In recent weeks there has been much discussion about the future of Lansdale’s Borough Hall. While most residents concede the 79-year-old building needs major repairs the overriding question is whether to fix it or tear it down and start over.
Is the former post office a landmark worthy of preservation or just another old downtown building to be demolished along with the 75 others – including the Hotel Tremont and the Lansdale Theatre – that were razed over the last half century?
A recent study concluded that both borough hall and the adjacent police station desperately need attention. The police station, originally built in 1957 as a library, has little historic significance and, in fact, served its original purpose for only 15 years. However, borough hall has some deep historic roots.
They go back to the early days of the Great Depression, a time when the stock market crashed, banks failed and the masses of unemployed resorted to selling apples on street corners to subsist.
The year was 1929: The last gasp of the Roarin’ Twenties. The Lansdale Kiwanis Club launched a campaign to get a new post office for the town. Over the years the USPS had operated out of a number of rented facilities on Main and Walnuts streets. They were all cramped, dingy and ill-equipped to service a growing community. Some of Lansdale’s leading citizens got behind the effort including the Rev. Joseph Shade, rector of St. Stanislaus Church, and Walter Sanborn, publisher of The Reporter.
Under normal circumstances the timing of their campaign seemed ill-advised, coming as it did on the eve of the stock market crash. Not so, thanks to the efforts of a local congressman who pushed Lansdale’s request as part of the first wave of a $100 million public works project designed to create jobs for the unemployed. Those hired were not just laborers but skilled architects and craftsmen who through no fault of their own got caught in the Depression web.
Word came on Dec. 30, 1930 that the Feds jumped on board and Lansdale was chosen for a large post office that might also house other government offices. The timeline was three to four years. The deal went through for $125,000 (big money for a small town in 1930) and, as it turned out, the project was completed in 37 months. Actual construction took about a year.
It was built at Broad and Vine Streets, once the site of the Broadway Hotel and later Strawberry Park, a community gathering place.
The finished product aroused tremendous pride on the part of Lansdale’s residents. For years they battled the image of a rough-around-the-edges railroad town; now they had a federal building that rivaled those in communities twice Lansdale’s size. Its imposing façade – largely unchanged today - was rivaled only by the First National Bank.
The needs of the postal service and the public changed considerably between 1934 and the 1980s. The region’s population boomed, especially in the surrounding townships that were served by motorized routes.
Also, borough residents became wed to their cars and parking was a major problem. The post office lobby and service windows fronted on Broad Street where council chambers now are. The area in the back – which is now the front of borough hall – was reserved for loading docks and employee parking.
The postal service decided an all-new facility was needed so it purchased the former Loyal Order of Eagles property at Vine and St. Elmo Sts. and moved there in 1986.
At the same time the borough was in the middle of one of its numerous redevelopment phases and had just received a recommendation from the American Cities Corp., a subsidiary of the Rouse Co. ACC’s report suggested that the post office would be a good candidate for conversion to a community center because of its location, architecture and history.
The borough was already looking for a new borough hall. The town’s offices had been located at 421 W. Main St., a converted apartment house, with small rooms, difficult access and sometimes unbearable climate control conditions.
Although many other parts of the Rouse plan were caught in an economic squeeze, the borough purchased the post office in 1986, converted it to a Borough Hall in 1987 and dedicated the building the following year.
The old post office was literally gutted except for the three outside walls facing Broad and Vine Streets and Railroad Avenue. They were retained, much as they looked in the 1930s. And as we mentioned before, the main entrance was moved to the back of the building where public parking was added. The architects were Diseroad and Wolff Inc. of Hatfield.
At the time there was a sense of relief by residents that the building was retrofitted. Most agreed that it outlived its usefulness as a post office but very few felt that it should be torn down. Its imposing presence meant something special to several generations of Lansdale residents that townspeople didn’t want to lose.
Today’s borough citizens – and the people who represent them – will have to decide how much they value preservation in the 21st century. In the long run is Borough Hall worthy of another makeover to save it for future generations to enjoy, or will it go the route of the Hotel Tremont, the Lansdale Theatre and all those other buildings that disappeared from the downtown district?
Unlike the Tremont and the theater, Borough Hall is a public building. Lansdale’s residents own it and its future should be determined by them. If they have an opinion, now is the time to speak out. And it is equally important for members of council to take their constituents’ comments to heart.
For a description of the building’s original interior including its “peep system,” the Feb. 22, 1934 dedication, and other information about the post office-borough hall, please click here for the Lansdale Historical Society’s website.
Dick Shearer is president of the Lansdale Historical Society. He is a former editor of The Reporter.