Jefferson County has idea for preserving historical Customs House in Port Townsend

PORT TOWNSEND — City and Jefferson County leaders are discussing the possible creation of a public development authority to acquire the 115-year-old U.S. Customs House, help the post office relocate its distribution center and resolve access issues for the disabled.

Jefferson County Commissioner Phil Johnson, D-Port Townsend, and an advocate for historic building restoration, announced the effort Monday during a county commissioners meeting, saying he met last week with City Manager David Timmons and County Administrator Philip Morley regarding the effort to save the historic four-story building at 1322 Washington St. uptown.

Johnson said he was “very intrigued” by the possibility, which could involve moving the post office’s distribution center to county-owned property at the Port Townsend Business Park and then relocating county Department of Community Development, Public Health and Environmental Health office to the U.S. Customs Building.

The commercial across-the-counter sales at the post office could remain, Johnson said.

“We’re going to be a facilitator to trying to bring the process together to save the building,” said Timmons.

He explained that the City Council could approve a public development authority by ordinance, setting up a separate corporate entity defined by statute.

“Any debt of PDA cannot be assigned to the community,” Timmons said. “We can issue tax-exempt loans, acting as a stand-alone nonprofit.”

The nonprofit PDA would be run by a board of stakeholders supporting the preservation of historic buildings.

“We’ve been working with the Post Office, and they’ve been supportive of developing it,” Timmons said.

Johnson and Timmons said the building could be transferred from the Postal Service to the PDA for $1, and in return the post office could lease the commercial space it now uses to take mail and sell postage to customers.

Timmons said an artifacts consultant based in Tacoma, Michael Sullivan, has examined the U.S. Customs House from top to bottom, finding that vaults exist on each floor that would allow an elevator to be installed for access.

“The national significance of the building is pretty high,” Timmons said, adding that he believed it would receive government financial support to restore it.

The current location of the post office has become a hot topic in Port Townsend for more than a year, with regard to a lack of disabled access.

Port Townsend resident Bonnie Bolster began a petition asking for people to question the accessibility for the disabled at the building.

Bolster collected 940 signatures from residents and filed a complaint under the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Bolster said specifically a wheelchair ramp needs to be located outside the building where only steep stairs lead into the post office.

Since Bolster and others raised access issues, the U.S. Postal Service said it would look at ways to fix the problem.

“I know that there have been issues with trying to solve issues,” said Ernie Swanson, U.S. Postal Service spokesman in Seattle, in an interview Monday.

“I know we’ve been in discussions with administrators in the city of Port Townsend to try to come up with a solution.”

While Post Townsend leaders have gone to great lengths over the years to preserve Port Townsend’s many historic buildings, postal officials have not shown the same interest, and in the past year have discussed relocating the post office.

The Port Townsend Federal Building was both a U.S. Customs House and post office when it was built in 1893.

The building was designed in the Romanesque style by W. J. Edbrooke, similar to that of Jefferson County Courthouse.

It is the oldest federally constructed post office in the state and the only example of Romanesque design in a Washington federal building.

Port Townsend-Jefferson County Editor Jeff Chew can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at

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