Bethesda Historical Society

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Bethesda Post Office

Built by the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) and opened in 1938, the Bethesda Post Office was a community landmark for over 70 years until it closed in 2012.

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Bethesda is not a town or city.  It’s an unincorporated community – what the Census Bureau calls a “census-designated place.” For the past 150 years, its ‘official identify” has been tied to its Post Office.

History

Though the Postmaster General established a post office in “Bethesda” in 1852, it closed within six months. It was located “between Tennallytown and Rockville,” and was probably at/in the Bethesda Meeting House, a Presbyterian church originally built in 1820 two miles north of today’s downtown Bethesda, because the first postmaster was the church pastor and the church was then the only thing in the area with that name.

Among the earliest establishments in what is now downtown Bethesda was a general store owned by William E. Darcy. In the early 1860’s Darcy’s store — located just north of where the Farm Women’s Coop now stands — operated as a post office, and by 1862 the community was known as “Darcy’s Store.”  In 1871, the post office (apparently at the urging of the then-pastor of the Bethesda Meeting House) reassumed its original name, though it stayed in what would become downtown Bethesda.  The official date of the name change was January 23, 1871 — today celebrated as the birthday of Bethesda.

In the early 1890’s the post office was moved to Wilson’s Store (later Community Hardware), which had been erected on the site of the old tollhouse. In 1925, it was reorganized as a branch of the Washington, D.C. Post Office, only to regain its independent status after another reorganization in 1981. 

Meanwhile, Bethesda was growing. In the decade after 1920, the community’s population grew from 5000 to 12,000, fueled by the development of new subdivisions like Edgemoor, Battery Park, Leland (now the Town of Chevy Chase), Rosedale Park and Highland Park. With that growth came increased demand for postal services. A new post office opened near Wilson’s Store in 1926, but it quickly became inadequate — between 1927 and 1937, post office receipts in Bethesda quadrupled from less than $8,000 to over $31,000. 

To aid the American population during the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established a series of economic programs known as the New Deal. Among these were the Public Works Administration (1933), reorganized as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935, which sought to improve American infrastructure and create jobs through public works projects, including the construction of local post offices and schools. WPA expenditures from 1936-39 alone totaled nearly $7 billion. The first PWA/WPA project in Bethesda was Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, completed in 1935.  The second was the Bethesda Post Office.

In 1935 the Bethesda Chamber of Commerce formed a committee to persuade the local Congressman (David Lewis) to press the government to grant Bethesda some of the WPA funding set aside for new post offices.  The effort was successful, and in June of 1936, the Postmaster General and the Treasury Department allotted $115,000 for the project. The Public Buildings Service (then supervised by the Treasury Department’s Procurement Division) drew up architectural and engineering plans.  In September of 1937, the lot at 7400 Wisconsin Avenue was purchased for $45,000, and a construction contract for $54,000 was awarded to Sofari Brothers, Inc. of Jamaica, New York (which promised not to disturb the adjacent Madonna of the Trail during construction). The building was completed the following May.

The new Post Office was dedicated before an audience of 1000 (including local students, who were released from school early to attend) on May 27, 1938.  The program included the Massing of Colors by the Bethesda School Children, an Invocation and Benediction, an Address of Welcome, the Laying of the Cornerstone (which included a copy of the local Bethesda-Chevy Chase Tribune, some stamps, and the day’s program) by the Bethesda Lodge No. 204 F.A.A.M., musical performances by the Newcomb Bethesda Community Singers, and four addresses, including one by Bethesda Postmaster Vincent L. Burke. The building opened for business on June 1, 1938.

With some modifications and additions (described below) the Post Office remained unchanged until 2012, when a financially stressed Postal Service closed and sold it (for $4 million) to the Donohoe Companies.

To complement the building, the Treasury Department held a competition for the design of a mural to grace its lobby – a common feature of post offices constructed by the WPA.  The winner was Robert Gates, a Detroit native who later became head of the Art Department at American University. His 13’ wide, 5’ high mural depicted the “Montgomery County Women’s Farmers Market,” located then as now across the street and down the block from the post office building. The mural was completed and installed in 1939, and oversaw the interior of the post office from above the postmaster’s door for 73 years. After the post office closed, it was restored and re-installed in the county’s Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center on Edgemoor Lane.

In 1938, Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department to look at sketches of the mural. She later wrote in her diary that the sketch was “charming” — “I think these post offices are making the country more and more conscious of decorative, artistic values.”

Part of the mural originally in the Post Office 

The Building

The original Bethesda Post Office building was a small one-story Colonial Revival structure consisting of a rectangular five-bay main block featuring a medium-pitched hipped, slate roof and a much-admired steel cupola topped by an ornamental weathervane.  Six-over-six arched wood windows flanked the central entrance. Full length Doric pilasters flanked the door and the main bay, above which “United States Post Office” and the town’s name are incised in the smooth faced wide stone entablature.  The building was of a standard style – at least ten just like it were built across the country – but most were finished in brick. The Bethesda Post Office was “clad in irregularly coursed, rough-faced native Maryland stone.” 

That stone was mica schist from the Stoneyhurst Quarries on River Road (today the site of the Quarry Springs condominiums and townhomes), which already graced the Bank of Bethesda, the C&P telephone building, and portions of several downtown shopping centers.  Its use in the post office cemented the stone’s role as the signature design feature of a rapidly developing downtown Bethesda. 

The decoration and details of the lobby were relatively simple, and typical of government buildings of the period. The public lobby had a wainscot of Tennessee coral rose with light Cardiff green marble base. The walls were plaster painted a light cream color; the terrazzo floor was dark green.

The building was renovated and enlarged twice.  In 1966, a large addition was added on the north side, including an enlarged loading dock in the rear; it added service windows and counter line equipment, and the mural was moved to the Farm Women’s Market. A 1987 renovation modernized the interior and significantly changed the building’s configuration, increasing its square footage by approximately 70 percent.

After the Post Office left the building it sat vacant for several years before being reborn as a yoga and fitness studio called Truebody. The studio closed in the summer of 2020, a victim of the Covid pandemic.

 

by Hank Levine

Sources

Maryland Historical Trust Determination of Eligibility Form – Bethesda Post Office (2011).

William Offutt, Bethesda: A Social History (2nd Ed. 1995) 282, 406

Eugene and Edythe Clark, The Spirit of Captain John (1970) 147