Modesto’s historic downtown post office soon to become law offices

jnsbranti@modbee.comDecember 16, 2013 

— Lawyers soon will take over the main floor of downtown Modesto’s historic El Viejo post office, but the I Street landmark will retain much of its architectural beauty.

McCormick Barstow LLC attorneys at law expect to move in by late spring. Work to remodel the vacant building will begin this week, with care being taken to preserve its historic features.

Built in 1933, the former federal building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was a post office until 2011, when it was declared surplus property and auctioned off. It sold for just over $1 million to an investment group, which now plans to renovate and lease out various sections of the 23,770-square-foot structure.

About 8,000 square feet of the main floor will be turned into offices for McCormick Barstow’s eight lawyers and nine staff members.

“We’re not going to change a whole lot,” said Ken Baldwin, one of the law firm’s partners. “When you walk into the entrance, the look will be the same. The public will be able to come in and see the murals just like before.”

Those Depression-era oil paintings by Ray Boynton and his assistants surrounded the post office lobby, and that’s where they will remain.

At least that’s where most of them will remain. Several of the original murals went missing during the 1960s when the post office was remodeled.

After stories about the building’s sale were printed in 2011, a Modesto Bee reader called the newspaper to say he knew where two of the missing murals had gone. With his help, the long-lost artwork was returned to Modesto, and it was expected those Boynton murals would be put back into the I Street building.

But real estate broker Richard Rand, who is representing the building’s new owners, said the federal government has taken possession of those two murals.

Rand said the found artwork may not end up being displayed in Modesto after all.

The Bee called the federal Government Services Agency on Monday to find out what’s being done with those murals but has not yet received answers.

“They should be put back into the building,” Baldwin said. “That artwork is part of what makes this historic building historic. … What better venue could there be for those murals than there?”

Besides the artwork, the old post office is known for its decorative architectural elements, including Corinthian pilasters, a granite staircase, elaborate cast-iron light fixtures with winged griffins, arched entryways with travertine columns and a barrel-vaulted plaster ceiling.

At least some of the bronze postal boxes and the lobby’s ornate metal writing table are expected to remain on display in the building.

“Everybody at our firm loves this space,” Baldwin said. “We can really picture our staff there.”

McCormick Barstow has had an office in Modesto for 20 years, inside the business portion of the DoubleTree Hotel on Ninth Street.

“A lot of people don’t even know we’re there,” said Baldwin, explaining why his firm decided to move. “Everyone knows DoubleTree is a hotel, but hardly anybody knows it’s also an office building.”

The historic post office, at 1125 I St., will give the firm more visibility.

“This building will give us immediate recognition. Everybody will know where we are,” Baldwin said. “Parking also is going to be easier for our clients.”

Rand said that besides placing the law firm on the main floor, the building’s lower level will be turned into 11 executive offices. Tenants for about half those offices have been found, but Rand said those deals are not yet final.

“It’s not a hard sell,” Rand said. “People love that building.”

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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