Federal Building, U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, Hilo, HI

Federal Building, Hilo, Hawaii

Building History

Prior to the annexation of the islands by the United States in 1898, Hilo was a thriving educational and commercial center on Hawaii, the largest of the Hawaiian Islands. Flourishing agricultural enterprises were augmented by railroads and improved harbors that facilitated trade with both the continental United States and East Asia. Postal services in Hilo commenced in 1858. However, when the Hawaiian Islands became a territory of the United States in 1900, officials determined that both postal and court facilities should be expanded to better serve citizens and to reinforce the image of Hilo as an influential city. By 1913, the Hilo Board of Trade and the territory's governmental representative secured $200,000 to fund the construction of a new federal building.

New York architect Henry Whitfield designed the new building in 1915. Whitfield, who was Andrew Carnegie's brother-in-law, had just completed the design for the Honolulu Carnegie Library. Whitfield designed the building in the Mediterranean Renaissance Revival style, which blends traditional classical architecture with features more suited to a tropical climate. The building was one of the first in Hawaii constructed using reinforced concrete, a technology that was common on the mainland. Construction was completed and the building occupied in 1917. It originally functioned as a courthouse, post office, and custom house. Other tenants included the Immigration Bureau, Agricultural Extension Service, Weather Bureau, and Internal Revenue Service.

By the 1930s, tenants required more space and two wings were added to the building between 1936 and 1938. Louis A. Simon, supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury, designed the wings in a style compatible with that of the original building. In 1978, the majority of postal functions moved to a new location, and the following year the Third Circuit Court vacated its courtroom on the third floor, which was subsequently converted into offices. The Federal Building, U.S. Post office and Courthouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.


The Federal Building, U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in Hilo, Hawaii, is located on the northern edge of the downtown on a lot bounded by Waianuenue Avenue, Wailuku Drive, and Kinoole and Kekaulike streets. It is particularly noteworthy for its use of reinforced concrete, and it is one of the earliest buildings in the area to be constructed of permanent materials. Architect Henry Whitfield's skillful design blends classically inspired forms and motifs with features that are suitable for the warm Hawaiian climate.

The reinforced concrete building is covered with painted stucco. The original building is rectangular, and the wing additions extend forward from the facade to form a U-shaped footprint. The facade is organized around a central courtyard. The building is three stories in height with a penthouse. Open-air loggias, which are divided into three distinct levels, face the courtyard and provide building occupants with pleasant views and circulating air currents. The loggias also function as exterior corridors and provide primary circulation for building occupants. One of the building's most appealing features is a two-story colonnade supported by monumental Tuscan columns. The colonnade is located on elevations facing the courtyard and supports the loggia on the first and second stories, while simple, square piers support the third-level loggia. Wrought-iron balusters are located on the first and second floors on portions of the colonnade. Decorative elements within the courtyard, including colorful mosaic tiles and urns, emphasize the Mediterranean Renaissance Revival style of the building, which blends classical and exotic motifs. Wrought-iron light fixtures are located on the building, and a wrought-iron grille with a gilded eagle tops the entrance to the postal lobby.

The exterior is divided into horizontal zones by water tables and stringcourses, a feature common to Renaissance Revival architecture. Classically inspired limestone surrounds highlight prominent features, such as windows and entrances, on the wings. Another colonnade (now enclosed with operable windows) is located on the rear. The penthouse contains a clerestory, or band of windows, that admits light into the interior of the third story. There are five skylights on the building, including one on the penthouse roof, that also serve to illuminate the interior. The roof is covered with green glazed tiles.

The majority of interior spaces within the Federal Building, U.S. Post office and Courthouse open onto the loggias, which provide necessary air circulation. The original postal service spaces on the first level contain gray-veined, white marble floors. Walls and ceilings are covered with painted plaster. Changes to the interior have been made to integrate new technology and to accommodate changing uses of the building. Elevators have been added over time, including the island's first passenger elevator in 1950. After the courts vacated the building, the courtroom was transformed into office space.

