Margaret Morton: Excavating the Farley

By Peggy Roalf   Friday April 14, 2017

The historic James A. Farley Post Office Building, dubbed by the New York Times “the most elaborate post office in America,” and possibly the largest in the world, is poised to become the centerpiece of an expanded railroad center that will be named the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Train Hall under a $3 billion plan announced by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo last fall.

Margaret Morton, a New York-based photographer known for her incisive studies of abandoned spaces, began photographing the 40,000-square-foot structure in 2012. The post office, which once housed a staff of 1,667, was the work of McKim Mead, and White, the architects responsible for the adjacent Pennsylvania Station, whose 1963 demolition sparked the landmarks preservation movement in New York. A selection of these images is currently on view at The Architectural League of New York, where Margaret will give a talk on Monday, April 17.Following are excerpts from her interview on Urban Omnibus, which can be read in full here. Above:An interior hallway connects a series of small individual offices in the Farley Post Office Building. All photographs © Margaret Morton

Many of the spaces that I photographed have already been demolished, but in the process the beauty of the original structure has been exposed. Ceilings had crumbled onto faded carpets; plaster walls had dissolved into the texture of ancient ruins; and mold stains left organic shapes that traveled down walls and onto windowsills. Left on my own to wander throughout the building with my camera, intrigued by what might be discovered in the massive spaces behind the historic lobby and service windows, I welcomed the solitude — the freedom to make discoveries and to imagine what once had been through what remained. Over the next several months my exploration evolved into an excavation.

The rooms of the Medical Officer’s suite.

The washroom in a private office on the periphery of one of the sorting rooms.

The offices of the Postal Police stretched for two blocks along a mezzanine hallway overlooking the lobby, with additional offices on the fourth floor. This federal law enforcement agency comprised detectives, inspectors, administrators, uniformed officers, and its own jail. Medical facilities included rooms for assessment, a clinic, offices for doctors and nurses, and a darkroom for processing x-rays. Abandoned signs and deserted rooms cannot fully capture how dynamic this system must have been. But details and materials communicate distinctions between shared, semi-private, and private workspaces — a rough outline of the organization’s structure can be seen in the space that once surrounded it.

At its peak, the Farley’s workforce encompassed a community of thousands of women and men. The building was a sort of self-contained company town that included massive sorting rooms on every floor, men’s and women’s locker rooms that also accommodated mail carriers, a cafeteria with a kitchen, and a large dining area as well as small lunchrooms on other floors. There were offices for administrators, managers, and supervisors; rooms for window service training, public affairs and communication, business and law departments; a photography studio, darkroom, and drafting area; and extensive police and medical facilities. 

In some places, personal traces suggested the personalities and motivations of the individuals who had spent their working lives here. A skillful calligrapher had transformed a men’s locker room sign, identifying the door with an elegant flourish. A sign mounted at eye level in a private washroom off a sorting room read, “You are looking at the person most responsible for your safety.” In an office, two oval shapes were defined by dust on adjacent walls, clearly marking where small frames had faced each other across a corner — I could only imagine that two portraits once gently exchanged a gaze. 

An enfilade of small individual offices on an upper floor.

The upper floors of the Farley held the most mystery — long hallways with missing floorboards led to colossal machines, objects of wonder from earlier eras. Tangles of wires escaped from large metal boxes, the most remarkable a room-sized metal frame for an antiquated telephone system. Some walls held telephone handsets from early periods; in other places, only the wiring sprouted from the walls. In the accumulation of posters and signs that had never been discarded, and the many layers of wall paint revealed by the removal of built in bookcases and office furniture, many decades were present and passing at the same time.

On Monday, April 17, The Architectural League will host photographer Margaret Morton in conversation with historian Bonnie Yochelson in conjunction withInside the Farley: Photographs by Margaret Morton. The exhibition continues through May 19th at The League’s headquarters at 594 Broadway, Suite 607, NY, NY Info

The postmaster’s suite on the third floor, with the original oil portraits stacked against the walls before removal.

Margaret Morton has photographed a range of spaces, from the alternative built environments created in public parks, vacant lots, and abandoned buildings by Manhattan’s homeless individuals, to the abandoned coal mines of eastern Ukraine and the otherworldly cemeteries found throughout the desolate mountain regions of Central Asia. Her books include The Tunnel: The Underground Homeless of New York City, Fragile Dwelling, Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives (co-authored with Diana Balmori), Glass House, and Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan. Morton received her MFA from Yale University School of Art. She is a professor in the School of Art at The Cooper Union and lives in New York City.



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