Exploring The (Nearly!) Empty Post Office Building On 8th Ave

The 8th Avenue Post Office is extremely film friendly – shoot me an email for details at nycscout@gmail.com!

On October 9th & 10th, 2010, over 350 sites, tours, and events were made available to the public FREE for the annual Open House New York program. Open House New York is…well, an open house of New York City! A ton of fantastic options were offered this year, and OHNY graciously allowed me to take a few tours in advance to help spread the word.

My first choice? A tour of the James A. Farley Post Office at 33rd Street & 8th Ave.

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Why a post office? Because in a decade or two, this…

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…will look like this:

Moynihan 2006 Train Hall

The Farley Post Office is on track to become Moynihan Station, an extension of Penn Station, which will help alleviate a significant amount of congestion. You can see the center of the Farley building below – the roof will be removed and replaced by the atrium pictured above:

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Finally, Amtrak commuters will enter New York City through a station with prestige and class, as opposed to the underground armpit that is the current Penn Station. Meanwhile, the 8th Avenue side of the Farley building will continue to operate as New York’s 10001 post office.

What are they going to do with all the postal workers? In fact, about 90% of the building is already vacant. And covering an entire city block, that means a LOT of interesting places for OHNY guests to tour, including empty offices, an old cafeteria, a medical wing, a police wing, and more! For those that weren’t lucky enough to snag a tour this year, hopefully this post will give you a thorough look inside.

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The 8th Avenue facade was built in 1912 and meant to match the grandeur of Pennsylvania Station across the street.

Lining the top of the facade is the famous quote: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Contrary to popular belief this is not the motto of the US post office, and was actually selected by McKim, Mead & White, the architecture firm responsible for the design, from Herodotus’ description of the reliable postal service messengers under Xerxes I of Persia (fun fact: it was carved by Ira Schnapp, who would later design the Action Comics logo, and many others for DC).

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While I was waiting for my tour guides, I took a moment to admire the lobby.

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Farley is one of New York’s grandest post office, and walking in feels like a step back in time.

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Though it could use some restoration work, details of the past shine on to this day, including the intricate ceiling design work:

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Anyone know why the initials R. F. are inscribed on the ceiling? [update - readers tell me that several national seals adorn the ceiling (Russia pictured above), and this probably stands for Republic of France]:

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If you’re ever in the lobby, be sure to check out the north and south rotundas, where a number of interesting postal artifacts are on display. For example, an Irish mailbox…

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Its schedule primarily in Gaelic:

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An old rural route mail delivery horse-drawn carriage…

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A sweet mail courier bike from the 1920’s:

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And a plaque remembering the sinking of the USS Maine, actually cast from its wreckage:

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I met my guides from ESDC and we headed inside the building.

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I should add that the building is very film friendly, and would be happy to consider any proposals for shoots on the property. If you like something you see in my pictures, shoot me an email and I’ll direct you to the reps in charge.

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As we headed deeper through long hallways and winding staircases, I began to pick up on the many little details amassed during the building’s near-century long existence. The LOOK sign has a 70’s feel, no?

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Most of the windowed still have hand-stenciled lettering:.

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Our first stop was an old sorting area in the center of the building, which will one day become the new Moynihan Terminal. A sky‐lit train hall on the scale of Grand Central Terminal will be built overhead. Train tracks already run below the building (mail was once delivered here by traincar), and phase 1 of the project is about to officially start, consisting of critically important transportation infrastructure improvements.

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We then headed up a flight into what used to be a cafeteria. This area would have been filled with tables…

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Remnants of a white-tiled kitchen:

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As we walked deeper into the building, I began to get a sense of just how enormous – and empty – it really is.

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I have to be honest, looking at the Farley Building from the street, the last thing I’d ever imagine inside are dark, empty hallways and crumbling rooms.

