Dutch settlers founded Brooklyn in 1645. The village was sparsely populated until 1814, when Robert Fulton's steam ferry first offered a means of commute to Manhattan. Brooklyn Heights became Manhattan's first suburb, and downtown Brooklyn transformed into a thriving commercial district. When the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, residents were afforded another easy way to travel to Manhattan. As the population of Brooklyn grew, residents required a post office to handle the increasing volume of mail.
Planning and design for the new post office began in 1885. Mifflin E. Bell, supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, designed the building in the Romanesque Revival style of architecture, which was commonly used for public buildings at that time. The building originally functioned as both a post office and courthouse with four courtrooms.
Much of the original appropriation for the building was allotted for the purchase of the lot, which is bounded by Cadman Plaza East, Johnson, Adams, and Tillary streets. Therefore, some of the more elaborate architectural details of Bell's original design, such as larger corner towers, were never executed. Construction was completed in 1891; interior spaces were finished in 1892 and the building was occupied. Shortly thereafter, three passenger elevators and a mail lift were installed.
As the population continued to grow, officials determined more space was needed. Because the original building only occupied the southern half of the lot, the addition extended to the north. In 1933, James A. Wetmore, acting supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, designed a compatible addition in a similar style. Two new courtrooms were added as part of the expansion.
The U.S. General Post Office was designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1966 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. In 1999 the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) purchased the building and began extensive renovations that included the addition of new courtrooms and the restoration of historic courtrooms, original windows, numerous site features, and interior and exterior materials. It now houses postal services as well as the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the U.S. Trustee, and the Offices of the U.S. Attorney.
The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in Brooklyn, New York, is an excellent example of Romanesque Revival architecture and is a prominent component of the Municipal Center complex. The original portion of the building is four stories in height and the 1933 addition is seven stories tall. The exterior has remained largely unchanged over time. The lively design of the building contains many character-defining features of the Romanesque Revival style. The central structure contains strong, simple forms with powerful arches dominating the first story. Elaborate dormers, iron roof cresting, steeply pitched roofs, and a tower give the building a picturesque quality.
The exterior of the building is rich in material, texture, form, and ornament. Semi-circular projections called tourelles protrude from the building. Each level is articulated in a slightly different way and distinguished by belt courses that encircle the building. Round arches of polished granite, which feature rosettes and cable moldings, dominate the first story. The arches spring from carved posts with foliated motifs. Rectangular windows surrounded by contrasting trim are on the second floor, while round-arch openings are on the third floor. The fourth story contains steeply pitched dormers with round-arch windows. A slate-covered mansard roof is topped with ornamental ironwork cresting.
The square corner tower rises above the roofline of the original building. Arched openings with semi-circular balconies are topped by an ornate cornice surmounted by a steeply pitched pyramidal roof.
One of the most significant interior spaces is the atrium. It is located in the center of the 1892 portion of the building and extends from the second to fourth floors. The atrium is enclosed by a three-level loggia. Each level of the loggia is supported by cast-iron columns that are adorned with acanthus and anthemion leaf motifs.
The main staircase is in the northeast corner of the original building. A decorative cast-iron balustrade with lantern-style newel posts encases soapstone treads. The stairwell walls are clad in mahogany Tennessee marble wainscot, and the floors are covered with black and white marble tiles laid on the diagonal.
The walls of the 1892 courtrooms are also covered with mahogany Tennessee marble wainscot with black soap-stone bands with a marble bead. Large round-arch windows have carved wood mullions and are operated by cast-metal pulls with griffin-head motifs. One of the courtrooms contains a marble and soapstone fireplace, which has a carved leaf pattern and marble mantel. Fireplaces are also in some of the original office spaces.
Some interior spaces have been altered over time. During World War II, a skylight and laylight that originally illuminated the postal work floor were covered to comply with black-out laws implemented to protect the country from enemy bombings. In 1980, the monumental lobby of the original building was altered and most features removed. To accommodate the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and U.S. Attorneys, GSA began an extensive renovation project in 1999. A U-shaped green-glass and aluminum curtain wall was added to the 1933 portion of the building in 2003, forming an interior atrium that, along with new skylights, admits natural light. GSA also refurbished interior stone, metal, plaster, and wood finishes; restored historic windows and doors; and added three new courtrooms. On the exterior, the cast-iron roof cresting was repaired and historically appropriate street-lights were installed on the site. The design, which was completed by R.M. Kliment & Frances Halsband Architects, received a 1998 Design Award citation from GSA.
