Lewes Post Office is a Tribute to Grand Civic Architecture

The exterior of the Lewes, Del. Post Office  CHRIS BEAKEY PHOTO

It’s no secret that Bill and I are fans of historic architecture since the sign for Active Adults Realty is prominently displayed in the front yard of our 1920s Second Street craftsman home in Lewes. We love the sturdy brick exterior and the quaint interior that’s airy and welcoming year-round because the home was built prior to the invention of air conditioning, which meant virtually every room had to be ventilated via windows.

We also love our proximity to other historic buildings that I’ve described in previous posts.   One of the most remarkable is the Lewes Post Office on Front Street a block away. 

Constructed in 1913, it stands today as a prime example of “civic architecture,” a term used to describe post offices, city halls, public libraries, public schools and other public buildings that figure prominently in the lives of everyday citizens. 

As noted in a National Park Service description of the National Register of Historic Places, the federal government once promoted the belief that these buildings should be “monumental and beautiful” to “represent the ideals of democracy and high standards of architectural sophistication in their communities.”

This belief factored significantly into New Deal projects undertaken during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. Tens of thousands of public buildings and infrastructure projects were constructed through the Works Progress Administration by workers who had been idled by Great Depression. More than 1,000 were post offices, many of which are listed on the National Register.

Norman Rockwell Downstairs – Raymond Chandler Up

Take a walk inside and you’ll see that the building still lives up to those grand civic ideals. Its lobby is a grand space with tiger-striped oak woodwork, dental moldings, and a frosted glass door to the postmaster’s office. In contrast to utilitarian post offices typically found in modern suburbs, this relic of the past is a warm and welcoming place that looks as if it belongs in a Norman Rockwell painting. 

And then there’s that stairway off to the right, with its gracefully turned balustrade, leading to rooms you can’t quite see beyond the second-floor landing. Chances are the very nice folks who work the desk won’t stop you if you walk up. If you do you’ll see a suite of offices that reflect Lewes’ role in the security of the entire Delmarva region during the first few decades of the last century. 

At its inception the whole structure was known as the Lewes Federal Building. As such, it was home to offices for the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs Service, and the Superintendent of the Light House, all of which were important to maritime safety.

In keeping with that era’s philosophy of civic architecture, the upstairs space conveys the same stately atmosphere as the rooms below. The floors are oak, scuffed by 100-plus years of foot traffic yet still conveying a sense of quality workmanship and solidity. Beneath a 10-foot ceiling the rectangular hallway is lined with paneled oak doors with frosted glass designed to bring light into the interior offices. Every one of the offices features the same heavy woodwork surrounding tall windows, which look out upon the Lewes townscape. 

Lewes Locals Have Great Memories

From the hallways to the offices, the entire space has a film noir feel. Anyone familiar with detective movies from the ’40s and ’50s will find it easy to imagine a hard-boiled private eye in the shadowy light of these spaces. And if you know a bit about its history it’s just as easy to imagine U.S. servicemembers hard at work protecting the Delaware coast during WWII. 

Nancy Grasing, who served as the postmaster from 1961 through 1990, often visited her father in those second-floor offices during his time with the Coast Guard. And area historian Hazel Brittingham has one particularly fond memory of the place during World War II.

“There were 18 girls and six boys in my class at Lewes High School,” she recalls. “Those weren’t good odds if you wanted a date for the junior dance, which is why a lot of us went out with Coast Guard guys. The boy I went with had just learned how to type. That got him a nice indoor job in one of those offices on the second floor.”

Back downstairs, you’re apt to have a very pleasant experience at the mail counter. The postal employees are always friendly and helpful, which also reflects their pride in this beautiful historical building. As noted by Laura Hatfield, who’s been behind that counter since 2016:

“The best thing about working here – it’s got to be that view,” she said on a Saturday morning as she gazed out from the postal counter toward the 1812 Park and the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal. “I also love all the questions I get about this old building and all the creaky sounds it makes. It’s nice to know it’s all original after all these years.”

About Christine Davis

Christine grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania in a small town called Pittston, which is located between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. Upon graduation, she enlisted in the United States Air Force, where she proudly served for eight + years at a variety of bases throughout the world, including Holland, Korea, and New Mexico. While in the Air Force, Christine spent most of her time working in the civil engineering career field where she thoroughly enjoyed meeting and working with such a diverse group of people with varying backgrounds and experiences, and learned so much from each of them. Christine’s last assignment in the Air Force was at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, and that’s when she discovered the Delaware beaches. Growing up in PA, her family spent time at the Jersey shore. But once she moved to MD, she became one of those many drivers making the trek across the Chesapeake Bay Friday afternoon to visit the Delaware beaches for the weekend. Upon Christine’s separation from the Air Force, she spent a small amount of time working in Washington, D.C., but it didn’t take long before she was drawn to the quiet, slow pace of Lewes and Rehoboth Beach, “the nation’s summer capital”. Christine moved to Rehoboth Beach in 1999 and finished her degree in Business at Delaware Tech. At the time she was working for a large physician organization when a friend recommended that she become a REALTOR because she loved helping people and loved looking at homes. She was reluctant for quite a while because Christine didn’t think of herself as a salesperson. But after much urging by her friend, Christine decided to get her real estate license in 2003 and has not looked back since. Christine still doesn’t think of herself as a salesperson, but rather a facilitator between buyer and seller, working toward a common goal. Christine aims to make the process as smooth and fun as possible but also educates the buyer and seller along the way so they can make the best decision possible. Christine now lives in Lewes and although she misses the mountains of PA, she thoroughly enjoys spending as much time as possible at the beach, especially Cape Henlopen State Park. Christine’s philosophy in life is that it’s too short. Never spend so much time making a living that you forget how to live.

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