September 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Washington, D.C. city post office building. While the building still has an operating post office, the bulk of the space was turned over to other agencies after an extensive renovation of the building at the end of the 20th century. Among the new tenants to the building was the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, which opened in 1993, having moved many of its objects and staff over from the National Museum of American History.
The building is located on Massachusetts avenue next to Union Station, which had itself just opened seven years earlier. At the turn of the 20th century, Washington’s main city post office was in a large building on Pennsylvania avenue, but had lost much of its space to the postmaster general and the department’s national operations. DC postmaster Benjamin Barnes and Postmaster General Meyer urged Congress to find a new building. Barnes argued that a new space, located near the new train station, would allow for speedier mail deliveries, since mail could be transferred immediately from train cars to a building next door for processing.
Congress began considering the bill in the House early in 1908 and agreed on funding soon thereafter. Plans for construction of the post office were submitted by Daniel H. Burnham & Company, the Chicago architects who had designed Union Station. In addition to housing the city post office, officials planned on moving in a number of national mail services, including the division of railway mail service, the dead letter office and the area’s postal inspectors.
To insure rapid mail transit between Union Station and the new post office, an elevated bridge was to be constructed to link the two buildings. Postal officials boasted that mail coming into the city by train would “be on the assorting table . . . within a minute after the train comes to a stop.”(1) Helping to speed things along even more, the Post Office Department purchased new motor trucks and automobiles, replacing the horse-drawn wagons that had been carrying mail over the city’s streets.
Construction began in 1911 and the building’s foundation was laid on March 2, 1912. Little expense was spared as both Congress and the Post Office Department continued to boast of the new building as a model for the entire nation. The building’s exterior was white Vermont granite. The main lobby was 250 feet long and decorated with 24 massive columns, each 28” in diameter and 20’ high and constructed of gray New Hampshire granite at a final cost of $1,200 each. The lobby’s floor was covered in Tennessee marble.
The public could use one of the hand-carved marble, bronze and glass writing tables for addressing or writing their letters. The writing table tops rested on carved marble lions that gave the impression of the great beasts standing back to back. The lobby’s lighting was provided by a massive bronze chandelier that hung over the center table as well as a series of eight-foot high pedestal lights lining the corridor. A series of glazed and bronzed grilled windows also lined the lobby, offering the public a number of clerks stationed at them to provide all measure of postal needs. The final cost for the lobby’s magnificence was $400,000.
Beyond the public areas lay a massive mail processing operation. The central workroom was a labyrinth of machines as mail flew along conveyor belts and chutes. Almost 120,000 feet of space of the building was reserved for processing mail. The new city post office began operations by Sunday, September 6, 1914 and on September 28, Postmaster Praeger opened the entire building up to the public from 8-10pm. Praeger put on quite a show. The city’s postal employee orchestra provided music as visitors were guided through the main sorting floor.
The building served as the city’s central post office from its opening date in September 1914 to September 1986, when overwhelming mail volumes and the need for larger processing space meant a move of the operations to a large building just to the northeast. During its time as the city’s central post office, the building underwent two major changes. In 1932-1935 an addition to the structure was made on its north side. In the late 1950s the building underwent an extensive interior remodeling that “modernized” not only the processing space, but the public lobby as well. A lower ceiling was placed in the lobby, the writing tables and lights removed. The clerk windows were closed and clerk-staffed counters were placed in the lobby, along with a variety of “do it yourself” machines that allowed customers to purchase stamps and other materials without waiting in line. While the changes may have modernized mail processing in the building, they were an architectural blight.
After central mail operations moved out of the building in 1986, the U.S. Postal Service began a major renovation of the building, including restoring the lobby to its original design. A glass-enclosed atrium was created and became the central feature of the National Postal Museum. The original USPS renovation plan included adding two and a half floors to the building that could be rented out to shops and restaurants for revenue. But, that part of the plan was rejected by the National Capital Planning Commission in 1987.
The final renovation cost $193 million and included office space for several federal groups, the Bureau of Labor Statistics occupying the bulk of that space. Old office spaces to the south of the public lobby were left empty for a few years after the building opened, and were used from time to time by the museum for public programs and events. A brew pub occupied the space for a number of years before it was turned over to the museum for what is now the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery. Throughout the building’s existence, a post office continued to operate out of it, even during the years of the last renovation in the 1980s-1990s.
1) Washington Times, Bids for the New Postoffice Opened at the Treasury, October 10, 1911, front page.
Written by Nancy A. Pope