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U.S. Post Office Becomes First-Class Home

How a Kentucky homeowner put her personal stamp on a dusty 1930s post office and turned it into a luxurious, comfortable place to live

First Class

Photo by Michael Luppino

Sure it's a fine place to visit, but who would seriously consider making a former government building her private sanctuary? Well, Sarah Belhasen, M.D., for one. And she's no eccentric. She is, quite to the contrary, a family physician, a student of history, an inveterate collector of Americana, and a practical-minded native of Paintsville, Kentucky.

That her current address—smack in the middle of Paintsville's sleepy business district—happens to have served the local population (around 5,000 or so) as the U.S. Post Office for 70 years is a circumstance based on some clear-minded financial and lifestyle choices and more than a little determination. Ten years ago, the young physician moved back to this former coal-mining town nestled in the Appalachians with the goal of buying a house of her own in her hometown. But not just any house: It had to be a house with character.

Preserving the Past

Photo by Michael Luppino

The sturdy Colonial Revival–style building was filled with family memories. With its all-brick exterior, its thick concrete interior walls, and its underlying steel skeleton, the old structure was, and still is, solid as a rock. When Sarah was a student at the elementary school down the block, children were instructed to hunker down in the basement of Paintsville's PO in the event of an airborne attack.

Inside, though, the building Sarah purchased for $162,000 was drab. Many of the rooms were painted top to bottom in post-office blue. Hideous linoleum or tough rubber padding was glued to most of the floors. But the PO retained enough period details—including terra-cotta floor tiles, marble baseboards, and pink granite wall slabs—that Sarah was convinced to take the rehab project on. She preserved many of these details in the former lobby, which now serves as an entry parlor and formal living area. The original 16-foot ceilings were lowered by 2 feet to conceal pipes and conserve energy.

Garden Room

Photo by Michael Luppino

Sarah Belhasen's handy relatives worked demolition, scraping off faded blue paint, lifting decrepit flooring, and blow-torching stubborn glue. Along the way, they found scraps of undelivered mail and a stack of chilling artifacts: Cold War–era "safety notification postcards," which people fleeing an air raid were supposed to mail to inform loved ones of their whereabouts. Those paled in comparison to the weirdest structural detail of all: secret passageways that let the postmaster scuttle unseen within the walls, spying on employees. The concrete entrances to these passageways were built into several closets, along with ladders leading to each floor. Belhasen's brother dismantled the concrete "observatories" with a jackhammer, but the ladders remained among the collectibles the building slowly offered up.

Shown: Geometric floor tiling and custom cabinets give the garden room a vintage look.

Heart of the Home

Photo by Michael Luppino

In its heyday, the ground floor had been partitioned into public and private spaces by a wall of brass rental post-office boxes. Though the boxes had been there when Sarah first toured the premises, the feds had yanked them out and sold them to a salvage dealer by the time she bought the building, much to her dismay. She made the best of the loss, realizing that custom wood cabinetry and a double fireplace would make a gentler—and much more functional—barrier between the two living spaces. On one side of those cabinets is the former lobby, now entry parlor and formal living area. On the other side, the cavernous mail-sorting room would be sectioned into zones housing the family great room and a new kitchen and butler's pantry.

Kitchen Assets

Photo by Michael Luppino

A massive island anchors the 20-by-20-foot kitchen, once a mail-sorting area at the old Paintsville, Kentucky, post office. Glimpsed though the pastry case is a Sub-Zero fridge wrapped in cabinetry modeled after a vintage oak icebox. The Wolf range tucks into a tiled, arched niche.

Custom Cabinets

Photo by Michael Luppino

Belhasen worked with Quality Custom Cabinetry in New Holland, Pennsylvania, to create a kitchen that could fit her large extended family as well as her antiques.

Here, the additional cherry built-ins maximize kitchen storage without blocking the sunlight that streams through the old lobby's grillework.

Dining Room

Photo by Michael Luppino

Between the two, the old money-order office would serve as a dining room; its walk-in safe, still working, could be outfitted with cherry cabinets to hold her silver collection.

Belhasen called on Michael Reber, a Mennonite craftsman from West Liberty, Kentucky, to construct the home's woodwork. Reber patiently drew sketches for his client, hoping to hit on motifs, trims, and an overall design she would like. In this way, artisan and homeowner collaborated on winning designs, including tall wainscoting, display cabinets, moldings, and a bookshelf-lined library modeled after Henry Higgins's retreat in the 1964 Warner Bros. musical My Fair Lady.

Leisure Library

Photo by Michael Luppino

From the start, the project's success depended on the new owner's ability to establish a logical traffic pattern and inject warmth into the imposing commercial palace. She accomplished the job with fine wood details and a collection of antique lighting fixtures that leavened the overbearing effect of the building's massive stone walls. “I had the place laid out in my mind 15 minutes after I walked in the door,” the doctor/design junkie recalls. “I knew where I'd put the kitchen, where the living room would go, and I knew I could run a library off the main staircase.”

A new catwalk transformed an open area near the original staircase into a two-story library. The decorative molding was found elsewhere in the building, stripped, repainted, and installed as trim; the pedestal table was salvaged from the lobby. The ceiling treatment hides unsightly old pipes.

Great Room

Photo by Michael Luppino

A new limestone fireplace took the place of the PO's original stamp window, becoming the focal point of the current great room, an informal living area. The iron grilles designed to partition the lobby from office areas remain in place, allowing the sunlight that streams through the building's original oversize windows to penetrate to adjoining living areas.

Postmaster's Office

Photo by Michael Luppino

The owner claimed the old postmaster's office as her own, keeping its stenciled, pebbled-glass door.

Reinterpret and Reuse

Photo by Michael Luppino

The upstairs men's lavatory—complete with janitor's sink, vintage toilet, and an antique Kohler shower fixture—still functioned perfectly. Belhasen didn't have the heart to rip these out, so she kept much of the room, updating the sinks to create a modern vanity area.

At Home

Photo by Michael Luppino

Owner Sarah Belhasen turned a part of the old post-office loading dock into a veranda, with the addition of French doors and a concrete balustrade.

Today, she and her husband, Clyde Woods II (a former professional wrestler and Kentucky native whom Sarah married after the renovation was complete), make their home at the old Paintsville PO, which now accommodates a spacious master bedroom suite, four spectacular bathrooms, and a double fireplace that unites a lavish, wood-trimmed front parlor with a less formal great room.