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 jeff.chew@peninsuladailynews.com

More in News

Dave Swinford of Sequim, left, and Marlana Ashlie of Victoria take part in a workshop on Saturday about cropping bird photos for best presentation during Saturday’s Olympic Birdfest. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)
Bird spotting

Dave Swinford of Sequim, left, and Marlana Ashlie of Victoria take part… Continue reading

Annette Nesse, at the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s main campus in Blyn in December 2021, is serving as interim director at the Dungeness River Nature Center, the organization announced. (Emily Matthiessen/for Olympic Peninsula News Group)
Nesse to serve as interim director at River Center

New position to begin May 1; organization will continue its full-time search

Sequim Wheelers, seen on the historic Railroad Bridge near the Dungeness River Nature Center, prep for a ride on the Olympic Discovery Trail. The nonprofit's season begins in May, and it has an open house for potential new volunteers on April 20 at the River Center. It also has an orientation for new volunteers on April 25 at the River Center. (Sequim Wheelers)
Sequim Wheelers gearing up for 2024 rides, seek recruits

Nonprofit looking for help during for 20-week season

Ashlynn Emiliani of Port Angeles, center, tosses woody debris into a pile for collection as volunteers work to clean up a section of hillside above the parking lot of the Red Lion Hotel in Port Angeles on Saturday. More than a dozen members of Elevate PA spent the morning clearing up overgrown areas on the hillside from Haynes Viewpoint to the hotel’s Front Street driveway as part of a city beautification effort. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)
Hillside cleanup in Port Angeles

Ashlynn Emiliani of Port Angeles, center, tosses woody debris into a pile… Continue reading

Weekly flight operations scheduled

There will be field carrier landing practice operations for aircraft… Continue reading

Operations set at Bentinck range

The Royal Canadian Navy has announced that the land-based… Continue reading

Pictured, from left, are Wolfe, May, Reader and Emily Fry.
May recognized with BEE award from medical center

Reuben May has received a BEE award from Olympic Medical Center. The… Continue reading

Schools open following contract

PAPEA, district reach tentative agreement

Port Angeles School Superintendent Marty Brewer, second from right, speaks with members of the Port Angeles Parents for Education, on Friday about the Port Angeles Paraeducation Association strike. Assistant Superintendent Michele Olsen stands at right. (Paula Hunt/Peninsula Daily News)
District, PAPEA to pick up bargaining Sunday

Parent group presses officials for answers on strike

Instructor Josh Taylor, left, points out the workings of an electric vehicle on Wednesday at the Auto Technology Certification Program at Peninsula College. Nick Schommer, center, and Brian Selk get ready to do some testing on the electric auto’s parts from underneath the vehicle. (Dave Logan/for Peninsula Daily News)
College’s automotive technology program gets a reboot

Students can earn a certificate separate from two-year degree

Port Townsend transportation tax dollars to be put to work

Benefits district to raise $400,000 to $600,000 in first year