Penland Post Office Project
Architect's Planning Document
Joseph K. Oppermann, Architect, P.A.
August 8, 2012
In Mitchell County, in the high country of northwestern North Carolina about six miles west of Spruce Pine, is the Penland community. Nestled picturesquely at the base of the steep north bank near where Penland Road crosses the rock-laden Toe River is one of the region’s most important early buildings. It is beloved by the community and is the locus of much of Penland’s social interaction.
The Penland Post Office and General Store is a one-story, white, board-and-batten, frame building. Beneath a gable roof is the larger north section that once housed a mercantile store and offices for a lumber company. It is empty, closed since the 1970s. There are two, small, shed-roof additions along its south elevation. One is vacant, the other contains the Penland Post Office, the daily meeting place for mail service and community discourse.
The building is in deteriorated condition. A friends group has been formed to explore opportunities for acquisition, repair and preservation.
The objective of this report is threefold. The first is to highlight the history and significance of the building in order to better appreciate its importance. The second is to assess the condition of the building. And the third objective is to make recommendations for repair and estimate probable cost.
In the decade following the Civil War, this region of Mitchell County remained one of small farms concentrated along the tributaries of the Toe River. This began to change in the 1870s, when the potential for logging and the mining for mica, feldspar, and kaolin brought new settlers to the area. Spruce Pine, the largest community, became a mining town; the small settlement known as Bailey Station six miles to the west was more of a trading post.
Recognizing the potential for new markets, the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railroad (later known as the Clinchfield Railroad) extended rail service to the region. Isaac Bailey, a member of one of the early settler families and a major land owner, was instrumental to this expansion. He provided the essential right-of-way across property he owned. Around 1900-02, in anticipation of the rail line opening along the north bank of the Toe River, Bailey began construction of the building now known as the Penland Post Office & General Store. In its early years, when known as the Bailey Lumber Company Office & General Merchandise Store, it carried general supplies and milled lumber. Coffins were a specialty item produced on site.
The first building section was rectangular in plan, its long dimension oriented east-west immediately adjacent to the new rail line and parallel to the river immediately beyond. This frame building faced west, was one story in height, and crowned with a gable roof. Two shed-roof extensions with loading dock were soon added to the south side of the building to gain closer proximity to the trains. One addition was at the far, east end of the original building. The other was shorter and located near the west end.
Bailey Station incorporated in 1902. The same year, Clinchfield Railroad extended rail service from Johnson City, Tennessee, some 70 miles into Mitchell County and through Bailey Station. The advent of rail service gave the people of Mitchell County both access to goods and materials not readily available and new economic opportunities. As part of its expansion, the railroad built the Bailey Station Depot. Close nearby were the Bailey Lumber Company Office & General Merchandise Store, the Bailey saw mill, two boarding houses, a hotel, and several residences. Across the river on the south bank were a mica mill, a feed and seed store, and another general merchandise store.
The Penland Post Office relocated to the new depot. It was estimated to serve 800 residents. The first post office serving the Bailey Station vicinity had opened in 1879 in Stewart’s General Store about a mile away. This original post office served about 300 people and was called the Penland Rock Post Office in recognition of the large outcropping of that name upon which the store had been built. Later, the name was shortened to the Penland Post Office. The post office moved twice before coming to the depot, each time transporting some of its original furnishings and equipment.
In 1905 the town of Bailey Station became Penland, a change prompted by a postal service rule that required post offices to have the same name as the community they served. Isaac Bailey’s enterprises apparently thrived during these early years. The saw mill and lumber company reportedly provided the materials for construction of most of the structures in the booming community of Penland. And, from 1900 through 1906, the general store was the only supplier of groceries in the area.
The 1916 Flood devastated Penland. The Bailey mercantile and lumber office survived, as did the depot and the other mercantile store, but the Bailey saw mill and most buildings along the river were destroyed. The community never recovered the vibrancy that existed before the flood. In about 1920, Isaac Bailey closed his lumber business and turned over the mercantile operation to his sons, who later leased part of the building to another enterprise. Both operations closed in the mid-1920s, a result of the decline of mining and logging operations in the area.
