100 years and counting
From left, Lebanon Postmaster Kelly E. Jordan, Historic Lebanon President Kim Parks and Wilson County Election Commissioner Phillip Warren stand on the front steps of Lebanon’s old Federal Post Office, which opened in 1915 and had its groundbreaking Oct. 30, 1913. The splendid structure today serves as the office of the Wilson County Election Commission.
KEN BECK / The Wilson Post
Lebanon architectural marvel broke ground 100 years ago
One of the outstanding architectural gems of downtown Lebanon, the old Federal Post Office marks the centennial of its groundbreaking on Wednesday, Oct. 30.
Local citizens along with state and county officials will celebrate the occasion with a mid-afternoon program, tours and refreshments.
“I think the building had been overlooked for years. You have to believe when it was built it had to be the showpiece of Wilson County,’’ said Phillip Warren, who took on the role of county election commissioner in April 2011.
Adorning the northeast corner of East Main and North College streets, the edifice had its cornerstone laid Oct. 30, 1913, and began handling mail March 15, 1915. Lebanon’s post office moved to its current location on Gay Street in 1968, and since 1995 the two-story, seven-bay, yellow-brick structure with cut-stone foundation has housed the Wilson County Election Commission.
“The whole building is so unique. It was built to last and is just as sound as the day it was built,” said Warren, who guided a renovation here right after he took office.
“We brought the building up to state-of-the-art conditions as a modern sufficient office, and it was a lot less expensive than building a new building. We tried to keep as much intact as a modern office and it hasn’t been hard to do. Our goal in renovating this and keeping it as a government office was to connect with our past and maintain the tradition and that history,” he said.
A century ago, the impact of Lebanon gaining a Federal Post Office was of immeasurable value. The design and construction of the project was overseen by the Supervising Architect Office, a bureau within the U.S. Treasury Department. Oscar Wenderoth, chief supervising architect from 1907 to 1915, designed the neo-classical revival style post office building, and many more of his federal buildings still stand across the U.S.
The arrival of a Federal Post Office in Lebanon signified the town’s growing population and an increase in volume of mail and money spent on postal services,” said Kim Parks, President of Historic Lebanon. “Federal Buildings are often signs of the political influence of the areas elected officials. Sen. Cordell Hull lobbied for and received the money for Lebanon to build the post office.”
Parks compiled “100 Years: Celebrating the History of Lebanon’s Original Federal Post Office Building,” which will be sold at the Oct. 30 centennial party. The book is a collaboration between Historic Lebanon and the Wilson County Election Commission with proceeds benefitting Historic Lebanon.
As for some of the outstanding architectural features of this masterpiece, Parks noted, “The limestone columns on the front are fantastic, the acanthus leaf decorated capital are really wonderful. Inside, the pink and gray East Tennessee marble is lovely. This type of ‘marble’ is really a limestone found almost exclusively in East Tennessee. During the heyday of Federal Buildings, it was very popular and adds quite a bit of character to the building.”
Among some of the lesser known but noteworthy details of the old post office with its luxurious lobby and 24-foot-high ceiling is an inspector’s catwalk running across the width of the work space on the main floor, where postal inspectors could peer down through window slats at workers to make sure they were doing their job. The bathrooms have pink and gray East Tennessee marble as flooring and wall covering.
Since being decommissioned as a post office in 1968, the building served as a vocational center for qualified citizens (the Wilson County Developmental Center). From mid-1970s to 1995 it was home to several county offices for short periods and an alternative school for Wilson County School System.
Hollis McClanahan, owner of Downtown Antiques on the Lebanon square, began his 23-year career with the Lebanon Post Office in 1964, when a first-class stamp cost a nickel, in the old building and remembers it with some fondness.
“I did it all, moving from clerk to superintendent of postal operations,” said McClanahan, recalling that there were about a dozen employees in the office when he started work, with three or four city mail carriers and five or six rural carriers.
