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[whitespace] Zip Code Zen

Legendary post office garden endures

By Justin Berton

A ZEN GARDEN is located, of all places, outside the post office at 1750 Meridian Ave. Its story begins in 1920.

The day before Christmas that year, a man named William H. Lawrence was born in a house on Martin Avenue, near Race Street. Bill Lawrence grew up to attend San Jose High School, then San Jose State University and then served in the war. When he returned, Lawrence took a job as the Executive Director of the Santa Clara County March of Dimes. At the time, Lawrence's politically connected uncle from his mother's side, Joseph A. Chargin, was serving as San Jose's postmaster, after getting appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Uncle Chargin's service area mostly consisted of vast farming communities; only a few people every few miles. There was little in the way of mail.

Lawrence, meanwhile, along with his wife and family, also began rallying for the local Democratic Party. In 1956, Lawrence hosted a fundraising barbecue for two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson outside Lou's Village. Stevenson, famously, never became president, but Lawrence's effort and enthusiasm were duly noted within the party.

In 1962, with Lawrence's uncle finally ready to retire, Lawrence was nominated for the job by local Democratic congressman Clair Engle. When President John F. Kennedy appointed him Lawrence was just 42, the youngest "big city" postmaster in the country.

San Jose, the 75th busiest mail market in the nation, was also one of the fastest growing. Supervisors in Washington, D.C., told Lawrence that he could expect his service area to grow three percent annually. Yet San Jose, by all other indications, was sprawling out at about seven percent. With all those new homes, and all those new mailboxes, Lawrence needed more employees. During San Jose's incredible growth spurt, Lawrence's workers were pressed to do more, quicker.

Magically, the local handlers met delivery efficiency quotas and, during the Lyndon Johnson years, San Joseans enjoyed some of the most reliable mail service ever. Lawrence was, not coincidentally, the highest paid postmaster in California, earning more than his colleagues in the denser markets of San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles.

In 1971 Lawrence and his administration opened a new office on Meridian, a state-of-the art facility showcasing the boxy architectural terseness of the times. The building was surrounded, methodically, by plants and trees.

Lawrence gazed around the new facility and noticed something which disturbed him: no redwoods--the state's most famous tree. A post office serving the state of California, Lawrence believed, should tout at least one redwood.

Also, when customers walked toward the main entrance, they noticed a parcel of perpetually dying plants, just to the left of the door. Every few months new plants were potted, and then died.

Lawrence hired a specialist who determined that the soil, in that doomed flowerbed, was as gooey as a swamp. The only thing that could grow there, the plant guy said, were plants cultivated at the edge of an ocean. Since a marine refuge was out of the question, and the world needed one less piece of concrete, Lawrence ordered the plant guy to dig deep into the earth, remove the swamp and replace it with fresh soil. A landscaper was hired and, with only one request--a redwood tree--was given carte blanche to transform the site into something attractive.

Within a few weeks the landscaper delivered a zen garden: carefully placed blue glittering rocks; sharply trimmed bonsai trees; a small arching foot bridge; a tiny path beneath. And, in the back, a redwood tree. A soothing site, indeed.

Lawrence was pleased and so were his peers and supervisors. Word spread up and down the state's postal offices about the avant-garde garden outside the San Jose office. Nothing like it had appeared at any post office in the country, except maybe for those in Hawaii. After the initial hubbub, word about the zen garden died down and workers returned to passing by without giving it much thought.

In 1985, at age 62, Lawrence retired as San Jose's postmaster. By that time, he was the oldest postmaster in a big city--San Jose was now the17th busiest mail market--and he had surpassed his uncle as the longest-serving postmaster in the state.

Today, 80 years old, Lawrence sits in his westside San Jose home and tells the proud story of the garden--"I walked back and forth over the bridge a few times, just for the hell of it."--and of the postal service--"Moving mail was a frenzy in those days, and we kept up"-- and it becomes clear that he is unaware of the irony some would find in a post office zen garden today.

"I'm a native Californian," Lawrence says. "When I looked around and saw all those plants, but no redwood, I wondered why the heck not. Two things happened: the landscaper got his garden and I got my redwood. Everyone was happy."

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From the July 26-August 1, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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