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First federal building in Merced is symbol of resiliency

 

By Sarah Lim

Special to the Times

This year marks the 90th anniversary of laying the cornerstone at Merced’s first federal building – the U.S. Post Office.

Located at 415 W. 18th Street, the Post Office was built during the Great Depression. The building in the style of Mediterranean Classical was designed by Allison & Allison of Los Angeles (also the architect for Merced High’s G Street campus) and built by North-Moller Company of Jackson, Michigan. The construction began in 1932 and was completed a year later; the Post Office opened its doors on November 23, 1933.

No doubt, this project embodied the federal government’s determination in job creation, but more importantly, it epitomized Merced residents’ resilient spirit during the economic downturn.

One such resident was Thomas V. Bell, who became a postal clerk after high school in 1919. For nearly five decades, Bell diligently did his work, rose through the ranks, and retired as the assistant postmaster at the end of 1969.

The Post Office on 18th Street was renamed Bell Station in 1966 to honor his dedicated service. According to Assemblyman Gordon Winton, who introduced House Resolution No. 477 at the California State Assembly on June 14, 1966, “This will be the first time the department has given the name of a currently employed person to a post office.”

In addition to being an assistant postmaster for 40 years, Bell was an acting postmaster from July 1, 1954 to December 31, 1955 before John Hann was appointed. It was unclear why Bell was never named the postmaster (a political appointment before 1971), but he did get the biggest honor compared to all of Merced’s postmasters.

There were eleven postmasters before Acting Postmaster Bell: S. C. Bates (1872-1879), S. A. King (1879-1886), L. A. Manchester (1887-1890), T. H. Leggett (1891-1894), J. B. Garibaldi (1894-1899), F. M. Ordway (1899-1903), Charles Harris (1903-1911), C. F. Neumann (1911-1915), C. D. Radcliffe (1915-1918), A. E. Daneri (1918-1934), and J. T. McInerny (1934-1954).

Merced’s Post Office was established in 1872 at the original El Capitan Hotel by the railroad tracks on N Street, and the first postmaster was Samuel C. Bates, who was also a Wells Fargo agent. During his tenure as postmaster from 1872 to 1879, Bates served as the secretary that oversaw the construction and completion of the Merced County Courthouse, invested in Merced Publishing Company which owned Merced Express, and was an active member of the Republican State Central Committee from Merced County.

Since the postmaster position was a prestigious political appointment from the party controlling the White House, newspaper editors and publishers were often given such posts. For example, Charles Harris (Republican), the publisher of the Merced Star, was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt; Charles D. Radcliffe (Democrat), the publisher and editor of the Merced Evening Sun, was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson.

But here is an interesting story of how Charles F. Neumann got his appointment. His daughter, Arlone, claimed to have “gotten” the job for him due to her charm and cuteness. In 1909, on his way to Yosemite, President William Taft visited Merced and attended a reception at Courthouse Park. He met and carried Baby Arlone around during the meet-and-greet with the locals. In 1911, Neumann was appointed the postmaster; therefore, Arlone claimed she was “responsible” for her father’s appointment.

While Arlone’s claim made a good story, it was Neumann’s good standing as a Republican that earned him the post. Neumann was done after a one-term stint, but Postmaster Ambrose E. Daneri, a career civil servant, thought differently. After serving under five presidents from both parties, Daneri probably thought he had the job for life until he was told to vacate his post for Joseph T. McInerny.

Unlike McInerny, a loyal Democrat, Daneri switched his political party to keep his job. When he was first appointed in 1919, he was a registered Democrat; he then changed his party affiliation in 1922 under Republican President Warren Harding’s administration. So, after Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933, Daneri’s employability as a postmaster reduced significantly.

Daneri, however, was an effective postmaster. During his tenure, he implemented air mail delivery in 1924, got Merced’s first federal building built during the Great Depression, and oversaw the opening of the Post Office before stepping down.

Before Bell Station, the post office had nine different homes since each postmaster had his preferred location: the original El Capitan Hotel (Bates), Merced Bank Building on 16th Street (King), Silver-Zirker building on the 500 block of 16th Street (Manchester), Purinton Building at the northwest corner of 17th and L Streets (Leggett), Star Hotel at 16th and K Streets (Garibaldi), Lagomasino Building at 533 W. 17th Street (Ordway), Merced Star Building at 1715 L Street (Harris), Harris-Garibaldi Building at 1725 L Street (Neumann and Radcliffe), and Simonson Building at 631 W. 17th Street (Daneri).

Construction of Bell Station started during the Hoover administration and was completed during FDR’s administration. For this reason, FDR’s New Deal also had a role to play. In the lobby, you will find two historic Depression-era murals depicting earlier times in Merced County history by the famed muralists Dorothy Puccinelli and Helen Forbes.

So, this is a summary of Merced’s postal history up to the Great Depression. To see a postal uniform from the late 1960s, please visit the Merced County Courthouse Museum and check out our “Courthouse Park Neighborhood” exhibit. The uniform belonged to one of the former Courthouse Park residents, Thomas W. Gaffery. The last day to see the “Courthouse Park Neighborhood” exhibit is Sept. 24.

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