysteriously as the letters: “It depends on what the post master decides to say.”

November 17, 2011


  1. i miss those old stamp machines too, i remember some pharmacies and shops would also have them.

  2. Hi Romy, this is a beautiful post and like the first edition of Housedeer I have recommended and referenced it a number of times to people in conversations.
    I was just reading my mom's blog about her grandfather and great-uncle's art and put it together that they were both professional artists who were affected by the WPA. If you're interested, it is special that my mom (also an artist) is sharing what she can find about their lives and artwork http://www.currybrothersart.com/
    Thank you for your beautiful writing!!

  3. Thank you, Emily! Your mother's blog is wonderful, and I love what those two men made.