It’s mid-March 1915, and Ottawa is buzzing over its newest, yet perhaps most peculiar, downtown edifice: the Federal Post Office building.
Passersby admire its colossal Greco-Roman columns, wide windows and lavish neoclassical facade. The Herald Evening News reports of the building’s “unusually beautiful lobby” yet appears to question its “different” color.
“When the stone was new, it was a much brighter pink,” Deborah Barker, Franklin County Historical Society director, said of the building at 122 E. Second St., Ottawa. “It was so different from anything else downtown because of its free-classical design and its pink Vermont granite. ... It’s really a speaking building. ”
The building was so distinct, in fact, that Ottawa organized a day of festivities to commemorate the facility’s opening. After comments from the mayor and district judge, The Herald reported, W.G. Saunders and the city’s orchestra serenaded guests touring the building. Dozens of residents meandered its terrazzo floors as local youth “enjoyed making the big revolving doors spin ‘round and ‘round,” The Herald wrote. In addition to construction updates, journalists feverishly reported the office’s new staff — from postmaster to clerks — along with the facility’s furnishings, which included a spiral staircase, loggia lights and 56 window shades.
The $65,000 post office not only recognized Ottawa as a major city in the area, but also nodded to its burgeoning prosperity, Barker said.
“It was very important to the community,” she said, adding that the lot previously was a watering hole for horses. “It was a big deal — no question. I’m sure that they though it was adding immeasurably to the downtown. ... The town still viewed itself as being on an upward trajectory of growing and [the Federal Post Office] appeared to be more evidence of that. ... It was so exciting to the folks.”
Fallen from grace
Once a beacon of Ottawa’s vitality, the former federal post office now sits vacant. Cold air pours through its murky, broken windows. Graffiti bathes its once-regal exterior. Trash collects in stairwells, and years of neglect have allowed its outside railings to corrode into disrepair.
For nearly 50 years, the post office offered an inspired locale for residents to send letters until the mid-1960s, when it was re-purposed as a Social and Rehabilitation Services facility. After a few decades of use, however, the facility was sold off and has changed hands several times since. It now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Kansas Register of Historic Places.
While the lack of consistent use could have contributed to its deterioration, the building itself remains as solid as ever, Barker said.
“It’s pretty seriously overbuilt,” Barker said. “It would be wonderful if someone could get some use out of it because it’s not falling down.”
The building’s current owner, Jeff Altendorf, agrees and has worked to restore the facility to its former splendor. The former Ottawan bought the building in 2005 and has since gutted the facility of the SRS office furnishings in hopes of revealing its latent beauty.
“I remember pushing the ceiling tiles back and seeing how tall the ceilings were and envisioned opening it back up to its original grandeur,” Altendorf, who works in the aviation and real estate business, said. “And that’s pretty much what we did. We took it back down to the original walls. ... We tried to make it a clean slate for its next life.”
After clearing the space, Altendorf said, he hoped the blank canvas would appeal to buyers hoping to instill their own creative touches. At points, he said, he would have liked to have completed the restoration project himself, but couldn’t find the time between his work in Kansas City. He even previously toyed with the idea of living in the building.
The former post office’s historical architecture piqued his initial interest, Altendorf said.
“I’m a sucker for old buildings,” he said, adding that he owns a few other old buildings in Ottawa and Kansas City. “It’s sort of like a kid in the candy store. It became available and I felt I had to have it. ... It’s built like Fort Knox.”
During his more than seven-year quest to sell the property, Altendorf has only encountered three serious prospective buyers. A licensed Realtor, Altendorf said he last listed the building at $175,000, but has since stopped advertising the property to deter dead-end inquiries.
The country’s poor financial situation, Altendorf, 42, said, likely contributed to his inability to sell the property.
“Everyone knows where the economy went, and I think that has a lot to do with it,” Altendorf, a 1989 Ottawa High School graduate, said. “And it’s a pretty big project — there’s no doubt about it. It’s not something that you’re just going to walk into and throw some paint and carpet around and move forward.”
Depending on how the facility will be used, Altendorf said, its restoration costs would vary greatly.
“Who’s going to use it, and what they’re going to use it for dictates what it’s going to take to get it back up to par,” he said. “The good news ... is that it’s in a position right now where you can go any direction with it. ... It’s a clean slate that is ready for someone to put it back together however they want.”
Altendorf offered a few ideas about what could be done with the building, including a shared-office space or a banquet facility. In 2004, students at the University of Kansas conducted a re-development proposal on the space and suggested it be converted into a bank.
Whatever might become of it, Altendorf would rather someone use the building than let it sit vacant.
“It’s an incredible building, and it has a huge upside. It just really needs someone that is passionate about it and passionate about the project,” Altendorf said. “It’s kind of a shame that it’s sitting there, doing nothing.”