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Baltimore Post Office Repackaged as Railway Express Lofts

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Here now, Past Lives, in which Curbed contributor Chris Berger explores what some of the country's most interesting residential buildings used to be before they became livable homes. Care to suggest a building with a fascinating past life? Do drop us a line.

After photo: Alain Jaramillo/Hord Coplan Macht

The United States Postal Service has closed a number of historic facilities in recent years, and the future for many is hazy. The situation is so dire for post offices, they were included generally on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's most endangered list last year. Often located along busy routes and featuring quality designs and craftsmanship, former postal properties are prime candidates for adaptive reuse. But what to do with them? The redevelopment of Baltimore's Railway Express Lofts provides a model.

Wedged between two thoroughfares and propped 20 feet above a railroad corridor and an expressway, the parallelogram-shaped Railway Express Lofts are like a rose growing out of a sidewalk crack. The Classical Revival style parcel post station was completed in 1929 and constructed of steel, brick, and limestone with terra cotta decoration. The 77,000-square-foot station was erected above Pennsylvania Railroad tracks—the first air rights lease in Baltimore history. Packages arrived by rail and were elevated to the work areas, where they were sorted and distributed along the Eastern Seaboard.

The Postal Service vacated the site in the early 1970s, and the city of Baltimore bought it in 1975 for use as Housing Authority storage and maintenance shops. The Housing Authority slathered the ingrained wood floors with creosote and painted over the steel-framed windows, but the building's overall appearance endured. In 2001, the city sought an enhanced role for the location so it could serve as the gateway to the newly branded Station North Arts and Entertainment District. Express Lofts LLC, a group of developers, won the bid to renovate the former post office into 30 apartments and 16 commercial units.

When adapting boxy buildings such as the Railway Express Lofts to residences, designers often dig out central courtyards to draw natural light into a structure's core. But architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht concluded that the lofts' expansive fenestration already supplied plenty of light to the interior and an atrium was unnecessary. To maximize space, the firm split each 18-foot tall unit into three levels.

The $19.7 million project adhered to federal rehabilitation standards in order to qualify for $5.8 million in historic tax credits. Workers scraped paint off the windows and replaced the glass. They also cleaned the tarnished masonry, painted the ornamentation, and introduced more aesthetically pleasing doors.

A parking deck slipped underneath the building shields the upper floors from the noisy Jones Falls Expressway below. But residents need not own a car to get around. The lofts are next to Penn Station, which is served by Amtrak, the Maryland Area Regional Commuter, and the Maryland Transit Administration's light rail. Also, Zipcars are parked nearby and restaurants, stores, and entertainment are within walking distance.

The lofts opened in December 2007. The first floor has 37,000-square-foot of commercial space, which includes a café and offices. On the second floor, the one bedroom, 1.5 bathroom lofts range from 850 to 1,100 square feet and rent from $1,250 to $1,650 per month. The two bedroom, 2.5 bathroom lofts range from 1,300 to 1,550 square feet and cost from $1,750 to $2,150.

It would be ideal if historic post offices could continue to serve in their designed capacity. But, as demonstrated by the Railway Express Lofts, a historic post office can be smoothly adapted to a new use and provide value to its locale.

· Railway Express Lofts [official site]
· Railway Express [Hord Coplan Macht]
· Rehab Reaches New Heights [Housing Finance]