Former post office still holds mural painted in the 1930s | News | The Press and Standard
by The Press and Standard | February 16, 2017 5:00 pm
Last Updated: February 16, 2017 at 9:51 am
By GEORGE SALSBERRY
Mary Anne Cannady knew she was purchasing much more than a building in 1985 — she was purchasing a piece of Walterboro history.
In 1985, the U.S. Postal Service opened its new facilities at 333 E. Washington St. and put the old post office at 305 E. Washington St. up for sale.
Cannady made a bid of $108,000 for the building. “I went to Tampa for the opening of the bids; I was on cloud nine when I won.”
Construction on the old post office began in 1936 and finished the following year.
In 1938, “Past and Present Agriculture and Industry of Colleton County,” a mural painted by Sheffield Kagy, was hung over the door leading from the vestibule to the post masters office.
It is still there.
“When we bought the building, they wanted to take it down, roll it up and put it in the basement of the Smithsonian,” Cannady said. “We said we would really like to keep it. They said are you sure you really want to keep it?”
The postal officials were not sure Cannady wanted to face the prospect of the mural offending African-American customers of her insurance agency.
Cannady’s desire to keep the mural at its place of honor led the federal officials to let her have it on a permanent loan basis.
A study of the Walterboro mural done by Kagy does reside in a Smithsonian basement. The much smaller study, a 16×32-and-one-half-inch oil on fiberboard, is housed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum Renwick Gallery.
“Back in the day, I am sure that blacks came in and complained about the picture,” Cannady said. “Now, they come in and marvel at the picture. They marvel at the fact that it is still there.”
Although slavery was a dark part of America’s past, she said, “It depicts a part of history; it is part of their history.”
Over the years, she has graduate students who were writing their thesis on New Deal murals that were in post offices visit the mural. Cannady loves to see the reaction of those viewing the work of art, saying “it so different from what they told us it would be.”
The only care given the mural, she said, are a few times when the oil painting on canvas has been “very gently wiped. It is in great shape.”
Having the mural remain in place was part of Cannady’s plan for the building. As much as possible, she want the repurposing the post office into an insurance agency to be accomplished with a minimum of change to the exterior of the building and the front of the interior.
You come up the front steps and enter an enclosed wooden entrance, turn right and head to the postmaster’s office. The mural still hangs above the original door into that office, which is flanked by two original wood frames that enclosed the space where post office bulletins once were posted.
Turn left and in front of you is another original door that led to the room that contained the post office boxes. When the U.S. Postal Service put the building up for sale, all the old post office boxes were removed. Cannady said she would have liked to have a few of those boxes left behind when the building was sold.
The floor covering, heavy old ceramic tile, is original.
The building is not on the Registry of Historic Places, but the old post office “is much like it originally was,” Cannady said.
Structurally, the building is still strong. “This building is not going anywhere — they don’t build buildings like this today,” Cannady explained.
When the agency took ownership, the plan was to keep as much as possible of the feel of the old building.
The main change was to install walls to turn the large open space at the rear of the building into office space.
“Of course, we have made some changes,” Cannady explained.
Cannady claimed the postmaster’s office as her own. Sitting at the desk, she points out a narrow slit high on the wall. “That’s the thing that I think is most interesting about this building,” she says. “That is what we refer to as the peephole.”
The building was built with a large void between the exterior and interior walls. A postal inspector would sneak into the building from the basement, climb a hidden set of stairs into the void and use the peepholes found throughout the building to spy on the postal workers.
Back then, Cannady explained, the post office was a cash business and the peepholes gave the postal inspector to watch the workers to see if something untoward was going on.
Even the postmaster was under the watchful eye of the postal inspector.
Cannady opened an old door labeled “Carriers Toilet” and points out more peepholes.
When she points out the peepholes to people interested in history of the building, “they just can’t believe it.”