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When Worlds collide

The U of M law school would like to move into the downtown post office building. The U.S. Postal Service would like to stay.

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First off, let us assume that the United States Postal Service did not get to be 225 years old with 730,000 career employees and overcome crummy weather, terrorism, competition from FedEx and UPS, and a regular diet of wisecracks from Seinfeld, Leno, and Letterman without a little moxie.

So while it may be true that there are only 100 or so postal employees rattling around in 140,000 square feet of space in the grand old building on Front Street once known as the United States Customs House, Court House and Post Office ... and that the University of Memphis would like to move its law school downtown to said building ... and that the Riverfront Development Corporation and certain downtown powers that be would be delighted to see that happen ...

Don't hold your breath.

Because, as the post office's motto says, "Neither rain nor snow or gloom of night will keep the mailman from his appointed rounds." Or dislodge the P.O. from super-sized offices with marble fireplaces, 12-foot ceilings, bath tubs, and river views.

And who can blame them?

The historic building is the architectural centerpiece of Front Street and the public promenade. As a public building housing public servants, it fulfills the 1819 vision of the city founders in a way that, say, a parking garage does not. No matter what position they take on the Riverfront Development Corporation's plan to develop the promenade, everyone agrees this is one building well worth saving. Even if the fire station, library, and parking garages come down, this baby stays. It is ground zero in any and all discussions of the future of the promenade.

And the current tenants, who give half-tours to nosy reporters with all the enthusiasm of a father introducing his teenage daughter to a member of the Hell's Angels, would just as soon stay right where they are.

"We like the proximity to the United States attorney's office and the federal courts," says Keith Morris, assistant inspector in charge of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. "It's convenient. There are a lot of reasons for us to stay. When the U.S. attorney wants to meet with the heads of agencies, this is where we meet. We could have moved out to Humphreys Boulevard, but this is where we chose to be."

Besides, he notes, "there is a lot of vacant space downtown."

Morris, as far as can be determined, occupies the nicest office on the second floor of the three-story building, with a fireplace, high ceilings, polished wood paneling, and windows overlooking Front Street. His secretary's office is the same size and also has a fireplace. Combined, they are about the size of a racquetball court.

But these digs are hardly the norm. Upstairs, Postmaster Ruby Bridgeport works in a modest office on a floor whose general state of decor and repair suggests an old public school of roughly Central High vintage. The dark paneling needs painting or stripping and refinishing. The carpet is utilitarian and wrinkled. Offices are a warren of cubicles connected, one to the next, by interior doorways. There are cobwebs in the interior of the windows and pigeon droppings on the outside. Several offices with river views are empty, which is not all that unusual in Memphis. The old Union Planters Bank headquarters across the street has been vacant for more than a decade, and it has even better views because it is taller.

The U.S. Postal Service is downsizing as the volume of first-class mail shrinks due to e-mail and competition. But in testimony before a congressional committee earlier this year, the emphasis was on small post offices in rural areas, not large underused ones.

The Front Street building houses the postal inspectors, postmaster and staff, Nonprofit Service Center, and a working post office at the north end, which is the only part of the building accessible to the average Joe. There is also a replica of an old-timey small-town post office that was built by an employee several years ago, but it, like most of the building, sits behind locked doors.

As advertised, in its heyday, the building was a busy place for all sorts of civil servants. It was built in stages, starting in 1876, as a customs house, expanded in 1903, and expanded again in 1929 (including the row of paired columns on Front Street) for the benefit of the post office.

"For many years, the feet of Memphians, mailing letters and packages, wore grooves in the marble floor of this space that is grand enough for the ancient Romans," wrote Eugene Johnson and Robert D. Russell Jr. in 1990 in their book, Memphis: An Architectural Guide. "Now the lobby is limited to authorized personnel. If you aren't authorized, some grim-faced civil servant will glare at you if you dare come in to look."

Until 1992, the first floor was used as the Southern regional training center. Now only local postal workers get training here, and large sections of the building appear to have been closed off for some time, although extracting particulars from the current tenants is not easy.

"I love it here," says Bridgeport. "The real grandeur is only in the lobby."

That it is. The lobby is a beauty, with tile floor, marble columns, brass entrances, and charming old-fashioned customer-service windows with brass grates. It is, however, closed to the public and protected by security doors at both ends. Should a visitor manage to secure admission, his or her footsteps will echo down the empty hallway. Behind the first line of glamour is the gauche display of a recent renovation that painted part of several columns bright pink. Fortunately, perhaps, few people have ever seen it.