The landscape of the building is also skillfully planned. Though developed as part of the initial construction, much of the landscape design was not executed until the wings were built. The grounds are lushly planted with numerous native plants. Retaining walls constructed of indigenous lava stone are also on the property. On Memorial Day in 1922, the American Legion planted 17 royal palms along Kekaulike Street to commemorate Hawaiian citizens who died in World War I.

Significant Events

1898: United States annexes Hawaii

1936-1938: Three-story wings constructed

1915-1917: Federal Building, U.S. Post Office and Courthouse constructed

1974: Building listed in the National Register of Historic Places

1978: Main post office vacates building

1979: Third Circuit Court vacates building

Building Facts

Location: 154 Waianuenue Avenue

Architects: Henry Whitfield, Louis A. Simon

Construction Dates: 1915-1917; 1936-1938

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Architectural Style: Mediterranean Renaissance Revival

Primary Material: Concrete

Prominent Features: Two-story Tuscan Colonnade; Courtyard

Federal Building, Hilo, Hawaii

The Federal Building, U.S. Post Office and Courthouse occupies the block bounded by Waianuenue, Kinoole, Wailuku, and Kekualike Streets, at the northern end of downtown Hilo. It is three stories above grade, with a partial basement below. U-shaped, the building is oriented around a courtyard which is open to Waianuenue Street on the south. The design is symmetrical in the Classical Revival style, overlaid with elements suggestive of the Mediterranean tradition - an acknowledgement of the tropical climate of Hawaii. Landscaped areas of lawn and shrubbery surround the structure on three sides, with a paved parking area in the rear (north).

The structure of the federal building is entirely of reinforced concrete, with slabs supported by bearing walls and columns. Interior partitions are of plastered terra cotta clay tile. Painted stucco, textured in some places and applied thinly enough to reveal the concrete formwork in others, constitutes the exterior finish. Limestone surrounds emphasize prominent architectural features of the new wings, such as the stacked windows on the south elevations and the entries from the courtyard to the stairwells. Sandstone was used for column bases. Secondary materials include wrought iron for railings, grilles, and light fixtures; copper for gutters, leader boxes, and downspouts; marble, terra cotta tile, and terrazzo for flooring and stairs in the circulation spaces; lava stone for paving and site retaining walls; and concrete with lava stone aggregate for stairs, curbs, and sidewalks. Windows are painted wood double-hung sash, except for the steel framed sash used to fill in the arcades of the loading area. Most doors are oak, with a clear varnished finish. A truncated hipped roof, covered in green glazed terra cotta tiles, caps the building; the flat portions of the roof are covered in standing seam copper sheets.

Viewed from the front (south), the building is symmetrical in composition. The dominant feature is the two-story Tuscan colonnade, five bays wide and four bays deep on the east and west sides of the courtyard, forming a three-sided peristyle. Above the colonnade are piers, on axis with the columns below, which define the loggias of the third floor. Solid railings connect the piers. On the first and second floors, emphasizing the monumentality of the columns, the loggias are defined by wrought iron railings set into the bay spaces. Rising above the main roof over the center of the rear wing is a penthouse surmounted by a tiled, hipped roof. It forms a clerestory over the third floor courtroom, containing nine arched windows on its north and south sides, and seven on the east and west.

Street elevations are divided horizontally by a projecting band/water table which terminates the base, and by a pair of stringcourses at the third story floor and window sill levels. This Renaissance Revival device has the effect of combining the first and second stories visually, while diminishing the apparent height of the third story. A single, offset bay of stacked windows - with a limestone surround - appears on the south elevations of the wings. The east and west elevations, mirror images of each other, each contain seven bays of openings, in varying sizes and combinations. Entries from the east and west into the postal lobby are placed in the southernmost bays of the original building (third bay from the north). At grade on the west, the matching entry on the east is furnished with a monumental staircase due to the slope of the site toward the east. On the rear (north) elevation are eight bays, the central four forming the loading area for the post office; these bays (now enclosed with steel sash above and rolling doors below) originally formed a two-story arcade projecting one and a half bays in front of the rest of this elevation. A canopy has been added over the rolling doors of the dock; it is suspended on rods extending down from the columns of the arcade.

