C. Bascom Slemp Federal Building, Big Stone Gap, VA

The C. Bascom Slemp Federal Building in Big Stone Gap, Wise County, Virginia is located on an approximately 0.5 acre site at the southwest corner of Wood Avenue and East Fourth Street in the central business district. The building was constructed in 1912 to serve as a Post Office and Courthouse, and continues to be occupied for the same uses, though at present the courtroom is used only intermittently as no judge is currently in residence. Designed in the Second Renaissance Revival style by James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect for the Treasury Department from 1897 to 1912, the elevations rely on the unity of its parts, large scale, symmetry, rhythm and classical ornamentation to define the architectural style.

The north and east elevations front Wood Avenue and East Fourth Street, respectively. The south elevation faces a parking area and the west elevation faces a small green space. The main entrance to the building on the north elevation is marked by a projecting Tuscan-style portico, supported by four pairs of Doric columns, and crowned by a stone balustrade. The three-story building, with full basement, measures 91'-6" wide on the north and south elevations and 63'-8" on the east and west elevations. The building has a rectangular footprint. A minor projection to accommodate the expanded postal loading dock is located at the southwest corner of the building and dates from 1965.

The exterior of the steel-frame and masonry building features a granite water table and is clad with limestone on the first and second floors and stucco at the third. Limestone is also used for ornament and accents throughout. All of the elevations have the same level of craftsmanship, and are similarly composed and detailed in the Second Renaissance Revival style, featuring symmetrical bays and a formal composition of parts organized into horizontal divisions: a plinth of heavy granite blocks, a base section of rusticated ashlar limestone, a two-story smooth stuccoed central section flanked by quoins of smooth-faced limestone, and finally a heavy wood projecting eave crowning the composition. Belt courses, another feature of the Second Renaissance Revival style, are of limestone and appear in two locations: a convex-shaped belt course between the base and the plinth; and a molded belt course between the base and central section. The entablature is composed of two molded cornices separated by a stringcourse of flat limestone panels. Above the entablature, supporting the eave, is a narrow cornice featuring scroll-shaped wood modillions.

The building is topped by a slate shingled hipped roof with a wide eave with copper gutters set in slightly from the perimeter. A limestone-faced chimney is located at the southeast corner of the roof. Small copper-covered barrel-vaulted dormers are located along each elevation, with three on the Wood Avenue facade, two on the side facades, and one at the rear.

The windows are the original wood-framed units. The windows are typically recessed within ornamental surrounds and have a distinct appearance at each floor. The complexity and level of detail in the window design decreases from the first floor up to the third. The basement windows align with the window bays above and are covered with heavy wrought iron grilles. The first floor windows have arched transoms above and an overall tripartite composition. The central portion of these units is a vertical pivot sash flanked by two casement sash. The round-arched transoms have an operable hopper sash. Radiating rusticated stone frames the arches of each first floor window. The second floor windows have one-over-one double-hung sash with transoms above. Each second floor window is framed by a projecting limestone surround with brackets at its base and projecting hood above. The third story windows have one-over-one double-hung sash and are integrated into the facade composition much more simply, set off by a slightly recessed limestone surround, but otherwise unadorned. The tops of the third floor windows regularly interrupt the stone entablature.

The site is located at a prominent corner in the central business district of Big Stone Gap. Along its north, east, and west elevations, the building is set back slightly from the property line. The street faces along the north and east sides of the building contain parallel and diagonal parking, respectively, which are the spaces primarily used by post office patrons. A concrete sidewalk extends along the edge of the property along both the north and east elevations. A concrete switchback ramp at the east elevation and leading to the E. Fourth Street entry provides handicapped access to the building. A boxwood hedge lines the sidewalk along the north and east elevations. The land adjacent to the west elevation is a grass lawn between the Federal Building and the adjacent small commercial building. An older metal building sign is located at the northeast corner of the site facing the intersection. The south portion of the site contains an asphalt parking area for employees and postal vehicles and access to the rear loading dock for postal employees. A small metal shed is located just west of the loading dock.

The floor plans and finishes remain remarkably intact throughout the building interior. The plans and finishes of the upper floors contain much of the original furniture, hardware, and light fixtures. Wood doors, frames, casings, chair rails, picture moldings, and hardwood floors remain with the original stained finish. Original pendant light fixtures, plumbing fixtures, and hardware are also present. The most extensive renovations have occurred at the first floor and basement to meet changing Postal Service requirements over time. The basement houses the mechanical equipment for the building and provides storage and a swing room for postal employees' use. The first floor is exclusively used for postal activity. The second and third floors serve as courtrooms and offices.

The L-shaped public lobby on the first floor features intact marble floor and wainscoting, a coffered ceiling, and ornate cast-iron radiators. A cast-iron cage surrounding an elevator shaft was part of the original construction, but the elevator machinery itself was never installed. The cage was retrofitted extensively in order to accommodate a new elevator in the 1980s, which is present today. The main courtroom on the second floor is centrally located and surrounded on three sides by jury rooms and offices. The judge's chamber is next to the courtroom on the south side of the floor. The courtroom is a monumental double-height chamber with ornamental finishes befitting its importance in the building, including a coffered ceiling, oak wainscot, and its original solid oak furniture. The third floor consists of offices, jury rooms, and a law library.

