Former post office provides Milton artist with first-class studio and living spaces
By Lynn R. Parks | Photographs by Carolyn Watson
From the April 2019 issue
Julia Smith knew as soon as she toured the red brick, one-story square building in downtown Milton that it was the home for her. It is a former post office, after all, and her great-grandfather, Fred Willey, served years ago as the postmaster of Bridgeville. Her grandfather, Joe Willey, was a rural mail carrier in that western Sussex County town.
It’s also a short drive from the Magnolia Street building to Lewes, where her mother lives.
And the original front window — 30 feet wide with an aluminum frame, bronze latches and 35 sections, some of which can be cranked open — is still intact, letting abundant light into the old post office lobby.
“I walked in the door, took one look at that window, and said, ‘This is it!’” Julia recalls.
A metalsmith, she has set up her jewelry studio in what was the inner lobby of the building, where patrons bought stamps and mailed packages. In the main lobby, where the post office boxes were located, is a second, larger studio where she makes “sailor’s valentines,” works of art fashioned from shells. In October, Julia won best in show in the sailor’s valentine category at the Philadelphia Shell Show.
Built in 1958, the post office was decommissioned in 1985 and replaced by a new building on the edge of town, on Route 16. After that, it served as an antiques mall and as home to a furniture refinishing business.
When Julia, who lived near Malvern, Pa., bought the building in 2011, “it had been neglected for years,” she says. The roof leaked and the ceiling had been damaged by water. Her adult son, Tyler Morris, who lives with her, spent weeks removing the remnants of the ceiling, filling “two gigantic Dumpsters” with debris and in the process exposing the building’s corrugated metal roof and metal beams.
Julia had the exterior side of the roof covered with a layer of insulation and then with a white waterproof membrane. She intends to paint the underside some shade of grayish-blue.
The building also needed a new heating and air conditioning system, as well as plumbing and electrical work. Julia and Tyler built walls to separate the art studio from what would become the great room and to create three bedrooms. They also stripped layers of paint from the original cement block walls (as well as a stubborn layer of yellow residue, the result, Julia suspects, of postal workers being allowed to smoke on the job). It turned out that the faces of the blocks that make up the lower third of the walls are smooth and covered with a fern-green glaze. The remaining blocks, painted white, are plain, except for a row that runs along all four walls, about 10 feet above the floor. Those blocks are shaped so that four of them together form a three-dimensional diamond.
Julia considered painting the diamonds to make them stand out more has come to like their subtlety. They are an “economic frieze,” she says: The Postal Service being decorative on a budget.
The kitchen is nestled in the back corner of the great room. Cherry cabinets that Julia found in the Habitat for Humanity ReStore line the walls. Open shelves hold blue pottery, made in York, Pa., that Julia collects. Decorative tiles behind the stove, the sink and a nearby woodstove have the same color blue in them as the pottery.
Hanging cabinets in the kitchen are oversized — 42 inches tall rather than the standard 24 or even 30. In fact, furnishings throughout the great room, including a huge three-piece cabinet-and-shelves combination in the sitting area, are oversized, something that Julia chose on purpose. “It makes it cozier in here,” she explains. “I didn’t want it to feel like a warehouse.”
The home’s bathroom is located in one of what were the post office’s two bathrooms. Julia salvaged the rooms’ original signs and put them to use, hanging “Ladies” on the bathroom door and “Men” on the door into a storage area. In the small area between the two doors is an original sink, enameled cast iron and deep enough to catch whatever stamp and package dirt the postal workers had to wash off their hands.
Julia and Tyler still have work to do on their home. They want to screen in the loading dock, which is on the back of the structure and overlooks a small pond. An alcove at the back of the great room is intended for a library. And there are many household items for which Julia and her son haven’t found places yet and that sit in piles in the bedrooms.
But she is growing tired of the remodeling work. “I desperately want to get off the ladders,” she says.
Rather, Julia wants to spend more time in her studio, where the post office’s original bulletin board, perfect for law enforcement “wanted” posters, still hangs and where the roll-top desk that her great-grandfather used as postmaster sits.
“This studio space is what sold me on this building,” says Julia, who has an art degree from the University of Delaware and a master of fine arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis. “I just want this part of my life to be about my work.”