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Reprinted from the Kilgore News Herald: May 26, 2012

Stamp of Approval

KHPF accepts design ideas for planned museum at old Post Office

By JAMES DRAPER
[email protected]
Walking into the former Kilgore Post Office in the future will be walking into the past if the Kilgore Historical Preservation Foundation succeeds in their efforts to restore the facility.

Today, the building is all but deserted but for the monthly KHPF board meetings held in a front office of the South Kilgore Street landmark. But, after approving concepts for renovation and restoration this week, the group hopes to revitalize the facility as the Kilgore History and Arts Center and bridge the gap between remembering the past and living in the present.

“I think this will bring back memories – which is what we really want to do – of the old post office building and holding hands with your daddy or granddaddy and going down to get the mail,” arts center committee member Nina Mata said, “when everybody knew everybody, and you knew the people behind the counter, and they visited with you and your granddaddy, and your granddaddy set you up on the counter while he was visiting.”

As a child, Mata took the trip regularly with her own father, thrilled when he let her pull the mail out of the box.

“There are so many generations that have come through those mailboxes and through that post office.”

According to Tom Brown, committee chairman, after several years of discussions and debates, the group has finally settled on a vision for the building.

“We’ve polled the community. We’ve polled the historical foundation about what they see the uses of the building to be,” he explained. “This concept is, basically: Is this the type of facility that you want, dedicated to these potential uses?”

Kerry Martin, working with Dallas-based Museum Arts, Inc., presented the firms’ concepts to the KHPF board Monday afternoon, winning their vote of approval and leading the group on a short tour of the building. The firm has an established track record in Kilgore, crafting plans for the East Texas Oil Museum and Rangerette Showcase at Kilgore College.

Starting from the outside in, Martin said the bushes out front (whose roots are currently infiltrating and damaging the post office’s foundation) will be removed, showing off the art deco architecture. The current crape myrtles will be replaced with juniper trees more reminiscent of the era.

Inside, the front section of the building (housing the customer service counter, display cases and post office boxes) will recreate the glory days with vintage posters (Buy War Bonds!), a 48-star flag, a portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, antique inkwells and fountain pens and glass covers over the current countertops.

“In these existing, wonderful cases, you will see things that you would have seen in Kilgore in World War II,” he explained. For example, “Sandwiched in between (the glass and table) would be a letter from a man on the warfront back to his mom here in Kilgore and most of it is blacked out by the censors.

“It’s going to look like someone’s just opened their mail, they’ve stepped back from it and you’re looking over their shoulder.”

The post office boxes themselves would be shined to look like new and the customer service desk area would be converted into a gift shop for KHPF merchandise and Kilgore-centered souvenirs.

The front section would also serve as a meeting space, Martin said. The former front office in the northwest corner of the building, vault included, would become a display area and repository for KHPF’s archived photos. Those same images would be enlarged, lining the upper walls of the lobby.

“We have lots of photos to choose from, but the main concept with the older images that will be displayed in this building is really more of what was Kilgore and what happened and what later became Kilgore before 1930,” Martin said. “We all know what happened after 1930. There’s a very rich history even of things that happened here before the Civil War.”

Elsewhere in the building, Museum Arts’ concepts add a few new walls and move others (i.e. in the currently narrow and not ADA-compliant bathrooms). They also add a wheelchair ramp at the back of the building instead of the front because “As far as our historical status, we would have to do so much damage and it would just wreck the front of the building.”

In terms of other regulations, the concepts also relocate but retain a bank of P.O. boxes that are in the way.

“Part of a government building, we have to account for all of the interior post office boxes that are here – we can’t trash any of them,” Martin said.

“Any plan that we develop is subject to approval by the Texas State Historical Commission,” Brown added. Agreements with the federal post office system are also overseen by the commission. “We must have their approval before we can proceed.”

The concepts address just the first floor of the building, Brown said, not the basement: “We’re not ready to do that yet. You’ve got to crawl before you can walk.”

In the old mail sorting room, the largest area of the building, the firm’s designs include space for the old murals from the former post office walls – currently displayed at the East Texas Oil Museum – depicting the ‘new Danville area’ before it became Kilgore. To fill the floor and add function, the firm designed a small stage and plotted space for approximately 230 seats in rows – it’s ideal, Martin said, for school functions or children’s theater.

Adding rectangular tables, seating would be reduced to 126; large, circular tables (i.e. for dinner theater or other functions) would accommodate 80 guests.

Under the current designs, the former post receiving room at the back of the building will be converted into a small catering kitchen and another side office can be used as a dressing room for actors.

A key aspect of all the designs is functionality, allowing for multiple uses of the center.

“This will be right here in the entertainment district that Main Street wants to create and be a building that’s usable for the community,” Sue Brown said. “It’s going to the Kilgoreites that put the money into doing this, so they need to be able to use it.”

So far, the concepts do not include any particular price tag.

“(Martin) never put dollars and cents to it,” Mata said. “I’m really glad he didn’t. He would like us to say, ‘This is what we want to spend now on Phase 1.’

“They are the creative end, therefore they are able to create to a budget to which we come up. He wants us to set a budget and they work within our budget.”

Taking the project in phases will coincide with multiple fundraising efforts – KHPF’s initial plan includes selling naming rights to different elements of the museum, particularly the original post office boxes.

According to preservation restrictions, no alterations can be made to the front of the boxes, but the backs open into the mail sorting room, enabling visible memorials, some of which have already been reserved.

With more than 1,000 boxes of varying sizes, the organization plans to ‘sell’ dedication space multiple times.

“Some of those boxes have gone through three and four families,” Mata said. “There could be as many names as need be on the back of them.”

On Monday, the board set prices for the three types of boxes – personal, family and business or small, medium and large – at $75, $150 and $225, respectively.

“There are so many memories hidden in those mailboxes that will come back out when people put their name on them,” Mata added. “I think those mailboxes will become kind of a walkthrough history of Kilgore.”

Next week, another arts center subcommittee will meet to set a fundraising budget and map out the various phases of the project.

With many more steps ahead, all of Museum Arts’ designs are just concepts, not hard plans, but it’s more than a start and several steps ahead after several years of wishing.

“I think Museum Arts captured everything we wanted,” Mata said. “They are so familiar with Kilgore and have done so many things in Kilgore – they know Kilgore people, they know Kilgore history, they know what’s important to Kilgore people.”

For more information, contact KHPF at 903.984.1333.