One of the more interesting things about Lewis Mumford’s architectural criticism is his willingness to take on not only the major projects of his day, but also the smaller and more out of the way buildings around town. He could tackle Radio City Music Hall, and tackle it he did, but he was equally interested in lunchrooms, Fifth Avenue boutiques, and post offices. As I’ve been reading his collected pieces from The New Yorker, published between 1931 and 1940, it’s the smaller pieces that sometimes jump out— both because I know some of the buildings he analyzes and because I never would have imagined them worth discussing.
In his column dated December 31, 1938, Mumford tackles a whole host of recent work, from the Bauhaus show on view at the Museum of Modern Art to the latest addition to the Automat chain. He finishes by casting a quick glance at the newest post office, on 23rd Street, between Lexington and Third, “so much better than the run-of-the-mill ones.” Now, I’ve spent a good deal of time in this post office, and to be perfectly honest, it never occurred to me that there was much architecture there. There is a series of murals around the main lobby, which look like they were produced by the love-child of George Grosz and Ben Shahn: I’d always intended to look up their history when next I returned to my computer, but never did. It turns out that they were produced by the hand of one Kindred O’Leary, as part of the WPA, and Mumford (who was also an art critic) doesn’t even mention them.
He does discuss the fixtures and signage: he likes “the treatment of the overhead lights… the character of the service windows… the indicative arrows that really tell people where to go… the spacious and orderly interior.” Sadly, and predictably, much has been obliterated in the intervening years. The service windows are now just individual stations along a counter, choked with the requisite cards, notices and credit-card swiping machines, and the interior seems vast and unkempt rather than orderly. A large portion of the ceiling is now dropped, covered with those dreadful panels. One large indicative arrow remains, reading SEND LETTERS HERE across the back wall. It is beautiful.
Mumford did get me to take a second look at the exterior, and I’m glad of it: what once seemed utilitarian now reveals itself to be “polished brown granite” — he calls it “a bit somber” but cheek by jowl with all the later additions to the streetscape its chocolate glow is, to me, positively luxurious. Perhaps God is in the details, or in paying attention to them.