The exterior of the Post Office building shows a carved relief. Photo by Aislinn Weidele
By Giuliana Bullard and Ryan Thompson
Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Philadelphia to preside over the grand opening of the new Philadelphia Passport Agency building and to administer the oath of naturalization to 25 new American citizens, Oct. 19, 2022. This event was the culmination and celebration of more than four years of work renovating a new space for the Philadelphia Passport Agency to better serve Philadelphians and those living in the surrounding areas. With more counter windows to serve people who have urgent travel plans and need a U.S. passport, and more than double the square footage for more staff, the new Philadelphia Passport Agency is able to not only help a larger number of people who live along the busy Interstate 95 corridor, but also adjudicate more passport applications received from across the country.
The Philadelphia Passport Agency was established in 1967 to adjudicate and issue passports and provide counter service to people throughout the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware region. By 2015, the Philadelphia Passport Agency had outgrown its 16,000-square-foot space in the Philadelphia Customs House, which was set to undergo a multi-year renovation that would have required the agency to move to a temporary space. The space was cramped and the counter disjointed, spanning three different non-adjacent rooms, causing logistical issues and constraints. The Department of State needed to find a way to prevent interruptions of service and provide a long-term solution to the overall issues with the Customs House floor plan and size.
In August 2016, the news that the U.S. Postal Service would be vacating Philadelphia’s historic post office at the Robert N.C. Nix Sr. Federal Building in Center City made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. For Philadelphians, it meant the loss of an elegant and grand civil landmark. The long city-block lobby with art-deco touches had provided postal services to the city since it opened in 1939 as part of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. There was a chance that the lobby that had provided federal services would no longer be used to serve the city.
In addition to the history of the building, the history of its namesake was deeply meaningful for Philadelphians. Former Congressman Nix is well known as the first African American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. In his career on Capitol Hill, he worked for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. He chaired the Committee on the Post Office and Civil Service and sat on the House Foreign Relations Committee. In 1962, he became the first member of Congress to publicly meet on the Hill with LGBTQ activists. With a building renovation that thoughtfully highlights and preserves this important part of Philadelphia’s Black history, the story of the new Philadelphia Passport Agency reflects the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ (CA) and the Department’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“It was serendipitous that we were looking for a space that could better address the needs of our work processing thousands of paper applications daily, and there existed a space that needed to be preserved for the public,” said Philadelphia Passport Agency Assistant Director Bridget Bielicki.
After a site visit in October 2016, it became clear the long, elegant ground-floor lobby and 45,000-square-feet of space could be repurposed as a passport agency, maintaining the building’s 83-year history of being open to the public.
The complex project required collaboration between the Philadelphia Passport Agency, CA, and the Bureau of Administration’s Office of Real Property Management. Although design and construction efforts were extremely challenging during the pandemic, the team delivered the project on time and under budget and achieved all sustainability and historic preservation goals.
“The General Services Administration’s Historic Preservation Program kept a very close eye and stewardship on the work, ensuring that we did not affect any of the historical qualities of the space,” said Passport Project Manager Jason Hindle.
Philadelphia Passport Agency leadership and staff also worked to honor the historic significance of the building and its namesake. They made connections with Nix’s family, who donated photos, artifacts, and anecdotes from his career. These are displayed in the public lobby alongside historic passports preserved during the project. Their efforts led to the creation of a historical tribute to civil rights and consular history in the public lobby, which can be viewed by anyone visiting the facility.
The Agency also pays tribute to Philadelphia’s muralist art scene. Using the budget reserved for standard wall décor, the team commissioned three murals from local artists that represent public service, Philadelphia, and themes of citizenship and immigration. The agency staff now enjoy these murals each day, including the public-service themed artwork, which is visible to all employees at the employee entrance.
The management team’s careful consideration of history was matched by their integration of features that will serve the passport agency and consular affairs mission moving forward. The team involved the agency staff throughout the process, surveying them about amenities they wanted to have in the new space. As a result, the new space integrates showers, spaces to store bikes, stations for staff to fill reusable water bottles, specialized lighting, and ergonomic workstations.
Passport Agency Director Dan Alessandrini said the thoughtful way in which officials integrated practical and historical considerations while renovating the facility lifts the spirits and moods of customers who visit the new space and passport agency employees who work there.
“Going from a dark, enclosed, small space for the public and the team to something much more open, bright, and inviting has made a world of difference for all of us,” he said.
Giuliana Bullard is a program analyst with the community relations division of Passport Services. Ryan Thompson was a program analyst with the Community Relations Division of Passport Services.