If you walk or drive down Jackson Avenue in downtown Russellville it is hard to miss the Russellville Post Office. A large brick facility, located right across from city hall, the post office is one of the oldest buildings in town – and for many years it looked that way. The windows, with the frames covered in a mysterious residue, were broken and the handrails outside were rusted. Inside the building was not much better.
Now, however, thanks to an unwavering postmaster, the aesthetics of the post office are beginning to improve.
For Timothy Eli the United States Postal Service is more than just delivering mail, it’s personal. Eli has been the postmaster at the Russellville Post Office since August 2013, and from the moment he took the position he has been fighting to help return the post office building to its former glory.
A native of Oregon and the son of retired postal service employees, Eli has worked for the USPS for the last 23 years. His dedication, loyalty, and passion for his job are evident when he speaks about his goal to restore the historic building in downtown Russellville.
“We’ve got a brand new city hall, we’ve got a beautiful courthouse, and down here at the post office you have an eye sore,” Eli said. “We want to restore this building to exactly the way it was when it was built in 1937. We want to be a place people are proud to come to and have a building the community can take pride in.”
After many years of neglect and mismanagement, Eli says the building was getting nasty, and it was not a very welcoming establishment for customers. Eli, a military man who spent four years in the United States Marine Corps during the Gulf War, had a new mission.
“The renovations were one of the first things I thought about. The postmasters that were here before me didn’t seem to put a whole lot of thought into the building,” he said. “They were placeholders and didn’t really care about the building and how it reflected on the community. Since I’ve been here, I’ve made a lot of friends in the community and this is my community. This is important to me.”
The process has taken years, and pushing through the red tape and financial difficulties that surround the postal service as a whole has been a source of frustration.
“A big thing for me was just to get the rails painted outside. For years they were covered in rust and the paint was peeling off,” Eli said. “After I get one project done in this building it usually takes me a year or two of fussing and putting in requisitions. It’s not an easy process. Anytime we want to do something the post office comes back and says we don’t have any money for those projects.”
Aside from getting the rails painted, the first major step was fixing the roof of the building, a project that was finished in 2014.
“They basically had to replace the entire roof,” Eli said. “A lot of post offices, they put flat roofs on them, and anytime you have a flat roof you’re going to have problems. They had to replace a lot of the drains and resurface most of the roof, but it was something that had to be done.”
The next project was restoring the mural located inside the post office above the lobby. The Fresco-style painting by artist Conrad Albrizio, titled “Shipment of the First Iron Produced in Russellville," was completed in 1936. Over the course of nearly 80 years, the painting had developed some wear and tear.
“This painting isn’t just a random work of art, it’s a piece of American and Russellville history,” Eli said. “We had a crew from Chicago come down and do a full restoration on the mural. This is one of the only true Frescos that Albrizio did, which means that it’s painted directly on the wall. We had two major cracks in the painting as well as areas where other postmasters had brought in someone to paint over it, and someone had actually put varnish on the painting, which made the problem worse.”
The project, which was supposed to take just one day, took a week to complete, but Eli was satisfied with the work in the end.
“They finally got it finished, and they did a fantastic job,” he said.
That was in March of 2016. Now, a year later, the post office’s latest project is in the works. For the past couple weeks, crews have been working on fixing and repainting the windows around the building.
“The windows and the frames are the originals from 1937,” Eli said. “We don’t want to lose those. We want to keep all of the original aspects of this building because that’s what makes it special.”
The windows were taken out to remove the original mastic. This needed to be done safely without affecting post office customers in the process.
“The mastic that was used to seal the outside of the windows was asbestos,” Eli said. “It was non-friable, so it wasn’t airborne, but we used plastic sheeting and the areas were cordoned off. That’s why we had the box area exit cut off during certain times just to keep the public safe. Testers were in here during the entire process and never tested positive for hardly anything.”
The original windows, after being cleaned and fixed, were put back in place with a clear glaze and adhesive. The windows are being painted and, according to Eli, the finished product will send visitors back to the past.
“It’s going to look really good when they get finished,” he said. “The guys painting are meticulous making sure no paint gets on the panes. They understand the historical importance, and they’re doing a great job. We wanted to bring a historical quality and look back to the windows.”
Eli said secondary panes, a quarter inch thicker than the originals, will also be added in order to combat the hot days of summer and cold days of winter and to keep utility costs down.
Once the post office window project is completed, the postmaster has even more tasks he wants to tackle. Once again he will have to fight the machine of bureaucracy, but he wants to give the building a fresh paint job soon.
“The first area we’ll paint is the customer’s area, the outside box lobby and the actual window area where customers come in,” he said. “We want it to all be one color. We want it to be fresh and how it was when they originally first built this building. I’m hoping we can get that done before the end of the summer.”
After the customer areas are painted, the rest of the interior will be painted. While a fresh coat of paint will be aesthetically pleasing to customers, Eli has not forgotten about his employees and the effect restorations can have on morale.
“We want the employees to feel like they’re coming to a bright and cheery place,” he said. “When you come into a building to work and the paint is nasty and chunks out of the paints and little things like that, it gets on people’s psyche. But if you come into something as simple as new, fresh paint, it shows your company cares about you.”
Some may wonder why Eli or anyone would take the time, energy, and effort to restore the old post office. Eli, who has worked in numerous post offices across the state of Alabama, has seen old downtown post office buildings neglected and forgotten in lieu of more new and conveniently placed offices. He does not want to see that happen to the historic building on 301 North Jackson Avenue.
“I think it’s a shame. More and more older, historic post offices are being left and moved out to more convenient places on the highway,” he said. “They take them and they drag them out of the community where your downtown businesses don’t have access. It may be more convenient for travelers, it may be more convenient for some people, but for your community it just ruins it. We want to remain downtown and we want to remain the way it is.”
The historical aspect of the building, which still has original doors, furniture, and light and bathroom fixtures, and the pride with which it was built, should not be forgotten, says
“This is one of the oldest buildings in town. I’ve got the photos from when they were originally bringing the wood in on horses,” he said. “That’s what this building needs to stay like, just like it was. They built this building with pride, and we should be take care of it with that same pride.”
Community and nostalgia is also a huge reason for Eli’s commitment to improving and restoring the post office building. At the end of the day, he wants the Russellville Post Office to be a place that individuals enjoy visiting, if only for a few minutes.
“I want people to come in and feel good about being here. I don’t want it to just be a place you come to pick up mail,” he said. “I’ve been working on and asking about getting some old 1930s or 1940s pews or benches to put in the lobby so people can sit down and read their mail and gossip or whatever. That’s how it used to be. That’s the biggest thing for me, and I think once when get these things done and it’s done right then people will be open to that.”