The courtyard loggias serve dual purposes as the principal horizontal circulation elements and, on the rear wing, as lobbies for the post office and the courtroom. Since the second stories of the south wings correspond to an interior mezzanine level of the rear (original) wing, there are no linkages on this level. Vertical circulation in the rear wing is provided by stairs which rise from the basement to the third floor, located at the entry vestibules to the east and west ends of the post office lobby. Additional staircases rise from the first to the third floors at the southern ends of the added wings. An elevator was inserted in the well of the western original stair in 1948; two more elevators were added adjacent to the two southern staircases in 1994.

Almost all of the interior spaces of the building open directly onto the loggias. These include the two principal spaces, the post office service windows and boxes on the first level, and the former double height courtroom on the third. The post office area includes a mezzanine level housing the inspectors' gallery, a break room for staff, and two large restrooms. The other interior hallway in the building (except for part of the basement) is U-shaped and surrounds the courtroom on the third floor, providing private access to minor stairs, judge's offices, and court support facilities opening along its outer perimeter. The remainder of the building's interior space is occupied by the rectangular offices, some interconnected, which open directly off the three levels of the loggias. There is also a toilet room opening off each level of each loggia.

Although it appears to be a unified whole, the Federal Building was actually constructed in two stages. The original construction, in 1917, consisted of a rectangular building, its long dimension extending east to west, at approximately mid-block. This portion forms the rear (north) wing of the current U-shaped building configuration. It featured a seven bay colonnade, terminated by projecting bays with rounded corners. The end bays contained open stair cases. In 1936-38 two wings were added in front of the end stair bays of the original south facade, extending to the south and forming the three-sided, south-facing courtyard of the present building. These wings added approximately 21,000SF to the building, bringing its total area to approximately 50,000SF. At the same time, the two-story mailing platform arcade was enclosed with steel-framed operable sash, and a canopy was added over the loading doors. The wrought iron gates which originally closed off the east and west stairwell lobbies were removed and replaced with doors at the east and west elevations, leaving access to these stairs through the courtyard uncontrolled.

The Hilo Federal Building, U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is remarkably intact, exhibiting few changes since 1938. Principal alterations include the aforementioned elevators added in 1948 and 1994; addition of an accessibility ramp at the west entry; renovation of the first floor toilets for accessibility in 1974; expansion of the postal lobby box bay in 1984; installation of suspended ceilings and new lighting fixtures in various office areas; vacation of the courtroom, converting it into general office space with the addition of a lowered ceiling and raised flooring; addition of window air conditioners at various locations; and removal of some features such as wooden panels at the eaves due to termite damage.

Federal Building, Hilo, Hawaii

The historic U.S. Post Office, Custom House and Courthouse, now known as the Federal Building, U.S Post Office and Courthouse in Hilo, Hawaii is significant in the local context for two reasons: its role in politics and government, and its architectural character. Since its completion in 1917, this single building has been a main local representative of the federal government, first in the territory and later in the state of Hawaii. It houses agencies responsible for federal policies and services that originate over 6,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. The architectural style of the Federal Building, combining the classicism characteristic of Treasury Department buildings with regional elements, is particularly noteworthy. The original design was provided by New York architect Henry Davis Whitfield, and it served as the model for the Treasury Department architects who designed the major additions of 1936-38. The building is also notable for its reinforced concrete construction, an aspect noted in the nomination, which resulted in the listing of the Federal Building in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Hawaii was annexed to the United States in 1898 and achieved territorial status in 1900. Prior to that time, Hilo, the largest settlement on the island of Hawaii, had developed as an educational, missionary, and commercial center for all the Hawaiian Islands. The completion of a railroad on the Big Island (as Hawaii itself is called) along with a burgeoning agricultural industry and harbor improvements, resulted in an increase of trade and connections with both the U.S. Mainland and the Orient at the end of the 19th century. The existing facilities for the Post Office, first established in Hilo in 1858 during the reign of King Kamehameha IV, as well as for the Territorial Court, had been outgrown by the turn of the century. Moreover, the old U.S. Courthouse, built in 1869, and the rented quarters that housed the U.S. Post Office in a commercial building, did not suit the perception fostered by local boosters of Hilo as an up-and-coming town, rivaling Honolulu in influence. By late 1912 or early 1913, the Hilo Board of Trade, supported by the Territory's Congressional representative, succeeded in obtaining an appropriation of $200,000 for the construction of a new Federal Building.

