Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Binghamton

Building History

Completed in 1935 during the Great Depression, the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, originally called the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, embodies the government's desire to deliver a quality federal presence to growing American downtown despite economic challenges.

Binghamton's earlier post office was located on the banks of the Chenango River, an area that by the early twentieth century was no longer convenient to the central business district developing closer to the Susquehanna River to the south. Property for the new federal building was acquired in 1916 for $100,000, but building plans ceased with the intervention of World War I. Further delays in authorization kept the project dormant until 1932.

The overall parameters of the building were overseen by Supervising Architect of the Treasury Louis A. Simon. The building's construction was originally authorized under the Public Buildings Act of 1926 that allocated $165 million for the construction of new federal buildings across the country. However, the Keyes-Elliott Bill of 1930, an amendment to the 1926 act, permitted private firms such as local Binghamton firm Conrad and Cummings to compete for certain federal projects. This brief window of opportunity, welcomed by private firms during the Depression, ended in 1934 when government architects resumed responsibility for federal buildings.

The architecture firm of Conrad and Cummings was founded in 1926. Charles Conrad was educated at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and had designed institutional buildings such as the Binghamton Elks Lodge and the local Masonic Temple. Partner George Bain Cummings, who also specialized in institutional architecture, served as president of the American Institute of Architects from 1955 to 1956.

The construction contract was awarded in July 1934 and the building was completed in 1935. In 1967, post office operations relocated to a new facility. Portions of the building have been substantially remodeled, although the principal public areas retain many historic finishes. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing building to the State Street - Henry Street Historic District in 1986.


Architecture

Louis A. Simon, superintendent of Treasury Department's Architectural Division from 1905 to 1933, and its supervising architect from 1933 to 1939, advocated the credo, "moderne traditionalized, the traditional modernized." As demonstrated upon the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, in the 1930s the government advocated a version of Classical architecture conveying dignity and authority but simplified in detail and materials. This reduced construction material and labor costs and simultaneously reflected the growing influence of Modernism and the exuberant Art Deco style. The Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse exemplifies this multivalent directive for public works projects initiated by the United States government during the Great Depression. The Art Deco influence is seen in the details animating the composition, while the formal distribution of elements references Classical architecture.

The steel-framed building's principal cladding materials are Indiana limestone above a granite base; a common, economic, and durable combination typical of 1930s regional federal buildings. The U-shaped footprint of the four-story structure is also representative of its day. The basement and first floor covers the entire ground floor footprint, above which the building rises in three wings wrapping the central light court. This court is fenestrated with roof monitors and saw tooth skylights, illuminating the post office's main workroom.

The building's austere and temple-like facade consists of a seven-bay-wide, three-story colonnade surmounted by a continuous Greek key frieze. The centered entrance-way grouping is recessed behind the monumental lime-stone colonnade. Each of the three entries has a carved marble surround with inset panels of cast-iron semi-circular scallops set below larger panels each depicting an Art Deco styled American eagle.

The colonnade's rhythm is sustained on the identical east and west elevations in alternating vertical bands of limestone and consistent fenestration. This is comprised of one tall and two shorter, identical windows, each separated by a fairly wide spandrel panel of cast iron Art Deco decoration with extruded scallops. The facade's colonnade is flanked on each side by one unit of this window system. On the north, the original recessed loading dock was enclosed in 1960 and is now infilled with brick, creating a flush building plane up to the mezzanine level.

While much of the interior has been changed, two principal public areas, the lobby and the second floor courtroom, feature their original finishes. The range of marbles used in the lobby is striking, with a prominent use of American Pavanazzo, a green-veined white marble. Other notable details include the lobby's original Deco-style bronze, copper, and glass pendant light fixtures. It is enriched with a field of brown terrazzo bordered by one-inch marble tiles and verde (green) antique marble. Commissioned by the Treasury Department Section of Fine Arts, eight murals painted by artist and Cornell University art professor Kenneth Leland Washburn (1904-1989) on the lobby's upper walls depict scenes pertaining to local agriculture, industry, transportation, and the U.S. mail service.

