“N.Y. Post Office Pneumatic Tube” c. 1912. G.G. Bain Collection via Flickr.
Earlier this year, we looked into the pneumatic tube system that used to carry mail between post offices in New York City. The system was 27 miles long and connected 23 post offices, and included tubes over the Brooklyn Bridge to connect the General Post Office in Brooklyn to Church Street in Manhattan. The USPS stopped using the system fully in 1953. Last week, Untapped reader @Charlesinist asked us “Anyone know where I can see remnants of the old US mail pneumatic tubes in NYC?”
Today, we’ll show you where some remnants of the system are and where pneumatic tubes are still used in the city.
The Old Chelsea Postal Station
Flanges that are remnant pneumatic tubes at the Chelsea Post Office Source: USPS
Not only is this Chelsea post office one of the many being put up for sale by the United States Postal Service, it has remnants of pneumatic tubes, according to Robert A. Cohen in this article about USPS history. The 1939 building is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
As buildings were demolished and rebuilt, parts of the pneumatic tube system were also destroyed. Kate Ascher notes in The Works that there was a time when remnants of the pneumatic tubes were still being found, but not often any longer. Nonetheless, other buildings in New York City have made use of pneumatic tube technology.
This building, formerly the headquarters of publishing company H.W. Wilson, used pneumatic tubes inside. When it became the Tuck-it-Away storage headquarters in November 2012, the quirky lighthouse on top of the building was kept, but it’s unclear if the pneumatic tube system was maintained.
According to Atlas Obscura, the main branch of the New York Public Library still uses pneumatic tubes. Paper requests for books in the stacks of the Humanities and Social Sciences library are sent down via pneumatic tubes and the staff underground locates the book and sends it up. With 125 miles of shelving–88 miles in the seven stack floors of Humanities & Social Science Library and 37 miles in the two-level stack extension under Bryant Park–any form of efficiency is helpful.
According to Atlas Obscura, “So successful is the old pneumatic system in the NY Humanities and Social Sciences library that they installed a new system in the Science, Industry and Business Library on Madison Avenue in 1998.”
Roosevelt Island’s AVAC/Trash Collection system
Roosevelt Island is home to the only AVAC (Automated Vacuum Collection) system in a residential community. According to NYC-Grid, “AVAC connects all the buildings on [Roosevelt] Island with a series of high-speed pneumatic tubes, which forces trash to fly under resident’s feet at 50 MPH.” Conceived as a utopian solution to minimize street trash and noise from garbage trucks, the AVAC system moves 5.8 tons of trash per day. The system can’t process everything though–large furniture, glass and construction waste are picked up separately. Last year, it was reported that transportation experts were looking at the feasibility of installing AVAC systems for the High Line and the Coney Island Boardwalk through a New York State grant.
The iconic Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side also once had pneumatic tubes snaking through its walls, which delivered messages between tenants and staff. There also seems to be evidence that the pneumatic tube mail system extended further into Queens and could connect Holmes Airport, the first municipal airport in NYC, to Manhattan. Read more about it here.