Preparations for the new building moved ahead swiftly, the site having been acquired and cleared by the federal government a few years previously. The selection of architect Henry Davis Whitfield was apparently also made without delay, as plans were submitted to the Treasury Department by September, 1913. Whitfield, the brother-in-law of industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, had just completed the design of the Honolulu Carnegie Library. Little is known about Whitfield, whose documented commissions, mostly located on the East Coast of the U.S., number less than a dozen. His most celebrated design appears to have been for the Engineers' Club in New York City. Photographs of this and other Whitfield buildings show the architect to have been adept at the classical styles, as well as interested in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Both influences are observable in the original designs for the Hilo Federal Building, U.S. Post Office and Courthouse. However, when the Campbell Building Company of Salt Lake City was awarded the contract in April, 1914, changes in the materials specified for the exterior, especially details of windows and eaves, had the effect of reducing the Arts and Crafts aspects of the design.

As completed in 1917, the building was a two story rectangle in the Classical Revival style. A colossal Tuscan colonnade spanned most of the facade and faced a deep front setback punctuated by radiating walkways. Green terracotta tile roofs and open loggias which served both as circulation and as lobby spaces recognized the tropical climate. It is interesting to note, in this regard, that there is no record of Whitfield ever having visited the site. Herbert Caton Cohen served as Supervising Architect for the Treasury Department. Reinforced concrete construction, although an accepted technology on the Mainland, was uncommon in Hawaii; this is one of the earliest examples in the area.

The final phases of the construction had been set back - and some aspects of the design not executed, such as the finishing of the interior of the courtroom - as a result of the United States' entry into World War I. Nevertheless, in March of 1917, the federal building was formally opened. Its occupants were the U.S. Post Office, U.S. Customs Service, the Territorial Circuit Court, the Immigration Bureau, the Agricultural Extension Service, the Weather Bureau, and the Internal Revenue Service.

Early in the 1930's the need for additional space on the part of several of the tenants resulted in the planning and subsequent construction of two additional wings perpendicular to the main south facade of the Federal Building. The additions were designed under the aegis of Treasury Supervising Architect Louis A. Simon, and they closely adhered to the 1917 scheme in design and materials. The three stories of the additions correspond to the first, mezzanine, and third floors of the original building. A U-shaped building with a deep front courtyard overlooked by open loggias on three sides was the result. Landscaping, which had not been fully realized in 1917, was also completed, including memorial plaques for veterans of "The Great War."

The Hilo Federal Building, U.S. Post Office and Courthouse stands today substantially as it did following the completion of the 1930's improvements. It still houses federal agencies, although the main U.S. Post Office was moved to a new building near the local airport in 1978, leaving a branch operation in its place. The Third Circuit Court vacated its courtroom and ancillary facilities on the third floor in 1979. From the first, the federal building has been a prominent landmark in Hilo and a source of pride for the citizenry. Located on the edge of the city's downtown historic district, the Federal Building, U.S. Post Office and Courthouse retains its active role in the life of the city.

Description Architect
1914 1917 Original Construction Henry Davis Whitfield
1936 East/West Wings added, courtyard expanded U.S.Treasury - Louis A.Simon
1974 Carpet offices/interior corridors; paint interior
1975 Modernize 2/3 floor lights/finishes; new skylights
1976 Accessibility improvements: ramps/toilets/signage
1977 Add sprinklers in basement
1977 Repair walks/steps; repair earthquake damage
1982 Repair downspouts/replace roofing/reinstall tile
1983 Paint loggias/exterior trim/interior stairs, halls
1984 Renovate ISA, USCG, expand P.O. boxes,
1987 Repave parking; site landscaping
1988 Restore E/W entrance doors; repair flr'g./fountain
1988 Paint int/ext; repair roof flashing/gutters;carpet
1992 New carpet; retrofit fluorescent fixtures
1994 Add 2 accessible elevators
1995 New fire alarm
Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13