The James A. Farley Post Office opened in 1914 on Eighth Avenue between 31st and 32nd Streets in New York City, a few years after its neighbor, Pennsylvania Station. Both buildings were designed by the celebrated architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White in their signature Beaux-Arts style. At its peak, 10,000 people worked in the facility, which included massive sorting rooms and offices for the many people who ran them, rooms for training window service clerks, police and medical facilities, a photo studio and darkroom, a cafeteria with a kitchen, and locker rooms to accommodate all the men and women who worked there. Since the 1960s, the building has been in slow decline, and plans were floated in 1993 to turn it into an extension of Penn Station, across the street, which lost its soaring space when the original building was demolished in 1963. While plans are moving forward with that project, parts of the Farley building have often sat empty. In 2012, Margaret Morton photographed the interior of the building, making a record of its empty hallways and obsolete equipment. Her images are on view until May 19 at The Architectural League of New York (the show is free but reservations are required for most visiting hours). Together, her images document “the fleeting window between [the building’s] two lifetimes,” as Olivia Schwob writes in The Architectural League’s Urban Omnibus.
Morton’s subjects have included homeless communities living in New York’s abandoned train tunnels and the architecture of ancestral cemeteries in Kyrgyzstan. With this project she continues to explore the relationship between the built environment and the people who use it. At the Farley, she photographed “the echoes of what had been removed,” she writes. These include traces left in dust on the walls and carpets where filing cabinets once stood, and a dark room filled with sculptural fragments that once decorated the building’s roof. In some places, she writes, the details she photographed “implied a hierarchy. ” She compares the ornately painted ceilings and chandeliers in the Postmaster’s Suite to the endless grey walls of a long hallway of individual offices, which resemble a scene from Brazil. She also records the marking and signs that appear in the space. Neat gold letters on a glass door read “Articles Loose in the Mails,” identifying the place where unclaimed mail was sent. Morton records the flourish of calligraphy on a locker room door, and describes a sight in a locker room where a few employees still went after their shift, despite being closed. She writes, “I noticed a message scrawled in large letters on the end of a row lockers: “God Bless America + The Post Office.”