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There are a lot of fantastic filming spaces inside. I love the arched window in this former office area:

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We crossed the floor, heading through another office wing…

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A VIP office? Everything reminded me of Mad Men

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Across more empty office space…

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We then found ourselves in a hallway stretching the length of the building and overlooking the main post office area below.

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This floor was once home to the Postal Police!

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Though you’d never expect them to need it, this area used to be a jail cell for the Postal Police’s use:

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You can still see marks from the bars in the floor:

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We continued into the old Postal Police offices…

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This was the main hallway for the police wing:

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One of the neat things about the offices in this wing…

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…is that they’re all connected! Literally, a path through all 10 or 12 offices:

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An old safe in the Police wing…

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The safe is as old as the building:

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Inside the safe:

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Evidence!

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There are a ton of different office styles. From the white drywall and linoleum floors of this room…

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…we turned a corner and found ourselves in office straight out of a 1970’s cop show:

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These wood-paneled offices are also part of the former police wing…

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Many still have their wooden radiator covers:

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Right out of Serpico:

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These offices are interconnected in the same way as the first:

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Another window:

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Many of the bathrooms are pretty old, with white tiles, porcelain sinks…

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…and marble stalls:

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Two important signs still up over the sinks:

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And:

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Up another flight of colorfully painted stairs…

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This sign gives you a sense of how crowded the place once was during full operation.

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At its peak, the building housed over 4,000 employees, and a medical wing was essential. I love this old hand-painted sign:

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We headed through a pair of double-doors into the old medical wing…

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On one door:

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And the other:

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The first room has an old nurse’s office…

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The sign:

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Inside, a really interesting device by one window:

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Recognize this?

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Ha, don’t feel bad if you didn’t:

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An Electrepel Electronic Bird Repeller! I would really, really like to know if they scared the birds away by zapping them:

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A tile bathroom:

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An old key cabinet…

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…with keys to the supply room, x-ray room…and another key cabinet!

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Beds were set up in a nearby room, and workers were encouraged to take rests rather than go home:

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Very pretty to this day, despite some decay:

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Another bathroom…

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I love the old soap holder:

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Medical Officer door stencil:

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We walked down a few more hallways, coming to the post office’s photography department.

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The dark room:

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Another York Safe:

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We passed through another office room. If only these were what passed for cubicles today…

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Another large sorting room:

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A couple of inner offices:

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Time card holders still on the walls:

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We then entered a waiting area…

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The windows still have their gold-stenciling:

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I love the glow through the frosted windows from behind:

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I didn’t see any articles loose in the mails, unfortunately:

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In the waiting room, I noticed two signs from times past. First, a shelter area sign:

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Then, a light switch sticker that feels very 70’s(80’s?)-ish to me.

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Another hallway with stenciled doors…

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Several with gorgeous wooden doorways…

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Finally, we entered one of the largest areas in the building: an enormous sorting complex that covered an entire corner of the building:

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Absolutely huge, and with high ceilings and a number of freight elevators that open directly onto it, this could be an excellent place to build small sets for film productions:

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I really love the overhead offices:

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I also love this sign – is this a motto? Productivity, Productivity, Productivity, Service!

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We headed down one last flight of stairs, passing this warning…

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…And my favorite sign in the whole building:

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Our last stop was the basement. The tracks run one floor below:

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Again, lots of space, and all of it completely vacant:

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I was told this device once played a roll in shooting mail from all over the building to train cars below:

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I headed out through the glass-covered loading dock…

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…which is also available for shoots:

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And back onto the street!

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Until this tour, I had no idea just how enormous the Farley building is, and its near total vacancy just makes it feel all the more vast. OHNY guests are in for a fun tour this weekend, and hopefully millions of New Yorkers will one day enjoy it as an extension of Penn Station.

-SCOUT

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62 comments

  1. I totally remember those light switch stickers. They were all over my elementary school. So definitely late 70s/early 80s.

