Return to sender
Man works to return old post office to historic splendor, comfortable home
ALPENA — A radio in a distant room softly playing “I Did It My Way,” Don Rosen sat in the living room that was once the front lobby of the Alpena Post Office, turning the pages of a well-worn “baby book.”
The book’s sleeved pages hold century-old photographs of the early days of the government building that, for the past seven years, he has been turning into a home.
The stately stone building on Water Street at 1st Avenue in downtown Alpena, known to many Alpena residents as the federal building, was purchased in 2011 by Rosen, a private resident who bought a government-owned building with the dream of restoring it to its 1912 grandeur.
Rosen, formerly of Knoxville, Tennessee, discovered the building by accident when he was shopping online for a camper. Charmed by the subtle beauty of the granite exterior and intrigued by Alpena’s “cute-little-town” aura, he bought the old post office without ever stepping foot inside.
Rosen found his new home to be a building in disrepair. Floors in several rooms were askew from frozen pipes. Pieces of plaster peeled from walls. Government lighting and dropped ceilings hid the elegant vaulted ceilings carefully constructed a century before.
Rosen moved in immediately and set to work restoring beauty to a building that once served as a central hub of the community.
After years of work, the oversized front windows, set with irreplaceable, 110-year-old wavy glass, now preside over a dignified sitting area, where Otis, an elderly but distinguished Weimaraner, holds court amid the stately furniture and antiques. The room’s original color was a neutral beige, Rosen said, but he chose a peaceful pale green for the room that once welcomed area residents in tophats and bustles, picking up their parcels before motoring home in their Ford Model Ts.
A grand piano that plays itself stands gracefully in front of one window, the painstakingly restored vaulted ceilings overhead accented by ornate, wrought-iron chandeliers that complement the scrolled gate surrounding the stone stairway at the end of the room.
“US-PO,” the letters in the iron gate read, a reminder of the many lives that have intersected with the building that now stands with one foot in the present and one a hundred years in the past.
A dining area — impeccably outfitted with furniture that has been in Rosen’s family for eight generations, and an enormous and dramatic kitchen equipped to entertain a crowd — are more of Rosen’s handiwork, showing off his skills and experience as a designer and builder.
The rest of the building is a work in progress.
A second front room, which Rosen envisioned turning into a recreation room for guests, shows where his journey began, the marred ceilings and walls in need of much attention. Upstairs, a hallway that once led to offices for the Civil Service Commission, the customs collector, the U.S. Weather Bureau, and more, has been eroded by harsh winter storms and time.
The offices, Rosen thought, would make perfect three-bedroom suites in the magnificent bed and breakfast he envisioned when he first took up residence.
It’s a project he has to place into someone else’s hands, though. Health concerns have prompted him, after seven years, to place the government-building-turned-home onto the market.
Rosen hopes to sell to someone local, “to keep it in the family,” he said.
Significant restoration grants are available to anyone interested in continuing his restoration project, a piece of history that has offered up surprises to its current owner.
“Want to see the catacombs?” Rosen asked with an irresistible grin.
The basement is full of mysterious corners and tiny rooms where the massive doors of the former post office’s vault lean against a wall, the state seal still bright in their center after 100 years. At one end of the basement lurk low-ceilinged, shoulder-width passages with medieval-looking arched doorways and dimly-lit brick walls inset with openings that once held two-way mirrors for keeping an eye on suspect staff members.
In the upstairs hallway, trap doors lead to two cement-brick secret rooms, accessible only by a ladder’s rungs, where government employees could spy on post office patrons undetected.
The building’s roof, its low wall built with enormous stones lifted into place by a pulley system long before cranes and excavators did the work of men, offers a quiet view of Alpena’s downtown and riverfront.
“I’m in love with this,” Rosen said, patting the granite parapet. “Isn’t this a wonderful building?”
More than 100 people have requested and been given a tour in recent months, according to the proud owner, who graciously makes visitors of all kinds feel welcome.
The building’s next owner will take ownership with a head start on heading backward in time, if they so choose.
As for Rosen, his next adventure will probably involve a recreational vehicle, the open road, and faithful Otis in the passenger seat.
Rosen still cheerfully dreams of plans for the building’s future, and looks fondly back at the project he began seven years ago.
“It’s what anyone would do,” Rosen said. “Wouldn’t you?”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jriddleX.