Light now streams through 20 foot arched windows, reflecting onto the gleaming wood floor of La Poste. In 2012, however, the once-stately post office built in 1914 sat forlornly in disrepair, with paint peeling from the windows and steps sagging. Viewing the vacant building from her antique shop/art gallery next door, Mary Rose Nichols shared her concern about the outcome of the building with her friends Jenny Eklund, who owns Perry Paint and Design in Perry, and Ann Connors, a former Perry resident and dentist in Iowa City. The Perry School District had placed the building up for bid twice with no one bidding.
A dream began to form to create a space for art, music, good food, and community. Drawn by the arched windows and elegant lanterns gracing the entry, the three women took a leap of faith when the building came up for bid the third time, writing up a bid to submit to the school district just before the deadline. Expecting a long line, Jenny and Mary Rose waited outside the school administration building until the bids closed, only to discover that they were the only bidders. After they shared their vision for the building at the school board meeting, the school district magnanimously approved their bid.
The new owners’ first goal for the building was to open it up and let light pour in through the beautiful arched windows. After taking down all the curtains, they could hardly wait to get up on a ladder, lift a panel of the dropped ceiling installed in the 1960’s, and see what was above. At that moment they began to realize the original beauty of the old post office with the coffer ceiling, a large wooden arch above the superintendent’s office, the tops of the arched windows, and marble medallions between the windows. Their view from the top of the ladder also revealed a super-highway of duct work, one duct rammed through the large archway, peeling paint, and the window glass in the arches painted black.
Their families and friends arrived with sledgehammers, Sawzalls, and crowbars for the demolition, tearing down the dropped ceiling, duct work, and walls and prying up carpet and plywood floors. Scaffolding was installed so the black paint could be stripped from the arched windows.
On Volunteer Day, the Perry High School soccer team volunteered to help by carrying the mountains of debris to a container in the back and ripping out carpet. They also formed a line from the attic to the cellar, passing the clay roof tiles one to another like a bucket brigade and forming a stack in the cellar. Their help was invaluable.
As layers were peeled back to bring the old post office back to its original glory, unexpected discoveries were made along the way. The wall opposite the entryway was ready for the sledgehammer when, fortunately, a gentler approach revealed the original entry doors, sandwiched between two pieces of drywall. Some of the original marble was found in one of the vaults. One friend, who had bought a few slabs of marble when the school district purchased the building, took us on a hunt through her acreage for the missing pieces and generously donated them back to La Poste. While on a ladder one day, Jenny reached behind some paneling to discover that sections of windows in the large superintendent’s arch were hidden behind the paneling. Since electricity was just coming into use, the original light fixtures were designed for use with electricity or gas, just in case. Prying up layers of carpeting and sub-flooring revealed addresses that had been painted on the original flooring of the old post office to help postmasters sort mail.
Slowly, light began to stream into the building. As it opened up, the vision for the building evolved. While Ann, Jenny, and Mary Rose originally thought it could be used for artist studios and gallery space, they began to realize it would be perfect as a cultural arts and events center.
La Poste is now a gathering place. Even while under construction, it has been filled with events. Soon after the interior demolition phase, La Poste hosted the 2012 Art on the Prairie Artist Reception. Scaffolding, with a plank added at counter-height, served as the bar and a wheelbarrow held ice. Since then people have gathered at La Poste for weddings, receptions, graduations, reunions, meetings, galas, dinners, and parties. Art, music, and performance have filled La Poste during Art on the Prairie, Holiday Cheer, the Chocolate Walk, the Garden Party, Common Ground, and Ragbrai, fulfilling the building’s new designation as a cultural arts and events center.
This story is one of bringing an old building back to life. It would not have been possible without the incredible talents of local/area craftsmen. La Poste is a showcase for the artistry of these carpenters, electricians, plumbers, plasterers, masons, floor layers, and glazers. It would also not have been possible without the countless number of hours donated by the many volunteers who have given their heart and soul to this project. The community has truly embraced the renovation of this old post office.