In 1934, the long rectangular original building section reopened as Carolina Mercantile under a lease agreement with the Bailey family. The same year, the building’s southwest addition was leased to the United States Postal Service for occupancy by the Penland Post Office. The mercantile store continued under several lease holders until 1974 when the store finally closed.
Around the end of the twentieth century, a large tree fell from the hill to the north across both the back storeroom of the mercantile store and the southeast addition. The roof structures of both building sections were severely damaged and never repaired.
The Penland Post Office continues to operate in the building, a vibrant part of the mountain community. According to the United States Postal Service, the Penland Post Office is “the oldest active postal facility building in Mitchell County.” The building is also the oldest commercial remnant of the community’s once booming logging and mining enterprises.
In recognition of its importance, the Penland Post Office and General Store was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on April 14, 2012.
Physical Description. The Penland Post Office and General Store is a frame building, one-story in height, set on low piers of dry-laid stone. In plan, the building forms a “Block C” oriented east-west.
The building’s long north wall which frames the stem of the C measures 80’-06”in length. The small east and west gable ends measure 21’-00” wide. The west gable end is the principal façade and its original design is intact. It contains at its center the double-door front entrance flanked by two-over-two windows. The east gable end is the rear façade; it contains two original two-over-two windows. Along the north façade are four pairs of one-over-one windows set high on the wall.
Inside, the front or west section (50’-00” deep) was the general merchandise area of the store. Tall wall cases extend along the long north and south walls. The room’s walls and ceilings are covered with modern ¾” gypsum board paneling. Finished tongue-and-groove flooring runs east-west. Part of a metal chimney flue extends into the room from near the center of the ceiling.
A partition wall separates the front display area from the rear 30’-06”-deep storeroom area. Here also were displayed tools and heavy agricultural equipment. The flooring is rough-sawn. The wall studs are exposed without finish material, except where modern construction paper has been applied between studs to keep out the winter winds.
Two shed additions extend from the south elevation of the mercantile store. The east addition is 24’-00” feet wide and extends south 20’-06”. Double doors on the west elevation open onto a loading ramp. A one-over-one window high on the east wall matches those on the north wall of the mercantile store section. Inside, the wall framing is exposed as in the rear storeroom of the mercantile store.
The south addition at the west end is 33’-00” wide and extends just 13’-06” to the south. This section houses the Penland Post Office. Like the mercantile store adjacent to the north, the west façade is the principal elevation. It retains the main entrance doorway and door that date to construction of the addition. A pair of two-over-two windows are to the south of the doorway.
Inside, early equipment and furnishings from the first 1879 Penland Post Office are part of daily functions. These items include “Double Eagle” mail boxes known elsewhere only in a Smithsonian collection, scales, sorting table, and safe. Other items of importance include the wood cabinets built by the postmaster when the post office opened in this location in 1934. Carpeting covers the floor and modern paneling is applied over original wall surfaces.
The type of wall frame structural system employed in the mercantile and southeast addition (and presumably in the unobserved southwest addition as well) is known as “box frame” construction. It is a quickly and easily assembled frame popular in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries for utilitarian structures. It consists of a wood sill set on piers along the exterior perimeter. One portion of the building reveals a sill measuring 9” wide by 6” tall; however; other sills were not visible. At each of the four corners of thr rectangular plan is a post; where observable, the corner posts consist of a pair of 2”x4”s. At the exterior walls are the typical 2”x4” studs on each side of the doorways and window openings. The other wall studs are irregularly placed at wide distances. The vertical framing supports a 2”x4” wall plate. At approximate mid-level at each exterior wall between the sill and the wall plate is a horizontal 2”x4” connecting the vertical framing members. The vertical exterior siding, in this case wide random-width boards 5/4” thick and narrow battens, gives the exterior walls much of their rigidity.
Resting atop the walls of the mercantile section are trusses spanning the full width of the rooms. Each wooden truss cord is constructed of two 2”x5½” framing material; the king post and diagonal brace are assembled using 5/4” thick wood framing. The shed roofs of the two south-elevation additions are framed with 2” rafters spanning the full distance.