The original entry doors into the double-height second floor courtroom are clad in vinyl with brass studs, brass kickplates, and oval windows. A paneled oak wainscot, beneath rhythmically placed paired and single wood pilasters, surrounds the courtroom. The judge's bench, gallery benches and turned spindle court rail are original. Behind the judge's bench, the entry to the judge's chambers has a wood pediment detailed with fretwork and molding, supported by wood columns. The courtroom's ceiling is paneled and features decorative cast iron grilles, also with fretwork, and original light fixtures.

History

1916: Property for a new federal building acquired

1932: Building authorized

1934-1935: Building constructed

1967: Post Office operations relocate

1986: Building listed in National Register of Historic Places as a contributing building to the State Street - Henry Street Historic District

Building Facts

Location: 15 Henry Street

Architect: Conrad and Cummings

Construction Dates: 1934-1935

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing building to the State Street - Henry Street Historic District

Architectural Style: Neoclassical with Art Deco influences

Primary Materials: Indiana limestone and granite

Prominent Features: Three-story colonnade; Double-height courtroom with original finishes; Original lobby murals

Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Binghamton

The Binghamton Federal Building and Courthouse is an Art Deco interpretation of a classical style. It is a 4 story, 105,000 square foot limestone veneer building on a granite base. The primary (south) elevation consists of a seven bay wide, three story high pilastered surmounted by a fretwork band, or belt course, running along the south (main), east and west elevations. Side elevations (east and west) on public streets are divided into alternating vertical bays of limestone and fenestration, giving the effect of a full height pilastered along both sides. The fenestration is a vertical system of Venetian styled three-bay double-hung steel windows connected vertically by cast iron spandrel panels. The plan is typical of U.S. Post Offices and Courthouses with a basement and first floor which comprise the total ground floor footprint, above which the building rises in three wings creating a U-shape around a central light court, open at the rear. Other detailing includes carved marble door surrounds with large relief panels of Art Deco styled eagles above each of the original three entry doors. The "Deco" stylized cast iron spandrel panels separating the windows at each floor level have an Art Deco motif of extruded semi-circular scallops. The three main entry doors are set back from the wall plane of the south elevation, behind the massive limestone pilasters. A handicap ramp has been added at the west end of the main (south) elevation, but the automatic doors have been installed at the opposite end of the south facade, requiring the impaired user to ascend the ramp on the west corner, then traverse the width of the narrow exterior vestibule to reach the automatic doors. The open end of the U-shaped plan of the building is oriented to the north. The materials and detailing of the east and west elevations return around to the north facade and continue as on the other elevations. The returns form visual towers at the east and west. At the first floor the top of the "U" is filled by what was originally the postal loading dock, which was recessed slightly from the building lines. Above the dock is the mezzanine level which is flush with the building plane and provided cover for the loading dock. The recessed loading dock has now been filled in with brick, creating a flush building wall to the top of the mezzanine level. The interior of the building has two main areas which have retained original finishes: the lobby and the courtroom. The lobby floors are of green-veined white marble, having the characteristics of American Pavanazzo, bordered (around the perimeter) with verde antique-type marble, which is also used as a base. Walls are paneled with white Dover marble up to the 8' level, above which are 5' high murals depicting classical scenes related to agriculture, industry, transportation and the U.S. Mail Service. The lobby is lit by three original Deco style bronze and glass pendants consisting of a 2' high cylinder of glass rods banded by bronze bands of fretwork and suspended from a 4' brass rod intersected by 3 copper discs. The bottom of the fixture is enclosed by a circular 4-section frosted glass panel into which is etched a star pattern. The central entry to the lobby is a wood and brass revolving door housed in an ornate wood entry vestibule. Opposite the entry doors are openings from the public lobby into what was originally the postal lobby. The jambs and heads of the openings are clad in verde antique-type marble, detailed as columns. Above each opening is a panel of American Pavanazzo type marble, bronze grille and verde antique-type marble top. The former postal lobby, spanning virtually the full east-west length of the lobby, has now been reduced to three bays. Each bay is delineated on the floor by a field of brown terrazzo bordered by three rows of 1" marble tiles and divided by bands of verde antique marble, all combining to give these floors a very rich appearance. Walls were formerly heavily veined white Dover marble, punctuated by postal teller windows and boxes. Windows and boxes have been removed and infilled with white Dover marble removed from the former bays. There is a marble chair rail on the north, east and west walls of the former postal lobby. The ceiling has a shallow vault intersected by fluted arched bands crossing the ceiling. Plaster crown molding runs along the base of the ceiling on the north and south sides. The main stairway leading from the first floor lobby to the second floor courtroom lobby is the most elaborately finished of any in the building. An arched doorway leads to the stairway on the north side of the elevator, on the west side of the entry lobby. The risers, treads and stringers are finishes with verde antique marble. Also of note are the stainless steel handrails. The courtroom on the 2nd floor is largely intact. The original courtroom floor was cork of alternating light and dark 12"x12" squares. The floor was bordered with verde antique marble, which also formed a base for the courtroom rail, and for door thresholds. This floor is currently carpeted over. The ceiling is a large simple plaster paneled one in a rectangular pattern. There are two decorative cast iron ceiling grilles at the third points of the ceiling. There are six original light fixtures spaced equiv-distantly and suspended from the courtroom ceiling. Paneled oak wainscot surrounds the courtroom, breaking at doorways and at radiator enclosures beneath each window. Paired and single wood pilasters articulate the door openings, corners, and are evenly spaced between. The wall behind the judge's bench has a wood pediment and columns at the door to the judge's chambers from the bench. There is a fret inlay and carved wood molding detailing the pediment. Most of the furnishings are original. The rest of the interior is either significantly altered or of a utilitarian nature. The basement is finished for office space in some areas and contains the service equipment in others. The basement corridor has grey painted concrete floors, and painted plaster walls. The ceilings are exposed concrete waffle slab with exposed piping. The office spaces are typically finished with commercial grade carpet, painted plaster walls and dropped acoustical ceilings with flush fluorescent fixtures. The tenant space areas of the building have been heavily altered over the years. The general floor plan has been retained, but most original features and finishes have been removed. In the corridors, the original flooring has been replaced with commercial grade carpet; the carpeting has been turned up the wall to form a baseboard. Corridor ceilings are dropped acoustical with flush fluorescent fixtures. The office spaces are finished, typically, with commercial grade carpet, painted plaster walls, and dropped acoustical ceilings with flush fluorescent fixtures. The second floor retains some original finishes at the elevator lobby, such as marble elevator door surrounds and window sills. An east-west corridor has been formed by partitions which originate at the north end of the second floor lobby. The court entry has been completely obscured by contemporary materials and finishes typical of the building's tenants.

Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Binghamton

The Binghamton Federal Building/Courthouse is significant because of its representation of a specific period of Federal construction; it is also significant because it is a symbol of the Federal presence in Binghamton. Simply stated by the Binghamton Press, October 1, 1935, the building " ... will provide this city for the first time in its history with adequate and convenient postal facilities as well as suitable space for the Federal District Court and Federal Offices." The Federal Building is listed on the National Register as a part of the State Street/Henry Street Historic District.

Early in the 20th century, a new Post Office building was proposed for Binghamton. A site for a Post Office was needed closer to the central business district than the original Post Office which was located on the banks of the Chenango River. Property was acquired in 1916 for $100,000. Plans did not proceed due to World War I and, later, a halt to authorizations of spending for public buildings. In 1932 the Treasury Department again considered constructing a Post Office on the site.

A local architectural firm, Conrad and Cummings, was awarded the contract to design the building. The Public Buildings Act of 1926 specified that the Supervising Architect of the Department of the Treasury would be responsible for the design of all public buildings. Occasionally, a private architectural firm was hired to design a public building. Perhaps, due to the failure of over half the nation's architectural firms in the Depression, the design of public buildings by local firms was encouraged by the early 1930s. It is generally believed that the austere and standardized plan of the building was due to the fact that Louis Simon, Supervising Architect of the Treasury, was said to have a great deal of control over the design.

The contract for construction was awarded to Coath and Goss, a Chicago firm, in July of 1934. The amount was for $448,200. The building was completed in October of 1935.
 

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1935 Original Construction Conrad and Cummings
1960 Postal loading dock enclosed unknown
1987 Murals cleaned Unknown