First-class mail

Goodyear pilot Jack Boettner deftly maneuvered his airship as it bobbed in the gusting wind.

While the blimp Puritan hovered 150 feet above its rooftop target, mechanic August O’Neil lowered a hook from the cabin, snagged a heavy cloth sack and reeled it back into the gray sky.

The blimp immediately set course for Akron Municipal Airport, where it dropped off a 25-pound mailbag next to a shuttle plane bound for Cleveland.

It was airmail, Akron style.

The daring display took place Feb. 11, 1929, during a dedication ceremony for the new post office and federal building at 168 E. Market St. The handsome, spacious structure replaced a cramped 1899 office at East Market and South High streets (now part of the Akron Art Museum).

”The prophetic feature of this ceremony was of more local public interest even than the delivery of the mail,” the Beacon Journal reported. ”It is no novelty to Akron people to see these baby dirigibles cruising through the air, without reference to whether the weather variety is storm, sunshine, rain, sleet or snow. But no keen imagination is needed to know what yesterday’s event means to the future of airmail service.

”It is that if a city wants to overcome the delay of congested traffic conditions in its streets, it can use blimps as mediums with which to make the final relay of airmail from an airport to the post office.”

Well, not quite. Blimp mail service didn’t quite catch on downtown, but the post office
remained a fixture for 44 years.

Public officials had debated for a decade where to build the landmark. In February 1927, they finally settled on the southwest corner of East Market and Prospect streets, which housed a gas station, auto repair shop, fruit stand and hot dog stand.

The tenants didn’t get much notice. The storefronts were demolished by April.

New York native James A. Wetmore (1863-1940), acting supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, designed the Akron facility, along with 2,000 other post offices across the country. He drew up plans for a Roman Neo-Classical Revival building with a limestone exterior, arched windows, Tuscan columns and granite steps.

The Algernon Blair Co. of Montgomery, Ala., won the federal contract for the two-story structure, which cost about $583,000 to build — roughly $7.3 million in today’s money.

Construction began in early 1928 and took a year to complete.

Praise for the post office was immediate and effusive.

”The new building provides plenty of room for the federal government’s mail business in Akron,” the Beacon Journal noted. ”There are large airy corridors with offices leading from them. The main office with a large skylight has exceptional facilities to accommodate the public plus a maximum amount of light for those employed at the office.”

The grand lobby was beautiful and functional. Its decor included marble walls, clay tile floors, iron fences, chandeliers and tables. In addition to mail slots, the lobby had service windows for stamps, parcel post, airmail, special delivery, money orders and postal savings, plus a section of lock boxes.

The Akron Times-Press reported: ”The basement of the new building is given over entirely to the parcel post and outgoing mail divisions. Letters and parcels dropped in the slots will go directly down a chute to the basement to be dispatched to the trains.”

Second-floor offices included U.S. Customs, Internal Revenue Service, FBI, Civil Service Commission and recruiting stations for the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

The post office was swarmed with customers on opening day, and it only got busier as the years progressed. Home of the U.S. rubber industry, Akron generated a mountain of mail.

Sorting mail by hand in the city distribution room, clerks could never shake the feeling that they were being watched. Postal inspectors observed the work from hidden catwalks, peering through holes in the wall to guard against employee theft.

In 1939, a postal inspector missed a rung on a ladder and plunged 20 feet to his death after walking through a dimly lit passageway. Older Akron residents might recall hearing ghostly tales about the post office. This most likely is where the legend began.

Many World War II veterans remember the building as the place where they enlisted for military service following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Volunteers jammed the recruiting stations after the attack. Later, their letters from overseas were sorted at the office.

During the war, the Akron post office handled 30 to 40 trains of mail each day. The building that once seemed so spacious began to fill up.

Newly installed machinery and conveyor belts took up additional room. In the early 1950s, the second-floor agencies moved out so the post office could use the entire building.

As the postal industry became more automated, the federal government decided that Akron should have a new facility. It only took another 20 years.

So many people used the office that the lobby floor eroded beneath the service windows. Hundreds of thousands of shoes wore down the tiles.

When the building opened in 1929, there were 400 postal workers and $1.9 million in receipts. By 1970, there were 1,380 workers and $12.7 million in receipts.

Finally, the U.S. government agreed to pay Akron $500,000 for Thornton Park as the site of a new post office.

Ground was broken in 1970 on a $5.1 million building at 675 Wolf Ledges. It opened in 1973 and remains there to this day.

Charles Mayer Jr. (1915-2008) rescued the old post office from oblivion when he purchased the building for $200,000 in 1976 and turned it into the home of Charles Mayer Studios, a photography, framing and exhibit business. The site entered the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Akron Legacy Real Estate Development LLC bought the Mayer Building in 2006 and spent $9.3 million to remodel it.

Mayer, 92, attended the dedication ceremony in 2007 for the Summa Center Building, which houses about 200 employees from Summa Health System’s support services.

Celebrating its 80th anniversary this month, the impressive-looking building is assured of remaining on the Akron skyline for a long, long time.

If anyone wants to re-create the 1929 mailbag trick, flag down the Goodyear blimp.

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One Response to “First-class mail”

  1. scerlollult said, on February 24th, 2009 at 11:29 am

    Thank you!

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