All roofs are sheathed with 5-V galvanized roofing panels. The roof over the mercantile section is pierced with a brick flue. The flue for the stove that heats the post office is outside the south exterior wall.
Assessment. The collapse of the dirt hill north of the building has buried the entire north wall under about a foot of soil. The effect of trapped ground moisture has been dramatic. The bottoms of the board-and-batten exterior siding have severe rot along this building elevation. The north sill apparently has suffered the same fate. The interior floor appears to have dropped about a foot or more along the north wall.
In addition to the damage to building material directly in contact with soil, the collapse of the north sill has stressed the roof trusses, causing the roof of the mercantile store to open and the gable ends to split.
The fallen tree has had serious consequences. Two roof sections were badly compromised. Left unrepaired, the back storeroom of the mercantile store and the southeast addition have taken in a great deal of water. The resultant deterioration of wood elements is extensive and severe. Perhaps 20% of the building material of these two rooms can be salvaged and reused in repairing/ rebuilding these sections. Even less of the loading dock outside the southeast addition can be expected to be usable.
In general, the building has gone through extended periods without maintenance. The section containing the Penland Post Office is in the best condition, though certainly worn and weathered, and overdue for remedial repair.
Scope of Repairs. This is such an important building for the Penland community and significant for all North Carolinians. It provides tangible evidence of an important epoch in the history of the state. If at all possible, it is desirable to retain the entire building as currently configured.
Unfortunately, the deterioration is so prevalent that it is difficult to separate portions of the building and site for a phased repair. One possible division would be to separate the front section of the mercantile store along with the post office from the two rear tree-damaged sections of storeroom and southeast addition.
Through either a single effort or a two-phased effort, it is critical to remove at the onset the collapsed earth along the north wall, to install site drainage, and to build a retaining wall to hold back the unstable soil of the hill.
Repair of the front portion of the mercantile store will be a major undertaking, although much of the existing material likely can be reused. The stone piers must be stabilized, and perhaps additional piers installed. Much of the framing of the north wall as well as the floor will need repair, if not replacement.
The post office should likewise be brought to a condition of good repair, as should the front boardwalk shared by the post office and store. For both building sections, the electrical system needs to be revamped. At the post office, the HVAC system should be replaced, and a staff restroom should be installed.
Repair of the two rear sections will require extensive removal of deteriorated building material followed by replacement. Fortunately, sufficient physical evidence remains to guide the replacement effort. It is critical that this be conducted by professionals experienced in such forensic investigation and recording and that their work be conducted prior to any demolition and removal.
All building sections brought to a condition of good repair must be in compliance with building codes and regulations.
Estimates of Costs:
Phase I: Front Store Section & the Post Office
Demo/ Salvage: $ 15,000
Retaining Wall: 23,000
Site Work: 12,000
Mercantile Section: 189,000
Post Office: 54,000
A/E Design Fees: 30,000
Phase II: Rear Storeroom & SE Addition
Retaining Wall: 13,000
Mercantile Storeroom: 82,000
SE Addition: 65,000
A/E Design Fees: 16,000
Total: $ 499,000
It is important to keep the Penland Post Office operational during these repairs and to keep the post office in its current location. A less-desirable option would be to place the post office in a temporary facility on site. The Post Office plays a central role in this community, and its continued operation on this site is critical to preserving the building that houses it.
One final cautionary note: in addition to its historically central role in the almost daily activities of the community, there are other aspects of this building which are especially endearing. The setting is richly picturesque with hills of hardwoods and a craggy river bed channeling fast moving water. And the building itself reads as an object of craft artistry. Rich craft qualities appear again and again in the design and the construction of this building in all its sections. Few of the building materials are of the same dimensions, shape or surface texture even within the same genre of architectural element. The patterns of attachment likewise vary. These are qualities so appealing to artisans and understandably so. Everything about this building reads as craft. Whatever repairs are undertaken, it will be important to be true to these inherent craft qualities.