The Case of the Invisible Post Office

You've got one letter to mail at the post office downtown. Your job: find it.

A drizzle has descended upon Portland from the heights of the sopping Cascades. It's an insidious rain, wiping down the city like a soggy Kleenex. The kind of rain in which anything could happen.

I've got a late check for a library fine burning a hole in my pocket, and it needs a stamp. I head to Pioneer Courthouse Post Office, a Portland institution for over 127 years. I'll send the money off in style.

Damn. A chain-link fence hugs the building's quiet stone steps. The defunct "Post Office" sign stares out mockingly above the entryway.

The post office has disappeared. I had a bad feeling about this rain.

I spot a business through the damp haze. Maybe they know something. The dame at Powell's Travel Store sees my soggy missive, knows I'm not there for some guide to Kansas City.

"We get people in here every day asking where the post office is," she says. "Sometimes eight, sometimes 10 a day. We send them down to Solomon."

Solomon?! Never heard of the joint. And I know Portland like I know the bottom of my whiskey tumbler.

A few blocks down the road, near the intersection of Broadway and Main, a building the color of a dirty ashtray stretches into the clouds. The words "Gus J. Solomon Courthouse" are engraved on its face, but there's no post office in sight. I duck around the corner, cursing the Powell's map maven. I've been set up! Down side streets, I make my way to University Station, a post office four blocks away from the courthouse.

At University, the queue snaking its way to the postal clerks is longer than a lineup of my old boyfriends. Finally, I get my lousy 37-cent stamp and and drop the letter in the mail slot. A poster near the doorway catches my eye: It's true! There is a Gus J. Solomon Courthouse post office. I'll call the boys over at the Postal Service to get to the bottom of this.

Ron Anderson, customer-relations coordinator for the U.S. Postal Service in Portland, explains. After the Pioneer Courthouse location closed in March 2003, the Postal Service searched for another downtown location. The Solomon Courthouse was the only suitable building.

I walk back for a look at the place. It's beautiful. The jazziest post office in Portland. And it's dead. Dead, dead, dead.

Cindy Gray, a postal employee, leans through the single open window. She knows a lot, this doll. Explains the post office-courthouse combination was common when the Solomon building was constructed in the '30s. When University Station opened in 1984, the Solomon post office shut its doors.

She leans further, concern flooding her eyes. "Customers say, 'If I'd only known you were here, I wouldn't have stood in line half an hour at University.'" While the Pioneer Courthouse location averaged 1,100 transactions a day, the three-month-old Solomon Courthouse post office musters 250, tops.

Something's not adding up. And it's not just the daily transactions. I get Anderson on the horn again.

Seems that, although the decision to shut down the Pioneer Courthouse post office was made in 2002, the application for exterior signs at Solomon wasn't sent out until last month.

"I don't believe exterior signs were part of the original scope of work," says Anderson. "Our primary focus was to renovate the interior space so we could get the post office up and running."

Once it became apparent that signs were necessary, there were other--let's say--complications.

"It's not that we can't put signs out," Anderson explains. "It's that we have to abide by certain guidelines."

And the sinister net of bureaucratic intrigue shows itself. The Solomon Courthouse, as a national historic place, is regulated by Oregon's State Historic Preservation Office. The building, however, is owned by the federal General Services Administration. To affix a sign to the Solomon building, local postal officials must send an application to their Western Area Office in Denver. This office deals directly with GSA, which forwards the application to the SHPO in Salem, which must give final approval before a sign is made.

To jibe with SHPO regulations, postal officials had to find an existing sign on which to model their proposal. They found one in The Dalles, on a courthouse sibling of Solomon, and had their colleagues there take a photo. The application for exterior signage is currently with GSA.

"What about sidewalk signs?" I ask. These can be approved in a day by Portland's Bureau of Development Services.

"You probably could assist the public by putting something out there like that," says Linda McNulty, acting manager for administrative services for the Portland Postal District. "But, generally, the Post Office tries to keep the sidewalks free."

Suspiciously like the lobby of the Solomon post office.

Find the post office for yourself at 620 SW Main St.