  2. The photo above the “RF” one shows the coat of arms of the Russian Empire, so I infer that the ceiling is decorated with symbols of foreign nations, among which was (and is) “RF” in a classical-looking serif font, short for, and embelmatic of “Republique Francaise”. (I don’t know how to do the acute accent on the first “e” or the cedilla on the “c”, but you get the picture.)
    Is there a prize for the right answer? ; )

  3. Or even “emblematic”. I really should focus on proofreading and forget about accents …

  4. That’s awesome! It’s amazing to see how huge it is, and so many different areas…

  5. Andre is right about the RF=Republique Francaise. It’s used currently on the French euro: http://i.ucoin.net/coin/0/5/521_2s/france_10_euro_cents_2008.jpg

  6. scout, glad your back to your old self. great pictures and link to an era so long ago. you can feel the energy and time frame by your excellent photography. as always, thanks much!

  7. Amazing. I’ve always wanted to get a look see inside of the old post office building. The exterior is beautiful, fortunately they are not touching that with the new train station. I would imagine that the interior will be gutted, with all that history. Thank you for your blog, its become crack for me.

  8. The new railroad tunnels will be dead-ending in Moynihan Station, and will only be used by NJ Transit. Amtrak commuters will still enter the city via Penn.

  9. Looks like marble in the bathroom stall, it was used commonly in the grander buildings.

  10. Awesome post ( . . . office). Do you know when the areas of the building you toured were vacated?

  11. Scout visiting your blog is always one of the highlights of my day when you post. Seeing NYC, the city I love best in the whole world, and all the other posts through your eyes makes me realize how beautiful the country really is.

  12. This is my first visit to scoutingny.com but it surely will not be my last. Thank you for such a fun tour of a historic wonder that many will now be able to experience!

  13. Its great that someone has the foresight to re-use this beautiful building in such an imaginative and useful way.
    I remember being impressed by this building on a visit to NYC many years ago.

    Does anyone know why they would need a photographic darkroom?

  14. Really amazing! Thanks so much for this!

  15. I love that post office. I was too late to sign up for the tours that I really wanted to go on for Open House NY…perhaps next year. ps- I look forward to the day when you get an inside tour of the Chrysler Building;)

  16. Wow! You are an amazing blogger — fascinating and meticulous!

  17. Fantastic! So many photos, all of them elegant in showcasing a dormant part of the past. Thank you for your work and for sharing it!

  18. The vault door on pic 37 looks like it has an old time-lock on the door. Those things are worth money. They’re beautifully handcrafted.
    Can I please have the stair banister on that first set of stairs, the ones that look brassy? Just lovely. I hope those are kept in.

    Once again, a fabulous bunch of photos. Thank you so much for posting them.

  19. I tried to get a spot on this tour on the first day they announced the schedule and it was already booked. Thanks for posting these pictures–although they only make me wish I could’ve gotten on the tour even more!

  20. I’ve used the 8th ave post office many times so it’s very cool to see there is so much behind that narrow hall…

    What normally happens when they rip out the interior to a place like this? I imagine the marble and piping might be sold off, but what about the cool doors and signage? Are those the sorts of thing normally salvaged? Or does it all end up in a trash heap?

  21. i walk the length of farley every time I visist B&H. Who knew it was vacant? Thanks for an incredible tour.

    How do you become a film location scout, that’s what I want to know!

  22. love your reportages !!!!it’s like being in a detective movie ! & yes RF could mean Republique Française ( the lettering is the same ) Cheers, @ feed us soon please with new ” special investigations “!!!!!

  23. Im an English man (whose always been) in (love with) New York. Despite having visited the City many many times (including to get married) there are always gems that I havent seen. Your blog helps me see things I’ve missed or discover things to see next time I’m there. Seen The James A Farley from the outside several times and thought what an imposing building but inside wow what a treasure. Thanks for the great pictures and keep the great work up.

    James
    Southampton UK.

