I read in Wednesday”s Dispatch the Postal Service was considering closing the downtown Columbus post office. Beside the practical inconvenience, such a move would vacate a building on the National Register of Historic Places and end a 191-year stretch for the Main Street staple.
The origins of a downtown post office date back to the earliest days of Columbus. The first post office in this area was at John Pitchlynn”s residence. It was open by 1819 at Plymouth Bluff, which is now the old river channel area of the Stennis Lock and Dam. Then in 1820 that office closed and a post office was established in the town of Columbus.
The first house at what became Columbus was constructed during the fall of 1817. A trickle of settlers began arriving in the area during 1818. In the spring of 1819, Military Road was completed to the Tombigbee River at what is now the bridge to the nearby island. That trickle of settlers became a steady stream and in December 1819, the settlement was referred to in an Alabama legislative act as the “Town of Columbus.” In 1820, a post office was authorized to open in Columbus and a new post route between it and Tuscaloosa was established by Congress.
The first post office was located in the house of Gideon Lincecum, the new postmaster. His house was located on what was then Military Road — now Second Avenue North — behind the present day Gilmer Inn. Lincecum had moved from what is now Wilkins-Wise Road to “downtown” Columbus in 1819 and his house was said to be the first frame dwelling in Columbus.
For the next 90 years the post office moved around but remained within that same city block but on the Main Street side. Locations for the site of the post office during the 1800s ranged from the present location of the old Elks Club building to the present location of the Gilmer Inn.
In 1903, the city decided to build a new city hall. A contract was entered into with the federal government to locate the post office in the new city hall building. That building still serves as city hall. However, that arrangement was short lived and in 1909 a new post office was built. That Beaux Arts style building still stands downtown and now serves as the offices of the Columbus Light and Water Department at the south end of Market Street.
During the Great Depression, thirty-two post offices were constructed in the state with Public Works Administration funding. One of those was the downtown Columbus post office.
In 1937, plans were approved for a new Columbus post office. The building was designed by architect R. Stanley Brown. The construction contract went to Murphy Pound of Columbus, Ga. In 1938, construction began. In 1939, the new post office building was completed at a cost of $103,000.
In the lobby of the downtown building is a mural entitled “Out of the Soil.” It was painted by Beulah Bettersworth. At least one of her paintings has been included in the White House art collection. She completed the painting for the building”s east lobby wall in 1940. The cost of the mural was $1,850. It had been commissioned as part of the Department of the Treasury”s Section of Fine Arts Program, which was another depression-era program. The mural is considered to be a significant art work and a photograph of it can be found on the Library of Congress website.
In 1971, the post office department did not believe the building to be eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places but considered the mural on the lobby wall to be of “special significance.”
However, in 1983 the building was listed on the National Register and then included in the Library of Congress Historic American Building Survey.
The nomination to the National Register of Historic places provides the following statement of the building”s architectural significance:
“The Courthouse, the City Hall, and this post office represent the three most significant governmental public buildings in the community. This structure is the largest and most elaborate of the Colonial Revival group represented in this thematic nomination. The hipped roof and great cupola suggest the Georgian Mode but the large Doric columns in antis with flanking pilasters represent the proportions and spatial qualities of the Greek Revival, a ubiquitous style in the Columbus area as a result of ante-bellum construction.”
Downtown Columbus has been the site of a U.S. post office since 1820. To close that branch now would not only be a great loss and inconvenience to central city businesses and residents but a great historical loss that would possibly endanger a nationally recognized building and work of art.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.