1885-1892: Building constructed
1933: Addition constructed to the north of the original building
1966: Building designated a New York City Landmark
1974: Building listed in the National Register of Historic Places
1892: Building occupied; three passenger elevators and a mail lift installed
1999-2005: GSA purchases the building and undertakes renovations
Location: 271 Cadman Plaza East
Architects: Mifflin E. Bell; James A. Wetmore; R.M. Kliment & Frances Halsband Architects
Construction Dates: 1885-1892;1933; 1999-2005
Architectural Style: Romanesque Revival
Landmark Status: Designated as a New York City Landmark; Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Primary Material: Granite
Prominent Features: Square corner tower; Picturesque silhouette
The extant U.S. Post Office and Courthouse consists of the original structure and an addition. The original building, constructed between 1885 and 1892, is heavily influenced by Romanesque architecture. It measures approximately 230 feet by 130 feet. The four-story structure (plus basement) is composed entirely of granite masonry block with brick back-up and wood windows. Constructed of Bodwell Blue Granite supplied by the Bodwell Granite Company from a quarry in Vinalhaven, Maine, the first floor consists of rock-faced granite and the upper floors and dormers are constructed of honed granite. The mansard roof consists of black slate from Monson, Maine, lead coated copper gutters and flashing, and decorative iron ridge cresting. The highest level of ornamentation is located at the original monumental arched entrance on Johnson Street, where intricately carved panels are located above the entrance, including a sculpted eagle, and at the tourettes that flank it. In general, the simple rectangular form is augmented with carved scroll and leaf details at the arched and rectangular windows and entrances, belt courses, and dormers. A 180 foot square tower, located at the southwest corner of the site, was typical of federal buildings of the time and is a notable feature of the original structure. Over the years, no major alterations have compromised the integrity of the 1892 facades and roof leaving the original aesthetic intact.
The interior of the original building consists of eclectic public and private spaces situated around a central four-story atrium and skylight. Many of the decorative details at the interior, including the scroll and leaf motif and lion’s head, emulate ornamentation at the granite exterior. The highly decorative atrium, lobby, stairs, courtrooms, and offices consists of carved marble and wood window and door surrounds, marble or wood wainscot, composite columns and railings, marble floors, and plaster walls and ceiling painted in polychromatic earth tones with gold or bronze accents.
The original building’s atrium was located in the center of the building and encompassed the second to the fourth floors. The atrium was roofed by a skylight with ornamental metal brackets, and a lay light was located below the skylight over the first floor. According to the Building Preservation Plan completed in 1995, the skylight and laylight were removed due to black-out laws, which were in effect during World War II. This has not been confirmed by other documentation. In addition, the skylights could have been removed due to maintenance issues. The interior of the 1892 building was successfully restored in 2005, which involved reconstruction of many of the original finishes and the atrium.
A seven-story addition (plus basement), built between 1929 and 1933, was constructed on the north side of the 1892 building and extends to Tillary Street. The U-shaped plan measures approximately 230 feet by 190 feet. More than tripling the size of the original site, the addition employed the latest building technology by integrating traditional materials like stone and wood with modern materials like steel, concrete, and terra cotta creating an almost seamless extension of the original. Similar, albeit less decorative, ornamentation at the arched windows, belt courses, and dormers complement the original in profile, color, texture, and overall appearance.
The exterior envelope of the addition consists of granite masonry block with brick back-up at the exposed basement, first floor, second floor window surrounds and transition bays. The granite used for the addition was Goss Pink Deer Isle Granite from a quarry in Stonington, ME, which was believed to be the closest match to the original. By the 1930s, the Bodwell Granite Company, suppliers of the original granite, was no longer in existence.
The second to seventh floors consist of terra cotta cladding, brick masonry back-up, mild steel supports, and wood windows. The use of terra cotta at the upper floors was typical in mid to high rise construction from this time period. Terra cotta, a material manufactured to imitate the appearance of stone, was used extensively in building construction from the 1880s to the 1930s. As the cost of materials and labor increased, terra cotta became a more cost effective alternative to natural stone. The terra cotta used for the addition was supplied by the Federal Seaboard Terra Cotta Corporation and manufactured in Woodbridge, NJ. The terra cotta was finished to match the color and texture of the new Goss Pink Deer Isle Granite.
The structure is a composite of steel and concrete frame with a concrete floor joist system. Three thousand tons of steel used in the construction were supplied by Bethlehem Steel and rolled and fabricated in their plant in Bethlehem, PA and 20,000 barrels of cement were supplied by Keystone Portland Cement Company in Bath, PA.
The mansard roof at the addition is comprised of black slate tiles over wood decking, wood sleepers, and a poured concrete deck. The structure is a composite of steel and concrete frame with a concrete floor joist system. The tiles are Monson Maine slate tiles supplied by the Monson Slate Company and the gutters and flashing are composed of lead-coated copper.
Over the years, no major alterations have compromised the integrity of the 1933 facades and roof leaving the original character intact.
The lightwell, not seen from street level, consisted of non-decorative materials and no ornamentation. As part of the restoration in 2005, the facades at the lightwell were demolished and a four-story glass and steel curtainwall was constructed.
The interior of the 1933 addition consisted of finishes less decorative than the 1892 building, but typical of civic architecture in the 1930s. Typical materials included marble veneer, terrazzo floors, plaster walls and ceilings, wood wainscot, and brass details. As part of the restoration in 2005, the original finishes were removed in their entirety and replaced with contemporary materials. The only space known to retain original finishes is the Postal Lobby at the first floor.
The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse has been an icon of civic architecture in downtown Brooklyn for over 100 years. The building is a fine example of Romanesque Revival architecture and serves as a legacy to architecture of the Federal Government at the turn of the 20th century.
The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is located at 271 Cadman Plaza East in the civic center of the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood in close proximity to historic Borough Hall and the Brooklyn Bridge. The building occupies an entire city block bounded by Tillary Street (north), Adams Street (east), Johnson Street (south), and Cadman Plaza East (west), formerly Washington Street.
With the exterior intact and largely unaltered and the recent interior restoration, the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse has, with time, increased in historical and architectural significance. As a result, it was designated as a local Historical Landmark in the City of New York in 1966 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.