“We had to learn and memorize all the streets in town and had to know every street and road in the county. We sorted the mail from state to state and town to town,” he said.
As for the 1968 move to the new post office two blocks away on Gay Street, he says, “It was painful, a big job moving. I bought most of the furniture, the sorting counters.”
The late Addison Barry proved to be Lebanon’s longest-serving postmaster as he filled the role from Aug. 13, 1940, to Nov. 30, 1972, and son Allen Barry remembers that the old post office was pretty much his father’s “second home” and also a good place for he and brothers Jay and Henry to hang out after school let out from Lebanon Junior High, located at the time just a few blocks north.
“There were a few things Dad wouldn’t let us do. I’ve never been upstairs and never been in the vault area of his office. Mostly we were confined to the lobby and the grounds outside. To us the lobby looked like an old-timey bank and a bus terminal. Sometimes we played bank robbers or kids going to the big city on the bus,” said Allen.
He also remembers the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, saying, “They sent home letters to parents of where to send your kids if missiles come this way. The post office basement was the designated bomb shelter for the downtown merchants.”
Margaret Branham Hereford, who lives in Fayetteville, Tenn., grew up in Lebanon as a child of the 1940s and ’50s, and her father Joseph Brown Branham worked as a postal clerk from 1937-1965 in the Lebanon Post Office.
“He worked there for 28 years, and he had never taken a sick day or vacation, so when he retired he was credited with two more years,” said Hereford. “He was a clerk at the front counter, so everyone in Lebanon knew him.
“When they [new residents] came into town to open up their address and start getting their mail, he was the one they went to. People told us when they went into the post office, he always remembered their name.”
About the structure, she recalled, “I just thought it was so overwhelming. It seemed like such a large building, and it was beautiful, and we liked the fact that dad was always behind bars in a cage.”
Lebanon’s Barbara Petza’s father Louis Perner worked as a postal clerk from the early 1950s into the late 1970s.
She remembers as a child that “anything you needed at the post office, he was the one at the window. My mother used to take me in there when I was little, and she would sit me up on the window so I could say hello to him and talk to other people that worked there. Daddy used to stress out if his office was out of balance because he had to make up the difference.”
Frances Dillard of Lebanon, granddaughter of James (J.R.) Hobbs who served as Lebanon postmaster from 1933-1940 and founded J.R. Hobbs and Sons Real Estate, noted that he was “the first postmaster to send off airmail.”
That big event took place at the Lebanon airport in the mid-1930s to help promote a new airmail stamp as Hobbs handed the mail to pilot Louie Gasser, who flew his Meyers OTW plane, and the mail, most likely to Nashville.
And T.A. Bryan noted that his grandfather and namesake Thomas E. Bryan, who served as postmaster from 1927-1933, “was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge. He was a Republican in Wilson County when it was a sin to be a Republican.”
While compiling the centennial book, Historic Lebanon’s Kim Parks discovered the city post office had been located at a variety of locations before settling into the majestic 1915 Federal Post Office.
“I found trying to unravel where the post office was located to be interesting. Linda Granstaff at the Wilson County Archives provided me with many newspaper articles pertaining to the post office locations. One article from October 1887 told of the work on a new hotel and opera house which the post office would move into a ‘large and handsome room’ on West Main. The new hotel was the West Side Hotel.”
For Election Commissioner Warren, a cool discovery came from behind a wooden panel in his office. When it was removed from the wall, the flip side bore the signed name of the trim carpenter who labored on the structure.
“That was a real find. To think that it had been hidden for 99 years,” he said.
Returning to the building’s contemporary function, Warren says, “We do early voting here. We created enough space so everything runs comfortably, and it serves very well for what we’re doing.”
With four early voting sites, Wilson County has 63,000 active voters, and more than 30,000 of them went to the polls early during last November’s election.
“When people come, it’s not just coming into vote. It’s also about having a good experience and connecting back to the history while you’re here,” said Warren of the alluring charms of the grand old post office.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.