Friday, September 8, 2023

The 1933 Morgan General Mail Facility - 341 Ninth Avenue


In 1913 the United States General Post Office designed by McKim, Mead & White was opened on Eighth Avenue, directly opposite their recently completed Pennsylvania Station.  The facility was the largest post office in the country and, according to The New York Times, “possibly in the world.”  But by the Great Depression even this massive structure was overtaxed.
Twenty years after the General Post Office opened, the 2.2-million-square-foot Morgan General Mail Facility was completed.  Designed by James A. Wetmore, the acting supervising architect of the Public Works Branch of the United States Treasury Department, it engulfed an entire block from Ninth to Tenth Avenues, and from 29th to 30th Streets.  Named for Edward M. Morgan, New York postmaster from 1907 to 1917, the facility was built with funds and labor provided by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration program.  It was connected to the High Line, providing direct access to thousands of mail trains from across the country. 
Designed as two sections, Wetmore’s behemoth structure rose ten-stories on Ninth Avenue and six on Tenth Avenue.  Above the two-story limestone base, the seven-story midsection was clad in beige brick.  Above the bronze entrance doors on Ninth Avenue was a full-height bronze grill.  On either side were carved plaques of bald eagles in bas relief.  Carved into the entablature between the second and third floors was “United States Parcel Post Building.”  The tenth floor sat above and behind a substantial stone cornice decorated with Roman antefixes.

photograph by Patrick Nouhailler's

The post office operated from the lower floors--with trains entering and leaving, a five-mile system of conveyor belts, and elevators and chutes transporting packages throughout the cavernous spaces--while the upper floors became home to Government offices.  On March 4, 1934, for instance, The New York Times advised that those needing advice in completing their income tax returns could be assisted here.  Other offices included the Veterans’ Administration Bureau; the Railroad Retirement Board; the Office of Veterans’ Unemployment Rights, and the U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division.

Mail trains entered from the High Line into the facility on Tenth Avenue.  Photograph by Jim Henderson

An often-conspicuous office here was the United States Conciliation Offices, where management and labor groups, unable to find contract compromises, hammered out negotiations.  From August through October 1946, for instance, talks were held here during the strike of the American Communications Association, C. I. O. against firms like the Western Union Telegraph Company and Press Wireless, Inc.  The Government intervened partly because the union had initiated a news “blackout,” refusing to telegraph news stories to the press from abroad.  “The tactic has been acknowledged by the union as a means of bringing pressure against newspapers to force a favorable settlement of the controversy,” reported The New York Sun on August 14.
Two years later, the Teamsters Union and the Pelham Coal and Oil Company were deadlocked in the dead of winter, when consumers desperately needed heating.  On January 12, 1948, representatives came together at the U. S. Conciliation Service Office to work out the details.

The Morgan Annex became the target of terrorists in 1967.  
On December 8, a postal worker on the fourth floor tossed a packaged addressed to Cuba and labeled “medical supplies” toward a chute.  An explosion followed.  The package bomb caused injuries to eight employees.  Eight nights later a fire broke out in the conveyor belt area of the basement around 9:30.  The Daily News reported it, “roared through Christmas packages and mail last night in the Morgan branch of the post office.  For a time the blaze trapped scores of employes [sic] in upper stories of the 10-story building.”
The inferno grew to seven alarms, bringing firefighters from six Manhattan fire stations and one from Brooklyn.  The article noted, “There was one report, not immediately confirmed, that an explosion had signaled the start of the blaze.”  The New York Times reported, “Some 1,800 to 2,000 postal employes [sic] were safely evacuated.”  Despite around 350 firefighters and 50 pieces of equipment, at 3:00 the next morning the blaze was still out of control.  Twelve firefighters and several postal workers were overcome by smoke.
The New York Times announced, "The fire ruined most of the interior of the Morgan Annex."  The everyday operations were moved to the Brooklyn Army Terminal while fire investigators sorted through the rubble.  They found one especially interesting survivor of the blaze.

On December 17, 1967, The New York Times reported, “Among the charred debris, the water-soaked packages and the sludge of fallen plaster mixed with water, firemen found a partly opened package in the Morgan Annex of the post office yesterday.”  The contents, partially showing through the damaged package, sparked their interest.  “They found $44,000 in cash,” said the article.  “The money was in a box that had originally contained carbon paper.  This was in a cardboard box and was wrapped in burlap.”
The cash, all in small denominations, was turned over to postal authorities.  There fire had destroyed any markings on the box that could have provided identification of the sender or intended recipient.  Not surprisingly, on January 5, 1968, The New York Times reported, "News that the package of bills had been discovered spread rapidly, and the claims followed in quick succession."  Postal inspector Robert J. Hickey told reporters that the claimants, so far, were "completely out of touch with reality."  Although there were no markings on the package, there was an item inside along with the cash.  Hickey was "just sitting back" waiting for the owner, who would be able to describe that item, to appear.

Whoever the group or person intent on destroying the Morgan Annex was, they tried one last time.  Two days after that The New York Times article, J. H. Matson, chief of the Ninth Fire Battalion, discovered five separate fires burning in the "heaps of charred and water-damaged mail and packages in a fourth-floor room," as described by The New York Times.  Luckily he found the purposely-set fires early on and they were extinguished within 20 minutes.

On June 26, 1968 Postmaster General W. Marvin Watson announced that the General Post Office on Eighth Avenue and the Morgan Annex would be combined into "the world's largest postal facility."  The Morgan was to be demolished and the proposed $100-million complex would engulf the area from 28th to 30th Streets and Ninth to Tenth Avenues.  The main post office, called "architecturally distinctive but functionally antiquated" was to be turned over to the General Services Administration."  The project was slated for completion in early 1974.

The ambitious undertaking never took shape, however.  A rehabilitation to the Morgan Annex included air conditioning and modern equipment.  Little by little, as work was completed, certain areas resumed operation.  

photograph by Jim Henderson

The Morgan was still mostly empty on the night of February 9, 1971 when postal inspector Edward Lyons confronted and arrested six employees whom he accused of pilfering mail.  One of them, 60-year-old George Leo, however, refused to go quietly.  In the scuffle that followed, Lyons's gun "accidently fired," according to The New York Times.  Leo was shot dead.

On March 31, 1979, The New York Times reported, "The Morgan Post Office Station...unused since a fire in 1967, will remain closed indefinitely despite a $70 million renovation.  It was announced yesterday that the building would require about $30 million more for the correction of design and safety deficiencies."

In 1992 a massive new facility was completed on the block to the south, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues and 28th to 29th Streets.  The two structures were connected by a skybridge on 29th Street.  With the Morgan Annex now only partially utilized, in 2019 the Postal Service leased the top six floors to the Tishman Speyer real estate development firm.  The Postal Service continues to utilize the basement and first four floors.

Renderings of the roof garden in 2022.   image via Tishman Speyer

Tishman Speyer, in compliance with the Department of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, renovated the upper floors to high-tech offices spaces with a 2.5 acre roof garden, a terrace on the eighth-floor, and 5,100 square feet of retail space on Ninth Avenue.

non-credited photographs by the author
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  1. Another well-researched article. Thanks, Tom, for what you do.

  2. It's likely that most of the mail came in from chutes in Penn Station, below the buildings. Mailcars on trains sorted the mail, and mail bags were then brought up through the ceiling into the Post Office buildings above. More information at this linkL