Downtown Dallas’ historic post office is latest address for
urban living

Thursday, September 15, 2011
Dallas Morning News – by Steve Brown

Shawn Todd
And aerial view of Downtown Dallas’ historic post office in the 1940s.

“Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail shall keep the postmen from their appointed rounds” — or so the old saying goes.

But developer Shawn Todd had to overcome a perfect storm to deliver apartments in the upper floors of downtown’s historic post office.

After Todd began the loft housing project, the economy collapsed and the financing system all but shut down.

“In 2008 I had a dozen lenders’ quotes for my deal, then the music stopped,” Todd said. “Getting this project done has not been easy.

“I used every club in my golf bag and some I didn’t have.”

The first of 78 apartments Todd has carved out of the four upper floors of the United States Post Office and Court House building at 400 Ervay St. will be ready next week.

Prospective tenants who tour the building will find a blend of Depression Era styling and the latest in deluxe apartment living.

In the hallways are terracotta floors and marble wainscoting put in place in 1930.

Inside the mostly one-bedroom rental units are the latest in granite countertops and modern stainless appliances.

Architect David Demarest said combining the old with the new was a challenge.

“We tried to breathe some new life into it,” said Demarest, who is wowed by the design of the original building.

“Dallas doesn’t have a building like this for residential,” he said. “The corridors on each floor are amazing — the width of them and the floor patterns and the light that comes in.”

The public areas for the apartments — which are accessed off a separate lobby on the ground floor of the post office — look pretty much as they did when the grand opening ceremony was held in December 1930.

But step inside one of the rental units, and about all that’s left from the original are the refinished wood floors.

“It was like building 78 custom homes,” said Todd. “And every bit of our plans had to be approved by the National Park Service” — the caretaker of the landmark federal building.

Public areas

Two courtrooms that were used by legendary jurist Sarah T. Hughes and as a tax court have been preserved as public lounge and entertainment areas for apartment residents.

“We have a 20,000-square-foot roof terrace being installed,” Todd said.

The developer originally planned to turn the upper floors of the old post office into boutique office space. But after winning approval from the U.S. Postal Service — which still owns the building — and preparing plans, the office market cratered.

“I went back to the postal service and asked to do residential apartments,” Todd said.

The decline in the construction market helped with the conversion.

“When I began this it was the bottom of the market and I was able to get $750,000 in savings I could spend on improvements,” Todd said. “We have a lot of expensive furnishings.

“We want people to feel this is their home.”

The rental units average around 800 square feet and range in price from $1,200 for the smallest one –bedroom to $4,000 a month for the biggest two-bedroom with an outdoor deck overlooking Bryan Street.

Restoration efforts

With 11- to 13-foot ceilings and towering metal and glass windows, most of the units have postcard views of the surrounding buildings and across ThanksGiving Square.

And the three wings of the building along Bryan Street allow views of the carved Indiana limestone and colored terracotta ornamentation on the upper floors of the post office.

The terracotta, marble and hardwood floors inside for decades were buried under layers of linoleum and glue.

“We had to bring in real craftsmen to restore these spaces,” Todd said.

Those efforts seem to be paying off. The developer has already begun leasing the units.

“We had a waiting list of people who had observed the construction,” Todd said. “And we’ve already signed some corporate leases.”

Dallas apartment developer Doug Chesnut — who has followed the post office project since the start — gives Todd a lot of credit for sticking with the tough deal.

“Most developers would pass on the project because it is so small,” Chesnut said. “Shawn did a fantastic job of hanging in there and focusing on all the little details.”