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THE LAUREL CHRONICLES

The History of Laurel's Post Office

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By Kevin Leonard  |  This article oiginally appeared in Voices of Laurel Winter 2021

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LAUREL HISTORY BOYS COLLECTION

"Laurel's New Post Office" was the caption for this cover photo on 1938's Album Representative of Laurel's Official, Financial, Professional and Business Interests, published by Wm. H. Anglin, Laurel, Maryland.

Any institution that’s been around for 184 years is bound to have its share of interesting stories. Laurel’s Post Office is no exception. The Laurel Post Office had four different locations before settling into its current building at 324 Main Street. Both times, when the current post office building was originally built in 1937 and, again, when it was expanded in 1967, the Federal Government took possession of the lot under eminent domain from the same family. And both times, after losing their house to the government, the family physically moved the house structure to a different location.

 

First Hundred Years (1837-1937)

The first post office was established in 1837 for Laurel Factory, as the town was known then. Before that, the closest post office was in Vansville, near Beltsville. Although there’s no official record of it, that first post office was likely in a small shed off Main Street on a street that became known as “Postoffice Ave.” (Much later it was changed to Post Office Ave.)

It’s unclear exactly when it moved, but the 1894 Laurel Illustrated Residence and Business Directory contains a photo of the “New Postoffice” at 397 Main Street, across from the Citizen’s National Bank. The building was owned by J. Spaulding Flannery, editor of the long-defunct Laurel Journal and the postmaster in 1894. The post office occupied the first floor, and the newspaper was produced upstairs.

In 1905, after Postmaster Charles F. Shaffer, Jr. (owner of Shaffer Lumber Company) resigned, Congressman Sydney E. Mudd appointed Mayor Gustavus B. Timanus as postmaster at Laurel. In addition to serving as mayor, Timanus had been the superintendent for years at the Laurel Cotton Mill. 

He resigned as mayor to take the new position, and a special election was held to replace him. The Leader was not sorry to see him go, and subtly criticized Timanus’ tenure as mayor by declaring “the interests of the public may be and generally are opposed by a select few, who imagine that everything should be done for their interest.” 

However, as postmaster, Timanus earned praise from the Leader when he “placed in the office a desk for the use of the public, which is a convenience to be appreciated. It is understood that the postmaster contemplates a number of changes for the efficiency of the service and convenience of the patrons.” One of those changes was to move the post office into a larger building next door on Main Street in 1907, which afforded much more room for its growing operations. “Laurel is now quite a center for mail distribution, having two rural carriers and two star routes which serve portions of Howard and Montgomery counties.” 

In an interesting backstory, when the post office moved next door, the building was sold to the Laurel Building Association and served as its headquarters until 1922, when the entire building was moved five blocks down Main Street to 42 A Street. 

In the same way the Brewster Park Hotel was moved in 1905 a half-mile to the grounds of the Laurel Sanitarium, a team of horses pulled the former post office building over greased logs down Main Street. The operation took a week. On A Street, the building then became a Maryland State Police barracks and office of the Justice of the Peace. The building was torn down many years later. 

In 1909, the Laurel Post Office was burglarized, and thieves made off with between $300 and $400 in cash and stamps. The thieves broke in using tools stolen from a blacksmith shop on Postoffice Ave. owned by Joseph Desoi. The stolen tools were left behind in the post office by the burglars. “The front of the safe was blown off” with dynamite, creating a blast so powerful that “a piece of the iron passed through the door of the inner office and through the upper part of both front windows, smashing the glass and cutting the wire of a pendant electric light, landing on the other side of the street,” according to the Leader. The explosion left “the side of the room near the safe a mass of wreckages.” Curiously, the 2 a.m. robbery was not reported by any neighbors, even though many heard the explosion. “None of them thought it of enough importance to make inquiry in regard to it.”

The post office moved for the fourth time in 1914 when the Patuxent Bank building opened on the corner of Main Street and Route 1, where it remained
until 1937.

For the next 23 years, operations at the Laurel Post Office grew along with the area’s population. Mail service saw a big jump in 1917, when it began to handle mail for the newly opened Camp Meade. In 1924, the Post Office Department notified Postmaster Timanus that Laurel would soon be elevated to a “second-class office” as soon as all residents display house numbers and install mailboxes, and the city installs street signs. A second-class office meant free carrier service delivering mail to residences. Previously, residents had to pick up their mail at the post office. Laurel’s first two mail carriers were Richard T. Tucker and Richard B. Beall. In 1932, the Laurel Post Office obtained its first mail truck. “It has been a great drawback to the post office using a small car, as all packages could not be taken out at once, thus delaying the delivery of packages,” according to the Leader.

In the mid-1930s, mail operations increased to the point where a new, larger post office was required. The federal Post Office Department decided Laurel needed a dedicated, federally owned post office.

 

Chapman Lot Wins

In 1936, the Post Office Department evaluated 17 different sites in Laurel that were offered for sale to the government. The owners of some of the lots were well-known Laurel families: Fetty, Stanley, Beall, Greco, Chapman, and Osbon. A Post Office Department Inspector filed a report (shown at right) describing the lots and offering his recommendations (some of the lots are listed more than once but there were 17 different lots).

The Federal Government followed the inspector’s recommendation and selected the lot on Main Street owned by Benjamin and Kathryn Chapman.

