September 11: Collecting for the National Postal Museum (part 2 of 2)

Editor’s note: Today's post continues the recollections of Jeffrey Brodie, who was working for the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in 2001 and who collected from the Church Street Station which served the World Trade Center buildings and surrounding community.

My interest in collecting objects from the story of the Church Street Station near the World Trade Center site prompted thoughtful, and at times, emotional discussion with my colleagues at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. In general, there was broad consensus that it was our responsibility to future generations to collect, record, and preserve this event. But there were also sharp disagreements about the means to achieve this. Some thought it was just too soon to begin contemplating collecting objects from the site. The nation was still in shock and just beginning its grieving process. How do you identify and collect objects to record an event that was essentially still in progress and do so in a way that does not interfere or callously ignore the raw emotions of those people who were suffering (and undoubtedly still suffer) with the loss of loved ones?

The Smithsonian and the community of museums in New York struggled with these issues. In part, given the National Postal Museum’s focus on postal history, operations, and philately, it was much easier for us to navigate these questions. In my mind, it was clear that we would collect objects that told the story of postal operations at the World Trade Center. Post Offices have traditionally been a focus of community life and we thought we could document the Church Street Station’s place in the World Trade community and, hopefully, its resilience and return as part of the general recovery. This is a much more specific, less emotional, and less daunting challenge, than those museums, such as the National Museum of American History, that had the much more difficult responsibility of documenting the attacks, stories of personal experience and heroism during the tragedies, and ultimately, how American life has changed since September 11, 2001.

Collecting efforts are usually planned well in advance. Questions of what objects to select for the national collections are given great consideration as well as the handling, transportation, and future storage of the objects in the collection. Usually there is a very clear understanding of what is going to be collected and why. But we did not have the luxury of time for the usual planning in this case. While the mail had been removed and the clean-up efforts at the Church Street Station were underway, most of the site remained as it was on the morning of September 11. Not knowing what would happen to the objects, equipment, and materials inside the Post Office once full clean-up efforts began in earnest, I decided that could not delay the visit to the Church Street Station and so I went just three weeks after the attack, on October 4.

Upstairs, in the office building, I entered one of the station’s primary sorting areas. In this room, postal workers and letter carriers performed their final sorting of the daily mail destined for the World Trade Center. Windows from these rooms looked out to the World Trade Plaza. Because the attacks occurred early in the morning, none of the letter carriers that delivered mail to the World Trade Center were in the WTC buildings or hurt in the attacks. As a result, some of their equipment remained in the sorting room. Among these items were letter carrier bags and the iconic three-wheeled mail carts used by letter carriers in Manhattan on their daily rounds. Through covered in ash and debris, one could clearly see unique identifying marks on the bags and wheels such as “6WTC,” telling us where they were used. Some of these are now part of the Smithsonian national collections.

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Mail cart from the Church Street Station Post Office. Photo by Jeffrey Brodie.

The large room was filled with many mail sorting units—small shelving units comprised of rows of mail slots and boxes each labeled with the recipients address or name. Such devices are used to sort mail and prepare it for delivery. Here, they stood as direct testaments to so many who perished in the attacks. We collected unit 24D-2 which was used by USPS employee Emma Thornton to sort mail for firms including Cantor Fitzgerald, Fred Alger, and Met Life and then delivered to the Trade Towers.

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Mail sorting unit inside the Church Street Station Post Office. Photo by Jeffrey Brodie.

On the upper floors of the building, it seemed as if we were frozen in time. Here, it was clear that office workers had fled as soon as the airplanes struck the towers. Amidst the debris and broken windows I could see jackets draped over chairs and women’s shoes tossed in the middle of hallways. I was told that many of the windows were broken by firefighters who sprayed water onto World Trade Center 7 from the Post Office in a futile effort to prevent Building 7’s ultimate collapse. I remember looking out these windows at the “Dali-esque” landscape of torn and collapsed buildings below. I spotted what I thought was a small yellow back loader moving the wreckage at the Building 7 site. Of course, the back loader was actually quite a large piece of machinery that just looked like a toy on the pile of rubble. I then shifted my gaze and began counting the number of back loaders working just at the Building 7 site—about 11 or 12 as I best recall. The enormity of scale was incredible.

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View of the World Trade Center Plaza from the Church Street Station Post Office. Photo by Jeffrey Brodie.

After spending the day at the World Trade Center site I packed up the smaller items I had collected and returned to Washington. The Postal Inspectors offered to mail some of the slightly larger pieces back to me at the museum. Ironically, their delivery was delayed for weeks when the anthrax attacks, which began in mid-September, delayed the delivery of mail across the United States. The box of objects I collected from the World Trade Center was re-routed to be decontaminated before arriving at the museum.

Ultimately, I returned to the Church Street Station Post Office a month after my first visit to retrieve the largest objects identified on the earlier visit. It was November and much had already changed. The initial shock had passed and much (certainly not all) of the wreckage had been removed. Procedures had changed as well. On my first visit in October, I had simply walked into the building without any sort of special clothing or protection. Now, I was outfitted in a Tyvek suit and a respirator mask.

Postal Service staff helped identify and obtain large objects for the Smithsonian collection. In addition to the mail sorting unit, this included a typical blue mailbox from Church Street as well as a beautiful brass “Cutler” mail collection box from inside the Marriott hotel, also known as World Trade Center 3. These were all important markers of postal operations at the World Trade Center. All had been damaged and all were covered with dust and debris which were now known to contain lead, asbestos, mercury, fungus, and other harmful agents. Such issues posed significant questions for the museum and those collecting objects from the World Trade Center. The Postal Service and museum conservators insisted that the objects be cleaned before leaving the site. And while I understood this necessity, I was also concerned about removing elements of the object that were potentially historically significant and of value to future scholars and curators.

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“Cutler” mail collection box from the Marriott hotel known as WTC 3. Photo by Jeffrey Brodie.

My time at the National Postal Museum concluded later in 2001 and I returned to the National Museum of American History. In the months and years that followed, my colleagues continued to document the story of the Church Street Station Post Office. The staff collected oral histories from World Trade Center postal workers that provide tremendous insight into the role of the Postal Service in the World Trade Center Community and the efforts to protect the mail during this traumatic period. In time, postal operations resumed, and familiar ties with the community were reestablished as the Church Street Station Post Office officially reopened in 2004.

I was pleased when many of the objects I collected from the World Trade Center site were exhibited at the National Postal Museum from 2003-2007 as part of a larger exhibition that surveyed the dangers faced by the nation’s postal workers and honored their individual acts of heroism. I believe collecting objects and preserving them for the future, and then sharing such stories through museum exhibitions and programs, is critical and important work. The story of the Church Street Station Post Office at the World Trade Center is rightfully a very small part of the larger story. But collecting these objects and documenting this part of the story was my way of finding a meaningful response to the tragedy and to ensure that others would have the opportunity to remember and reflect on these events.

Jeffrey Brodie is deputy director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History. In 2001, he was a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

Posted at 10:28 am EDT in September 11