The Slemp Federal Building in Big Stone Gap, Virginia is situated in the center of the small, commercial downtown at the southwest corner of Wood Avenue and East Fourth Street. Designed as a U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, the building was completed in 1912. Since its construction, the federal building has served as a vital local landmark. The building is named for C. Bascom Slemp, U.S. Congressman representing Virginia's 9th congressional district from 1907 to 1923, Secretary to the President for Calvin Coolidge in 1923 and 1924, and distinguished local figure who had grown up in Big Stone Gap.

This architecturally significant building with its high-quality materials and treatments embodies the nation's emerging identity and optimism in the early twentieth century. Its monumental size given the small town it was constructed in may be partially due to the political influence Mr. Slemp held at the time of its construction. The 1975 nomination to the National Register of Historic Places describes the building's significance thus: "Its size, its architectural excellence, and its ... use of fine materials are unusual for such a small town, especially in an area which was just emerging from a long period of isolation from the outside world. The building's importance is enhanced by the survival of a great quantity of early hardware, plumbing, heating and electrical fixtures, and specially designed furniture." The building has changed little in the forty years since this statement was made and the building continues to be largely original to its date of construction and contains an unusually large amount of historic fabric and features.

The three-story hipped-roofed building was designed under Treasury Department Supervising Architect James Knox Taylor in the Second Renaissance Revival style, a style popular in the early years of the twentieth century. The formal composition relied on the unity of parts, monumental scale, symmetry, rhythm, and classical ornamentation for its architectural effect. The parts of the building were clearly defined and each elevation carefully proportioned to create a dignified and solid character. Although smaller and less ornate than other examples of period federal buildings, the Big Stone Gap building exhibited the monumentality and solidarity associated with the style.

The small town of Big Stone Gap was just twenty-five years old (incorporated in 1888) when the construction of the federal building began. The town was named for the surrounding mountainous region, sited on a gap in the Stone Mountain between the Powell River and the South Fork of the Powell River. The town economy was established and grew based on the presence nearby of what was believed to be a vein of remarkably pure iron (which later turned out to be not very pure and quite hard to access) and on the nearby coal deposits. An iron furnace was erected in the area c. 1891. 1891 also saw the arrival of two rail lines, which ran to depots about a mile from town. To bridge this distance, a small dummy railroad was established to bring passengers and freight into the center of town. This railroad running near the center of town ran down the center of Wood Avenue and is seen in early photos of the federal building. The town boomed for a few years, but soon the bubble burst, before recovering in the early 1900s.

By the turn of the century, population growth spurred the need for a new post office and courthouse, and in 1904, an act of Congress established a United States District Court in Big Stone Gap. A temporary court facility was set up on the second floor of the Goodloe Building, across the street from the present site of the federal building. The first mention of plans for construction of a post office and courthouse in Big Stone Gap appeared in the 1908 Annual Report of the Supervising Architect. Two additional acts of Congress in 1909 and 1911 appropriated budgeted funds for the site and construction of the federal building: $100,000 for the construction and $15,000 for the site. Four lots were purchased from two private joint owners in June 1909 for a total of $6,000. The site offered a 132-foot frontage on Wood Avenue and East Fourth Street.

The design and construction documents for the building were executed under the direction of James Knox Taylor, the Supervising Architect for the U.S. Treasury Department from 1897 to 1912. Taylor also served as the president of the Washington Architectural Club from 1897- 1898. Taylor was born in 1857 in Knoxville, Illinois and was educated in the public schools of St. Paul, Minnesota before receiving his architectural training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before his employment with the government, Taylor established his own firm in St. Paul for a time before moving to Boston and later New York City and spending at least a year working in the office of a prominent architect in Minneapolis and later in the office of Cass Gilbert, a prominent New York architect. Before ascending to the position of Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department, he spent five years as a Senior Draftsman in the same Treasury Department office. During his tenure as the Supervising Architect, Taylor promoted a strong return to the classical style of architecture and was responsible for carrying out the construction of more than 800 federal buildings throughout the country, thus creating a clearly recognizable, strong federal image across the country. Notable buildings constructed under the direction of Taylor include the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office in Altoona, Pennsylvania (1900), the U.S. Post Office in Muskegon, Michigan (1904), and the U.S. Post Office in Oakland, California (1901). The Big Stone Gap building was under construction in 1912, Taylor's final year in office. James A. Wetmore, the acting Supervising Architect (1912-1913) and Oscar Wenderoth, the next Supervising Architect (1913-1915), both supervised the completion of the building. After Taylor's retirement from the Treasury Department, he opened his own architectural office in Boston and served as Director of the Department of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Taylor passed away in 1929 at the age of seventy-two.

The C. Bascom Slemp Federal Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on December 23, 1975. The federal building remains a significant component of the central business district today and still functions as an active post office and houses federal offices. After a period of infrequent court use during the 1970s, the building became an active courthouse again during the 1990s, but has once again reverted to intermittent use during the 2010s as the judge for the region elected to focus court activities in Abingdon, sixty miles to the east.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1911 1912 Original Construction Taylor, James Knox
1965 1965 Loading Dock Addition, Post Office modernization Kearfott, Clarence B.
Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13