The Chapmans lived on Main Street since 1924 with their daughter, Virginia. Ben Chapman was a horse breeder and trainer, and he raced horses at Laurel. In negotiations with the government, Mrs. Chapman enlisted her friend and neighbor, Postmaster Elizabeth Boss, to propose lowering the price of the lot from $10,000 to $9,000 if the government would pay to have their house moved 50 feet to the back of their lot that was not part of the sale. The government refused and paid $8,500 for the lot, invoking eminent domain.

The Chapmans loved their house, so they took the government’s offer and hired contractors to move the house 50 feet onto a new foundation. 

Laurel’s Post Office was dedicated on Sept. 1, 1937. Construction of the facility cost $73,000.

 

“Mail Coach at Laurel” Mural

One aspect of FDR’s New Deal supported artists by commissioning murals that reflected American history for post offices. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was an agency created to carry out public works projects and provide employment to millions during the Great Depression. But, as described by Patricia Raynor in the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum’s newsletter EnRoute, “Often mistaken for WPA art, post office murals were actually executed by artists working for the Section of Fine Arts. Commonly known as ‘the Section,’ it was established in 1934 and administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department. … the Section’s main function was to select art of high quality to decorate public buildings—if the funding was available.”

For Laurel’s Post Office, artist Mitchell Jamieson was awarded a contract for $730 to create a “mural depicting the delivery of mail by stage coach, when the establishment of the United States Mail was in its infancy,” as described in the Leader. The 14-foot wide mural was installed over the postmaster’s door in the lobby in March 1939.

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G. B. Timanus

SOURCE: LAUREL HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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Top: The post office at 397 Main Street, as it
appeared in the 1894 Laurel Illustrated Residence
and Business Directory

 

Above: Using a team of horses and pulling it along greased logs, the old building was moved in 1922 to a new location five blocks away at 42 A Street, where it had numerous tenants before being torn down several years later.

SOURCE: LAUREL HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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A Post Office Department Inspector's report and recommendation of the Chapman lot as the site of Laurel's new Post Office.

SOURCE: NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

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A photographic record of artist Mitchell Jamieson’s 1939 mural, “Mail Coach at Laurel.” The rectangular cutout at the bottom center of the 14-foot wide painting was to accommodate the top of the postmaster’s door. SOURCE: NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

Maryland-born Jamieson’s career was just starting in the 1930s. He painted murals for other post offices and federal buildings until World War II. He was commissioned an ensign in the Naval Reserve in 1942 and spent his military career as an official combat artist, seeing action in both the European and Pacific theaters.

He taught at the University of Maryland in the 1960s until 1967, when Jamieson volunteered as a civilian artist for the U.S. Army. He went to Vietnam for about one month and the experience scarred the combat veteran for the rest of his life. “Vietnam scarred us all, but it gnawed at Jamieson and would not let him heal,” according to the Washington Post. “He would not stop remembering and drawing the horrors he had seen and those he had dreamed.” 

Jamieson committed suicide in his home in Alexandria in 1976.

Round 2 for Negotiations and Eminent Domain

Mail service reached new heights coincident with the housing boom experienced by the greater Laurel area starting in the mid-1950s. During this time period, the post office leased space at the Laurel Race Course to process Christmas mail and, starting in 1962, 25 mail carriers were working out of a post office annex in a warehouse on Main Street. Expansion of the almost 30-year-old post office was a necessity.

By the early 1950s, both Ben and Kathryn Chapman had passed away but their daughter, Virginia, and her husband, Dolph Scagliarini, lived in the relocated house behind the post office. In a recent interview, Virginia Scagliarini described how they converted the house that had been moved in 1937 to make way for the new post office into four apartments. The Scagliarinis lived in one and rented the other three to members of the Army Field Band at Fort Meade. But by the late 1950s, their relocated house was exactly where the government wanted to expand the Laurel Post Office.

Once again, negotiations commenced for the lot but went nowhere. They dragged on for years with the memory of having her house taken from them in 1937 still fresh in Virginia’s mind. In her interview, she remembered phone calls and letters from government officials as high up as Baltimore U.S. Attorney Benjamin Civiletti. In a memo regarding the lot dated 12/7/62 from the General Services Administration on file in the National Archives, it said, “Owners have been contacted on numerous occasions by regional representatives. Owners [sic] asking prices are unreasonable, being far above the appraised fair market value of the property. It is therefore necessary to condemn.”

It was no use. Having been through it before, Scagliarini told the Leader in 2019, “Unless you’ve got billions and like to fight, you just don’t fight.” The property was condemned. Another memo in the National Archives, dated May 9, 1963, states, “From my examination of the above-mentioned documents, I find that the condemnation proceeding has been regularly conducted to date.” It was signed by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

In an unusual and unfair arrangement, the Scagliarinis were allowed to buy back their renovated apartment house after receiving payment from the government for the property. They had a foundation built on a lot and, once again, had the top half of their apartment house lifted up and moved to a new location on Seventh Street.

 

Construction proceeded and the expanded post office—which cost $443,300—was dedicated on October 14, 1967. The new building tripled the size of the old facility. At that point, Laurel had graduated to a First-Class post office with 60 employees.

The Scagliarinis did not attend the dedication.

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The Scagliarini house is shown making its move to Seventh Street in this August 27, 1964 News Leader clipping.

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The Laurel High School band plays at the dedication of the post office expansion.

SOURCE: LAUREL HISTORICAL SOCIETY