This year, 7th grade students studied Greco-Roman history and literature in their humanities coursework. Together, we read adaptations of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. These texts provided access to the cultures and values of Ancient Greece and Rome. We noted the expectation for honor among heroes and considered how piety (faithfulness to the past and to one’s obligation) guided individuals and bound people to one another. As a culminating project, students researched the influence of Greco-Roman architecture on historic buildings in our city—York, PA. In particular, students identified the use of concrete, columns, and arches in the buildings that fill our public spaces.
Students not only identified the Greco-Roman architectural features of particular buildings, but also learned a fair amount of history about various organizations and institutions (banks, courthouse, postal service, Freemasons, etc.) that have played a role in the history of York City. As we dug deeper into the history of these buildings, particularly historical photographs, I was impressed by the real sense of community pride in the public buildings of our city landscape. Our final project took the form of a guided eight-stop tour, which was shared with parents and guests. At each stop on the tour, students presented the history they had researched and pointed out elements of the building’s architecture.
This experience left me thinking about the intersection of architecture, community, communication, and memory. Our walking tour took us to two former U.S. Post Office buildings in York, as well as past the current location and storefront space of the Post Office on West Market Street.
I was struck by the grandeur of these older buildings and the values that they represented. The Federal Building stands at the northeast corner of Philadelphia Street and Beaver Street. In the late 1890’s and early 1900’s it served as the home of the Post Office. With the need for more space, a cornerstone was laid in 1911 for the construction of a new Post Office building at the intersection of George Street and Princess Street. The new Post Office was built as a commemoration of the Second Continental Congress that had a brief stay in York between 1777 and 1778. This building was used for a little more than one hundred years, until the Post Office moved out in 2013 to its current location at 160 West Market Street.
In looking at old photographs and postcards, I was able to identify and imagine the community perception of this institution through formal images of uniformed employees lined up on building steps or the postmaster in his office. It was clear to me that the community relied upon this institution and took pride in the physical building and the space it occupied. The statues and images within and on the building pay tribute to the agricultural heritage of York County.
Another compelling example was an image of the courthouse decorated for Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I in 1918. Flags, garlands, and flowers paid tribute to “York County Patriots Who Gave Their Lives for World Peace.” What type of event would draw the same community investment and care today? What would be the decorations and backdrop of our community celebrations? What will we choose to memorialize and remember in our architecture and public spaces?
Studies have been conducted regarding the use of the postal service today versus generations in the past. Communication technology has certainly provided people today with more avenues for contacting those we love and for doing business. How many mailing addresses does the average person have memorized today? My interest is not so much in the adaptations and changes of the Post Office in and of themselves, but more broadly as a reflection of the changes in the needs, values, and investment of the community. The Postal Service is no longer an institution that the public relies upon in the same way today as it did in previous generations. The Post Office building in most communities across the country is no longer a physical gathering place of neighbors and residents. This observation is not intended as an evaluation of the Postal Service, but as a reflection upon the way that our community has changed.
I am thankful for the work—the stories preserved and shared on the tour—of our students. Our research was not only an academic assignment or an exercise in rhetoric (persuasive speaking), but an opportunity to be a good neighbor, and to give something meaningful to our community. Together, we learned a little more about the history of our local community and how architecture reflects the values and ideas of a group of people. The students traced the influence of the Greeks and Romans upon the landscape and buildings of our city, but perhaps more importantly were invited to consider why public buildings, through their architecture, were designed to call to mind the power, achievements, and democracy associated with those ancient cultures. Architecture is one small thread that is woven into the tapestry of human history connecting us with the many generations before us. I hope that in small ways we have refreshed our communal memory in an effort to be attentive to the needs and values of our community today.
Historical Photo Credits: Special thanks to Nicole Smith, Assistant Director of Library and Archives, and the York County History Center for access to historic photos in the York County History Center Archives.