Friday, April 29, 2011

Celebrating Silver Spring's Treasures

May is the National Trust for Historic Preservation's National Preservation Month and this year's theme is "Celebrating America's Treasures."  The purpose of this advocacy is to showcase our country's diverse and unique heritage and downtown Silver Spring is certainly home to a wide variety of treasures worth celebrating.

One such treasure is the building located at 8412 Georgia Avenue, constructed in 1937 as the Silver Spring Post Office.  This federal buildings (the first to be erected in Montgomery County) was one of 1,100 post offices constructed in the United States between 1934 and 1944 that featured murals or sculptures commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture.  Fourteen of these post offices were located in Maryland with three in Montgomery County (the other two were Rockville and Bethesda).

Located in the lobby of Silver Spring's new post office was a 16-foot-long oil on canvas mural titled The Old Tavern by Nicolai Cikovsky.  The mural depicted the crossroads of Sligo, Maryland (today’s intersection of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road) at the end of the Civil War.  Civil War Union soldiers are reading mail picked up at a tavern located where Discovery Communications stands today.  When the post office closed in 1981 and relocated to Second Avenue, the mural was carefully removed from the wall, placed in storage and promptly forgotten.  

In 1994 after a year long search I located the mural rolled up in a cardboard carpet tube that was stored in the basement of the demolished (2003) Blair Station Post Office, located at 8045 Newell Street.  A three-year effort was commenced by the Friends of the Silver Spring Library to raise $25,000 to conserve the mural, which was badly deteriorated.  In 1997 the restored mural was ceremoniously unveiled at the Silver Spring Library where it is now on permanent view.  I'm told that the mural will become the centerpiece of the new Silver Spring Library, planned for the corner of Fenton and Bonifant streets.

After the mural was removed from the post office in 1981, the rest of the interior was completely gutted.  Disposed were the postal clerk windows, post office boxes, writing tables, highly stylized ceiling light fixtures (they looked like miniatures of the planet Saturn), and a plaque honoring the individuals responsible for the post office’s construction.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s name was prominently placed near the top of this plaque. 

Although no extant photographs had surfaced showing the plaque in situ, documentation of its existence was established through a full-scale architectural rendering housed in the archives of the Silver Spring Historical Society.  Long had I wondered what became of the plaque, along with everything else that had graced the lobby. 

In 2006 I received a note in the mail from the manager of the Silver Spring Library.  A man in Western Maryland had mailed to the library a small black and white photograph.  The image showed a group of well-dressed men lined up in front of the Silver Spring Post Office.  Written on the back was, “Silver Spring Post Office / Recruiting Office in 1942." 

This was new information to me as I had not known that the draft board during WW II was located in the post office, theorizing instead that draftees went to 1927 Maryland National Guard Armory, located east of Georgia Avenue on Wayne Avenue.  The Armory, a Montgomery County-designated Master Plan for Historic Preservation structure, was demolished in 1998 for construction of a parking garage that was built five years later. 

The library manager thought that the Silver Spring Historical Society would be an appropriate home for the photograph.  Little did the manager, or I, know what other “treasures” the donor of this photograph possessed.

Enclosed with the photograph was contact information for the sender who lived in Little Orleans, Maryland.  I immediately called the gentleman, identified myself as founder and president of the Silver Spring Historical Society, and explained how the Silver Spring Library had sent me the photograph.  When the man said, “I also have a plaque if you want it,” I couldn’t believe what I had heard.  Without asking I knew exactly what plaque he was referring to.  

It turned out that the caller had worked at the Silver Spring Post Office from 1958 to 1975. Later, he had advanced to the position of postmaster of Mt. Rainier, Maryland and the plaque was given to him by a fellow post office employee who had obtained it when the Silver Spring Post Office's Georgia Avenue facility closed in 1981.  The plaque was in his shed where it had been sitting for over two decades. 

"I’ll be out this weekend,” was my response!  I knew the exact location of Little Orleans, 108 miles west of Silver Spring, as I had stopped there during a four-day C & O Canal bicycle “ride through” from Cumberland, MD to Georgetown in 2003.  My companions and I had replenished our water bottles at the landmark Bill’s Place in Little Orleans where I, of course, had no idea that the object of my desire was just up the hill and around the bend.

The plaque, fabricated of cast aluminum, weighs 17 lbs. and measures 21” x 32”.  Also donated to the SSHS a hinged 3 1/2” x 5” front door to PO Box 413 that was in the post office’s lobby.  The cast aluminum front features a proud, bas-relief eagle surrounded by radiating lines with the locking mechanism centered in a shield placed over the eagle’s breast.  I wondered whose hands had held the many keys that opened and closed this door for forty-four years and what missives did the door guard?

The Silver Spring Historical Society desires to permanently exhibit these items alongside the mural at the new Silver Spring Library.  An offer was made a couple of years ago to officials with the Montgomery County Public Library system to display the items at the new library but no acceptance was ever given.  So attention MCPL!  Display of these and many other historical artifacts located in our archives are still available and would serve as a wonderful library amenity to educate the public about Silver Spring’s fascinating heritage!

If you or someone you know worked for the Silver Spring Post Office on Georgia Avenue, please share your reminiscences (and perhaps photos) with the Silver Spring Historical Society.  Please email me at

1 comment:

StreetsofWashington said...

Thanks for sharing, Jerry. I didn't know the plague/mailbox-door story--another great find! Let's hope Montgomery County makes room for these exhibits.