  24. Scout, I am so green with envy you would not believe. As CD commented I have often wondered what was behind the front hall. Now I and we all know thanks to your wonderful tour. Because I spent my youth in Queens I became a Pennsy fan and if in some manner Moynihan Station can bring back some of the glamour of the old jernt across the street so be it.

    On another note, is it possible that M. Flaneur is a boulevardier with a pseudonym.

  25. Finally OK to publish these pictures? Sweet! I work inside, and have been taking pictures for the past few years. My favorite old relic is the step-up marble urinals. Did you see the women’s bathroom stalls? Marble & brilliant!

  26. One of the first things I did as a ‘real’ New Yorker was mail my tax return from here on April 15, when the PO stayed open til midnight. What a fun experience – but I had no idea of the vastness inside. Thanks for this, as I am also missing the OHNY tour this year, I feel like I’ve been there through your photos.

  27. Oooooh, I’ve always loved this building. Thanks for the great tour!

  28. Another great post. I love the city and all it’s odd aging structures. All doomed in the end.

    Hey, what kind of camera did you use at the post office?

    You seem to get really good shots in low light without a flash.

    Any info appreciated.

    Keep it up!

  29. Thanks for the tour! It is astounding that so much space remains empty behind that beautiful building. I love it the way it is, but it clearly begs to have a new life.

  30. RF stands for ‘Republique Francaise’.

    The eagle is the coat of arm of the habsburg house.

  31. It does feel like stepping back in time when you’re in the lobby. I went once and was pretty excited about it, but was greeted with terrible customer service and rude customers at the tables with the address labels. I decided I’d never go again, ha! But will make a trip back once it is transformed to the Penn station extension… to take pictures of course.

  32. scout,
    i’ve never lived in NY and am not in the film industry but i love your blog because i love the history you show. thanks!!!

  33. I found your blog through NPR.org, and it was a great tour! The USPS seems to be vacating many of their downtown post offices across the country to move operations to lower cost real estate. It’s a shame that many of these post offices will likely be razed — at least the Farley building will have a new public life!

  34. The connection with Ira Schnapp never fails to blow my mind — he’s a legend in the world of comic book publishing. And that famous quotation always seemed to me every bit the equal of any comic hero oath. “Neither snow nor rain…” belongs right next to “In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight!” or “Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot…” or “With great power comes great responsibility!”

    Anyone interested in Schnapp’s reputation as a legend of comic book design should check out the epic series of web posts beginning here, and another look by one of his successors here.

  35. Yours is a most thoughtful and thorough display. It captures both the immensity of the building and the sadness of its abandonment. Thank you.

  36. That “productivity productivity productivity service” isn’t really a sign, per se. There were bulletin boards underneath it. Those were the headings for what was posted below on the board. I miss that old building.

  37. Loveded It! 4 snaps in Z formation!

  38. @eddie rhead: The darkroom and photo studio were used for ID mugshots as well as developing and printing photos used in postal investigations — everything from evidence of mail fraud and theft to dog-bitten mail carriers.

  39. Jude from Flushing

    About six years ago, I guess before the offices began to be abandoned, I went for a job interview in the Legal Department at the Farley. I didn’t get the job, but I remember calculating how much extra time I would have to plan for in my commute in order to reach the offices from the street entrance–those hallways were forever! The interconnected offices must be a Federal thing; I work for the Census Bureau now & notice the same thing. Thanx for the behind-the-scenes glimpse!

  40. It was good to hear you talking about the Post Office building this afternoon on my local NPR station out of San Francisco.

    I remember my dad showing me the Post Office when I was a child — back when I thought Penn Station would be there forever…

  41. unbelievable how much potential has been untapped for so long. think about all the revenue the govt should be getting from this if it were rented out or used in some manner.

  42. Thanks for this great photo tour! I really enjoyed it.

  43. Any idea when the renovation will begin. It seems like we hear this announcement every couple of years,
    but nothing happens. In this economic climate, I suppose it could be another 15 years.

  44. You knocked another one out of the park – thanks for the lunchtime reverie – it makes another dull accounting day better.

