- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2000

A trip to the monuments and Mall is always in order when Debbie Carpenter of Springfield entertains out-of-town relatives.

But one of her favorite stops is the Old Post Office at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

"It's one of those Washington places that no one knows about," says Mrs. Carpenter, who was escorting her Michigan relatives on a recent tour of the out-of-the-way landmark.

"We were at the Museum of American History, and the elevator operator told us that food was 50 percent cheaper here than at the Mall," she said, pointing to the expansive food court in the building's huge interior courtyard. "Plus, there's almost never any lines here."

Park Service Ranger Michael Laws agrees that the building's tower-top views and charming history are not as well-known as some of Washington's other tourist attractions. But he added that 250,000 visitors a year take the glass-enclosed elevator to the top of the 315-foot-tall building.

"I've heard that the Old Post Office Tower is Washington's best-kept secret," Mr. Laws says.

The building's ornate architecture and "skyscraper" height have long stood in stark contrast to the low-slung neoclassical government buildings that surround it. But the very qualities that have garnered the building's position as a preserved treasure nearly doomed it to demolition just 10 years after its completion in 1899.

The building originally was designed to house the postmaster general's offices and the city's post office. A small post office stamp store on the building's first floor has preserved some of the carved wood and etched glass from that era. The city post office remained until it moved to a new location near Union Station in 1914, thereby rendering the building the "old post office" just 15 years after it opened.

The offices for the U.S. Post Office Department remained in that building until 1934. With that move, the government finally was going to raze the flamboyant structure and replace it with one in keeping with the neoclassical theme that dominated the city's federal buildings. But the Depression provided a stay of the costly execution, and a variety of government agencies used the space at various times.

Congress finally appropriated demolition funds in the 1960s, but a grass-roots preservation movement eventually headed by Nancy Hanks, who ran the National Endowment for the Arts at the time convinced Congress to use the money for restoration instead. The renovated building was dedicated to Nancy Hanks, who died just months short of its 1983 reopening.

Visitors going to the 12th floor observation tower must change from the bow-shaped glass-fronted elevator that overlooks the 160-foot-high pavilion to another one on the ninth floor. There, a small gallery pays tribute to those who lobbied throughout the century to save the often-doomed building. A highlight of this mini-museum is a glass-enclosed, hand-carved model of the building accurate right down to the 1,130 windows.

"That model is one of the best and least-known stories about the Old Post Office building," Mr. Laws says. "It was carved with a penknife by Nathan Rubinton, a young Jewish cabinetmaker who immigrated here from Russia in 1904. He heard there were plans to tear down this building just because it was different. He came from a land where his people were persecuted for being different, and he felt that if he couldn't save the building, at least he could document what it looked like."

The model caused a minor sensation. It was briefly displayed in the building's lobby and was exhibited at the 1916 World's Fair in San Francisco. But interest in the building faded when the post office moved, and Mr. Rubinton held on to the model until he died in 1958. His children donated the model to the Smithsonian Institution, but it was crated and languished in uninventoried storage.

"Just like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' " Mr. Laws says. "Then Scott Shultz, a ranger, came across an old photo of Rubinton and the model, and he spent four years tracking it down."

A short elevator flight to the next floor affords visitors a glimpse of the Congressional Bells. The 10 bells, which range in size from 581 pounds to 2,953 pounds, were a bicentennial gift to Congress from Great Britain. They were installed in the clock tower when the building was rededicated in 1983. The bells are rung by a group of volunteers when Congress opens and closes and on federal holidays and state occasions. A full peal takes more than three hours.

Visitors can either walk from the 10th floor to the 12th via a 93-step narrow and steep staircase, or take a final elevator ride to the open observation deck. There, under the watchful eye of a park ranger, visitors can walk around the four-sided deck, getting spectacular views of Washington from each perspective.

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