For the past semester, I’ve been re-thinking about post offices.
My ongoing project Maryland by Mail (still under construction) examines the ways in which individuals use and explore online maps, archives, and tourist guides, as well as the ways such “sites” may be re-purposed, that is, how nonlinear navigation processes via websites replaces physical sites (and reading, memory, and experience) as finished products. These sites are continually shifting in form and meaning, in a constant state of erasure and revision. This experiment starts with clichés such as the duality of form/content. In this case, architecture, city planning and tourism act as models that might help reorient us and empty out the cliché.
Heavily influenced by the work of Roland Barthes’ Empire by Signs and Gregory Ulmer’s Electronic Monuments, this project maintains the appearance of the familiar tour guide, focusing on the largely ignored architecture of post offices—extent, razed, and imaginary—throughout Maryland’s history. The U. S. Postal Service has been in a massive state of decline since the 1980’s, and, in the last five years alone, nearly a thousand stations and branches have closed, which hundreds more scheduled for closure in the next year. But the postal service also serves as a metaphor here in the transmission and distribution (and loss) of materials, ideas, and memory.
This project encourages customers, local residents, to transform themselves into tourists and to find otherness in the familiar sites of the post office (whether its still physically there or not). The goal is not to view the post office as an object of study but rather to reconstruct a method or model of invention, thus transforming the post office from a mundane routine destination into an obscure and strange, yet striking, tourist attraction.
While my initial focus has begun with post offices in Baltimore City, the project has also turned visiting my parents in Bel Air, MD, into a weekend holiday. . .
Just as Baltimore post office moved from the city’s center, the Bel Air post office (once located on Main Street and now the site of the Harford County Historical Society) has moved behind the mall, hidden from public view and removed from any civic (symbolic) meaning. This is mirrored in the architectural style of these buildings.
The original structure, built in the 1930’s, is warm and boasts character with its impressive cupola. Like many post offices around the country during this time, it housed a beautiful mural commissioned by the New Deal’s Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). The agency commissioned over 15,000 works of art during the Great Depression, including over 700 murals on public display at post offices. The mural for Bel Air, painted by Washington, D.C., artist William Chafee, portrays Harford County native Edwin Booth–a famous actor in his day, a reputation overshadowed by his brother John Wilkes Booth–delivering a public performance or monologue at the Bel Air Courthouse. The mural was moved to the current post office, but, sadly, it is hidden in a dark corner by the passageway where folks enter for passports.
Among historians of the theater, Edwin is generally known for having re-shaped theatrical performances. Edwin’s elocution was often quiet, reflective and natural, strikingly different from his peers and predecessors’ turgid, over-enunciated, over-the-top deliveries. He was especially known for his role of Hamlet, which he played one hundred consecutive times (a record that held until the 1920s when John Barrymore preformed the title role 101 times). One of his recorded readings of Othello has been restored and made available here.
While I’m interested in how these civic structures have been lost, forgotten, as places of civic, artistic and intellectual meeting places, I was also intrigued to learn that Booth’s family home has been preserved and is open to the public–hidden in a quiet little pocket of space behind an upscale housing development–and just across the street from the house where I was raised . . . Why haven’t I visited this before?
The property was completely vacant when we arrived–so we were a little nervous we might be trespassing–but absolutely beautiful, a serene space that could rival any idyllic image we could envision of a nineteenth-century cottage. After a ten-minute stroll along a path leading through the green, fertile grounds–complete with a natural spring and mature willows–we reached the house: a modest Gothic Revival cottage. It is a romantic house with white-painted brick, porches, balconies, and windows varying in size and shape.
The Booth family patriarch, Junius Brutus Booth, also a famous Shakespearean actor, bought the 177-acre property in 1847 and moved a log house there while the construction of the current cottage was underway. Interestingly, recent accounts reveal that Junius may have used the property as a site to assist runaway slaves escape across the Pennsylvania line. Junius died in 1852 before the house was finished, but both Edwin and John Wilkes each lived here for a short time. The history of the Booth family today has been largely condensed to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, it is ironic that historical account note Edwin’s rescue of Lincoln’s son Robert from a fatal fate on a train platform just one year earlier.
Groups like the Junius B. Booth Society and the Historical Society of Harford County should be applauded for restoring this historic property. The responsibility on how we remember the history and artistic contributions on our own community falls on the rest of us . . . or else we, too, face a fatal fate in a Booth.