Completed in 1959, this was, I think, the last major railroad-oriented building constructed near downtown Detroit. By the 1890s, railroads were playing an important role in linking all areas of this nation through their transport of mail and express shipments. Persons in any corner of the country could post a letter and, within a few days, railroads would transport it to any other corner of the nation. Large fortunes were made by such firms as Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward as they shipped a vast array of consumer products, by rail, to persons in all of the 48 states.
With federal funding for the development of all-weather roads in the decade following World War I, the shipment of mail across short distances shifted quite rapidly from trains to trucks in the 1920s. However, almost all long distance shipments of mail were by rail, continuing well into the decades following World War II. With the paving of roads and increases in auto ownership, short distance passenger travel by rail began declining in the late 1920s and railroads sought, often unsuccessfully, government approval to terminate their passenger trains. After World War II, many railroads found they could tolerate the high costs of running passenger trains if those trains had lucrative contracts to handle mail. So shipping mail by train continued, helping to justify the construction of this building.
The political values of the Eisenhower years called for massive investments in the nation’s infrastructure. The interstate highway system that most of us use almost every day was a major contribution promoted by President Eisenhower and his colleagues. They also built governmental structures around the nation. The massive post office you see was erected in the late 1950s and opened in 1959. There are 10 stories above ground and one or two below ground. This is a railroad-oriented building since the basement level included two railroad tracks coming off the nearby Michigan Central line close to the railroad tunnel to Canada. The railroad could spot cars of mail inside this post office. The mail would be sorted and put on trucks for delivery to local post offices throughout southeast Michigan. Similarly, mail from southeast Michigan would be sorted in their building and loaded onto rail cars that would arrive in New York, Boston, of St. Louis the next morning.
Shipping mail by rail did not last very long after the opening of this post office. In 1959, commercial jet planes began flying the skies of this country. They had a much longer range and were much more reliable and less costly to operate than the piston planes they replaced. Since jet planes were very much faster than trains, they began to capture the mail business despite the efforts of the railroads to retain their mail subsidy. President Johnson more or less decided that the postal service would switch from using trains to planes. There is much speculation about the reason for this. Perhaps straight-forward economic considerations led to the switch. However, there is also speculation about the role of the president of Texas-based Braniff Airlines. He had very strongly and generously supported the political ambitions of Lyndon Johnson. At some point during the Johnson presidency, his airline faced a financial crisis. He may have pressured President Johnson to save the nation’s failing airlines by transferring the Post Office’s business from trains to planes.
After the loss of long-distance mail contracts, railroads could not sustain the cost of running long distance passenger trains, although federal regulatory agencies often forced them to do so. Following years of bitter struggles and several major railroad bankruptcies, President Nixon’s administration agreed to federal funding for the private corporation that we now know as Amtrak. Many observers assumed that Amtrak would gradually phase out most long distance and many local passenger trains. However, 42 years after its creation in 1971, Amtrak continues to operate a skeletal system of long distance trains and many more short distance trains. None of them carry United States mail.
This post office has been a major source of employment for Detroit residents since, until recently, sorting mail was a labor intensive endeavor. The electronic media, however, have greatly reduced the volume of first class mail. Much of the volume of the post office consists of advertisements and catalogues. Since they are losing vast sums, the Post Office has greatly reduced employment and cut costs. In February, 2012, there were various reports that the Postal Service was considering ending mail sorting at the post office and shifting that task to a center in Pontiac. Presumably, the building with continue to sell stamps and provide some of the other services of the Post Office such as the processing of passports.
George Young was a long time postal employee in Detroit. He rose through the ranks and served as Assistant Postmaster of Detroit in the 1970s. He was the first African-American to hold that appointment. He was also the young brother of Mayor Coleman Young. In 1993, Barbara Rose Collins, representing Detroit in Congress introduced legislation that sought to name the federal courthouse in Detroit for Theodore Levin and the major post office for George Young. After several years, Congress enacted legislation affixing these names to the two largest federal buildings in the city.
Date of Construction: 1959
Architects: Perhaps Harley, Ellington and Day, I am not certain
Architectural style: Vernacular governmental building in the late 1950s style
Use in 2013: Post office and mail sorting center
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley, May 29, 2013
Description prepared: June, 2013
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