  45. Now that Christie has killed the NJ-NY train tunnel, what happens to the Moynihan Building? Another 30 years of emptiness? or land too valuable to leave for better budget days?

  46. The whole idea of moving Penn Station to this site, at vast expense and huge disruption, is truly silly. Born out of nostalgia for the grandeur of the old Penn Station, it’s the equivalent of spending a billion dollars for an aesthetic whim. The building, if it’s landmarked, as I believe, is not in danger of being torn down; so better to develop the site more sensibly.

  47. Just want to join the others in thanking you for this (clearly) labor of love… well done and endlessly fascinating.

  48. I had worked on some of the architectural models for the proposed station. The ideas and designs changed dramatically throughout the years, with at one point a proposal was done to move the sports teams to the post office. Eliminating MSG and creating a new station. I am no longer involved in the project so I am not a aware of the current proposed state, but I am sure this will change and will continue changing. It was my understanding while working on the models that this project has been ongoing for 10 years plus, and I am sure that it will still involve eliminating and re-designing MSG. A lot of people are still upset about the construction and placement of that building (MSG) and will do anything to change it. GREAT PICTURES!!!
    -E

  49. It looks like they really took care of their workers in those day.

  50. scout,
    i’ve never lived in NY and am not in the film industry but i love your blog because i love the history you show. thanks!!!

  51. Thanks for the tour. MY parents use to tell me about these wonderful places. They lived there during the 1920’s to 1936. My Dad was born in Inwood LI, NY 1902. Moved to my Mothers home of Johnson City, NY after I was born at NYC Hospital. 1936. A shame that these places sit there doing nothing, when they could be made into apartments for the elderly and business, putting people to work. They could still keep the Historic look. We are so good at forgetting our histories and tear down historical sites to put in a parking lot.

  52. Very interesting article post. Definitely will read more…

  53. Oh wow, I managed to find this site after looking up what it takes ( which is apparently not living in small town Ontario Canada) to become a location scout.

    I could correct the above to say “found this site again”. I remember enjoying this wonderful article a while back. After reading it again, I have to say that I’ll be keeping up with your site regularly.

    Oh, and if you ever need a location that requires fields, cows, corn, and a historic Victorian homes district, let me know ;).

  54. That’s not a genuine Irish post-box as most of our post-boxes are old british ones merely painted green. It was done a few months after independence and many are still used to this day.

  55. My older brother Mike worked in that building for many years as a Letter Carrier for the USPS…Great memories thx

  56. Lorelei Alford Strickland

    I worked for Sears Roebuck & Co. located on 31st and 8th Ave back in 1963 after graduating from High School. I would go to buy stamps in this beautiful grand post office, never thinking that at some point in time our need for mail would reduce us to tear down a great business such as the United States Post Office. The interior of this building with it magnificent splendor will be missed. Times change and out of necessity it will be used for something more important to the city. I am so happy to hear they will not destroy the exterior building…it would be like taking down the Collisium in Rome. Thank you for your pictures….and blog.

  57. The new use of the Farley building was inspired by the relationship between Union Station and the Old City Post Office Building (home to the Postal Museum). They’re even copying the atrium feature.

  58. As a former employee of the GPO and JAF buildings, I remember fondly the friendships of other employees I met and worked with there. I worked there from 1978 through 1980. Morgan facility re-opened in late 1979 and outgoing mail moved to that building. Over time, Morgan’s size was doubled by the addition of the south building and more of the incoming and outgoing distribution moved there. When I returned to JAF in 1993, only local mail delivery, carriers and clerks, window services, and NY District offices were located there. In 1978, the building was always busy with hundreds of employees 24 hours a day.

  59. I am looking for info and /or pictures of the Penn Post Bar and Grill which was located on the south corner across from the Post Office on 8th ave. It was in business in the 1930’s and during the depression. Thank you

  60. Worked there 5yrs from 72 to 77 real big place.

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