Real Estate

Address Unknown, Return to Sender: 3 Tips for Bringing Life to Outdated Mailrooms

A lot of real estate formerly devoted to moving mail is being creatively, and profitably, repurposed for the digital economy.
Address Unknown, Return to Sender: 3 Tips for Bringing Life to Outdated Mailrooms
Image credit: dardespot | Getty Images
5 min read
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When was the last time you sent a handwritten letter? Think about it. Sure, maybe you’ve scribbled a quick thank you note or birthday card, but let’s face it -- lines are much shorter at the post office these days and snail mail isn’t what it used to be. The immediacy of email, Facebook and online retail has replaced the U.S. Postal Service, which has become little more than a “last-mile” distribution network for Amazon.

As vacant post offices dot the nation, property owners and developers are rethinking the purpose of service areas originally designed to host streams of people and truckloads of goods. Those who view everything from factory-sized distribution centers to 10- by 12-foot mailrooms as a redevelopment opportunity will have the best chance of transforming these obsolete spaces into the next best thing.

I’ve been an architect for more than 25 years and specialize in enhancing the value of forgotten, underperforming properties. This year, my team and I repurposed a 430,000-square-foot former mail processing plant into a commercial campus coined POST Waltham. Rather than bulldozing the building, we took advantage of the loading docks, high ceilings and industrial character to design a dynamic, character-rich office atmosphere where people want to work.

Here are three ways to make those warehouses or dusty mailrooms shine like they did in their heyday.

Related: How the Stars of 'Fixer Upper' Transformed a Town in Texas

Use large floor plates to your advantage.

Massive square footage can be daunting to own, lease or develop. However, a large footprint can be an advantage and appeal to different types of tenants.

TAMI (Technology, Advertising, Marketing and Innovation) businesses in particular like to have all their workers on one level to optimize interaction and company culture. To attract these innovation economy leaders, make spatial diversity and flexibility a driving design focus to establish a collaborative environment. A mixture of shared benches, enclosed offices available for use and areas to socialize promotes both egalitarianism and productivity.

The high ceilings of manufacturing spaces also provide an opportunity to experiment with desirable, but uncommon amenities. At POST Waltham, the space allowed us to install a rock-climbing wall and half-court basketball court. If you have the height, differentiate yourself by offering amenities that other spaces can’t.

Related: Amazon's Whole Foods Deal Will Remake Strip Malls

Socialize a traditionally sterile space.

Although people rarely send mail, they love receiving it. Residential and hotel mailrooms are expanding as a result of people shopping more online and buying everyday products. As mailrooms grow on the back end to accommodate the spike in large packages, here are a few simple design techniques that invest in the human element on the recipients’ end.

By installing warm or soft light fixtures, you can easily brighten up the mailroom and counteract the sterile nature of enclosed processing areas. To create a sense of liveliness, consider painting the walls a rich jewel or warm tone instead of a neutral color. Positioning lounge furniture near the entryway can also encourage tenants to read their mail right then and there or spend time while they wait for a package.

Taking this approach to the extreme, WeLive -- a co-living offshoot of WeWork -- recently turned the mailroom of its Lower Manhattan location into a dimly-lit, plush speakeasy. Complete with a bar, food and hipsters’ love for not-so-secret-secret destinations, the old-fashioned mailroom hides the back-end, allowing the historic detailing of the mail boxes and backlit bar to be front and center.

Related: Why Your New Company Needs an Old Building

Recognize and amplify authenticity.

What people crave today is storytelling. Everything from the photos we post on Instagram to how we talk about what happened over the weekend centers around showing that we’re living a genuine life with unique experiences.

Historic buildings, especially those designed to serve an antiquated purpose, tell stories at no extra charge. Rather than removing antique features, like entryway signage or the wooden-doweled partitions that were used to separate customers from the mail distribution area, make them a central focal point.

For example, Exeter Realty completed the renovation of the 17-story, 750,000-square-foot Eugene McCarthy Post Office, now named the Custom House, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Refurbished into 202 luxury apartments, a 149-key Hyatt Place and ground floor retail, the Custom House is full of early 20th-century ornamental finishes that recall a time when post offices were a source of local and municipal pride. The hotel lobby’s marble sheen is accented by art-deco brass detailing, including engraved eagles on each elevator door, that evokes the appearance of old-school P.O. boxes. The hotel also repurposed 20 percent of the building’s doors, using the classic dark wood and frosted glass combo to hang as partitions between common area seating. These restored elements, accentuated by low-back fabric furniture, reflect the corporate grandeur of the community post office.

As you can see, it’s possible to make an archaic space feel authentic, original and more interesting than any cookie-cutter design scheme.

While the way we live, work and play continues to change, preserving the character of yesterday’s buildings ensures that the future of our spaces celebrates the narratives of their pasts.

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