Which Brings Us to the University of Memphis ...

The Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law is located on campus in a building that has been known to flood during heavy rains. The computer lab was lost in a 2001 deluge, and the library is particularly crowded. The agency that accredits law schools has said U of M needs to do something. University officials admit such warnings are not all that uncommon or urgent, but they take them seriously.

"We either have to move or upgrade our current building," says interim law-school dean James Smoot. The estimated cost: $40 million. He reasons that a higher profile and fresh excitement might encourage private donors to contribute, and possible tax credits and state and federal funds could soften the blow.

"People have told us that if we want to build another red-brick building on campus, we're not going to get a lot of money," he says. Both Smoot, who lives downtown, and U of M president Shirley Raines are solidly behind the idea of moving the school downtown.

"I would like it to be downtown because of its being accessible to the courts and the law firms that are downtown," says Raines. "It's a wonderful opportunity for our students and faculty to be more engaged with the legal community. And that traditional old building would be a wonderful site for a law school."

She said response to the proposed move has been "overwhelmingly positive" among faculty, alumni, and students. The university has also vetted the idea with members of Tennessee's congressional delegation including senators Bill Frist and Lamar Alexander and U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr. and gotten their support.

For downtown boosters, the law school would bring much-needed street life, a new tenant, and approximately 500 law students, faculty, and staff to study, eat, and perhaps live downtown. Despite the vaunted renaissance of downtown in recent years, such catches are rare. The last one of this size was the headquarters of AutoZone a decade ago and Belz Enterprises in Peabody Place a few years later.

"I've been a supporter from the first day they mentioned it to me," says Jeff Sanford, head of the Center City Commission. "I think it's a great idea as a means to raise their profile and a wonderful use of the property."

Benny Lendermon, head of the Riverfront Development Corporation, has even more reason to be enthusiastic. The promenade atop the bluff is the key to revitalization of the riverfront, and the Customs House is the best building, by far, on the promenade between Union and Poplar. Landing the law school could gin up more enthusiasm for the so-far lukewarm outlook for commercial development of part of the promenade.

"The law school probably makes more sense and is more doable than anything we've heard," he says. "If the university can come up with the financial wherewithal to pursue it, then it will probably happen. We would love to see that."

Lendermon won't be surprised if the final decision is made in Washington, assuming the Tennessee legislative delegation gets behind it. The federal government cannot sell the building. They either use it or lose it to the city of Memphis. Other federal agencies, including the FBI, moved to new offices behind Christian Brothers High School several years ago.

Architect Lee Askew, whose firm has been hired by the university to draw up plans for a downtown law school, said the Postal Service probably needs only 40,000 square feet of the existing 140,000 square feet if they want to share the space.

"At one time it was bustling with activity, but now it's eerie and strange," he says. "From our observations, it is very underutilized. The thought was that we should use this wonderful building for a much better purpose. The post office virtually turns its back on the river. If we're going to recapture the riverfront, then this is a key piece."

The proposed renovation includes a library, classrooms, legal clinic, court rooms, expansion on the west side, and a segment of the new walkway being built on the bluff behind the current parking lot.

"We would not go in and rip out everything," says Askew. "We would keep the brass cages, columns, lobby and put the new stuff upstairs. In any historical renovation you keep the good things."

Whether or not anything comes of the idea will depend in large part on the determination of the University of Memphis, which was a reluctant participant in The Pyramid and FedExForum. History since 1975 shows that landmark downtown buildings in Memphis got built or renovated because some determined, resourceful, and powerful individual or group wanted them to get built.

"It's very high on my list of priorities, but what we have to do is work the system," says Raines. "The wheels of government and bureaucracy grind slowly at times."

One person who knows that also has a little first-hand knowledge of the Postal Service and the tarnished jewel of Front Street. City councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Holt worked for the P.O. for 28 years, five of them downtown. She says she will reserve judgment until a decision is made by other players in the picture. But she notes that the post office is "a viable operation in that building." And she recalls with some fondness the glories of the old girl.

"The office where I was prior to 1992," she says, "was formerly a judge's chambers with a full bath in it, including a claw-foot tub."

She said there has been someone kicking the tires of the old building for as long as she can remember. "When I was an active employee," she said, "they said that they would never relinquish that building." •

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