You’ve Got Mail

From a distance the exterior of 50 Murray Street—a massive, squat structure that was once the Internal Revenue Service’s New York home—appears grim and imposing. The 22-story 1960s office building, which was recently converted to residential use, straddles an entire city block in Lower Manhattan and looks exactly like government-issue architecture from that less enlightened time.

But as residents approach the new lobby, they’re greeted with a visual treat: a bank of glowing mailboxes with translucent backs revealing a pattern created by the waiting mail.

“In early brainstorming sessions we asked, how can we create striking and unusual amenities?” says Jay Valgora, design principal for V Studio, a subsidiary of the WalkerGroup in New York. “If five hundred people are all coming through the same front door, how do we make the experience of arrival something special? That was the impetus for the mailroom.”

The architects placed the glass mailroom in a corner of the lobby facing the street—a departure for these often-hidden spaces. “By creating a ribbon of glass along the facade of the lobby that appears to undulate, we blurred the line between sidewalk and lobby,” Valgora says. “The sidewalk seems to push into the building, and the mailroom appears to push out into the street.”

V Studio’s major modification to the standard mailbox—fabricating it with three inches of translucent acrylic in the back—required on-site approval by the Manhattan Postmaster General. “Making it out of glass would have been very heavy and expensive,” Valgora explains. “Instead we found a way to modify the acrylic by scratching the surface with a random orbital sander, which brought out a beautiful minty quality and helped it to capture light.”

The apartment building is located a block and a half from Ground Zero. Its conversion, which began in 2001, was nearly abandoned after the events of 9/11. “One of the plane engines actually bounced off the building, struck the parapet, and landed in the street below,” Valgora says. “With forty percent of the units complete, the client entertained the idea of turning the building back into an office. They weren’t sure anyone would want to live near the site of the former World Trade Center.”

Thanks to rent subsidies sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the building is fully occupied—and the glowing mailbox room serves as a kind of art piece that changes daily with the arrival of mail. “I love the fact that the mailman is physically required to change this piece,” Valgora says. “That we require the participation of a person but don’t have to pay him because he’s part of life on the street. And as long as the federal government exists, the mail will be delivered every day and our piece will continue.”

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