Failure Meets Success, Part Two (DC)

*Originally published on another blog of mine, Miscellaneous Notes, now republished here with slight edits and modifications*

FEATURING — L’Enfant Plaza; USPS Headquarters

L’Enfant Plaza Station

The strange layout of 470 L’Enfant Plaza

I’ve been to L’Enfant Plaza several times before and was well aware of its awkward topography. There are tunnels, train tracks, overpasses, weird ramps and underground shopping centers, which caused me quite some troubles on my first visit and greatly wounded my pride as an urbanite. So imagine my apprehension when 470 L’Enfant Plaza, address to USPS’ L’Enfant Plaza branch, appeared to be situated on top of two highways and one regular street, seemingly without any other road linkages. Turns out 470 L’Enfant Plaza shares this horrendous building with two more addresses, 480 and 490, the former denoting its major occupant, a Hilton Hotel. 

Its Brutalist outlook does conform to its governmental neighbors, but hardly conveys a sense of hospitality

A Hilton and a post office don’t seem to mix well, so I thought I must have made a mistake — the office must have its own entrance somewhere else, probably facing that street underneath. Luckily I decided not to place too much confidence in my geolocation abilities and asked the hotel staff instead, who led me to an unassuming staircase in the lobby and told me to follow it down. These stairs led me to a spacious underground food court / shopping center, although both roles are undermined by its dearth of decent dining or shopping options. Unless you are desperate for a haircut or to have nails done, there’s no need to stop by. I couldn’t even find coffee.

They also replaced a glass pyramid with this rectangular box

This space, officially called “La Promenade,” apparently underwent major renovations in 2009 to become what it is now. I, for one, was not in DC at the time, but from what internet photos I could find, their effects were more destructive than rejuvenating — The once lively underground tunnel cramped with small shops was transformed into today’s bright, pleasing-to-the-eye but boring subterranean square filled with fast food chains. Hardly an improvement. Of course, I know the “death of shopping malls” is a theme so often harped upon that it’s become stale, but it’s still disheartening to witness in real life.

L’Enfant Plaza station, another underground post office, but with bright blue branding for show

USPS Headquarters

USPS Headquarters

The USPS headquarters, another Brutalist (but slightly better designed) building of Southwestern DC, is one small block away from the Hilton (in between sits the ultra-modern International Spy Museum) and my next destination. Most of the building is closed off to random members of the public like me, but the receptionists (and security guards) were kind enough to permit my free roaming in the lobby area, which is basically a long corridor with state, district and territorial flags draping on both sides. A small green single-horse carriage is parked within, bearing the words “Rural Delivery Route No. 1 U.S. Mail.” This vehicle belongs to the first generations of rural letter carriers, who since 1896 have been driving wagons, cars and trucks on muddy, poorly paved or remote roads to reach some 41 million addresses (in 2012). A reporter in 1903 told us that “each carrier [must] furnish his own wagon,” which explains their variable models, colors and branding. A list of early rural routes by state can be found here

Flags, Christmas Tree and a Rural Mail Wagon