Federal Building and U.S. Post Office, Spokane, Washington

Building History

The Federal Building and U.S. Post Office in Spokane, Washington, opened in October 1909. It was the first major federal building constructed in the "Inland Empire" that encompasses portions of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. The growing city of Spokane needed a larger post office and space for Federal offices. The federal government acquired the West Riverside Avenue and Lincoln Street site in 1903 for a cost of $100,000. James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, designed the building in 1906 and 1907. Construction began in 1908 and was completed in 1909.

President William Taft visited the building just prior to its public opening in the fall of 1909. He praised the building's "simplicity, beauty and solidity" In early October, postal workers closed the old facility at Post street and Monroe Avenue and moved records and equipment to the new building in approximately two days with only minimal interruptions to patrons.

Only four months after the post office opened, rats were discovered in the basement. To remedy the problem, seven cats were allowed to live in the building, and the postmaster received $18 annually for each cat's care and feeding. The cats lived in the post office for at least one year, although no one is sure when the rat problem was solved.

As Spokane continued to grow and postal activity expanded, city officials realized the need to enlarge the building. The site directly north of the existing building was purchased and an addition was completed in 1941. The addition was designed by Louis A. Simon, Supervising Architect of the Public Buildings Administration of the Federal Works Administration.

In 1994, a modernization effort was completed. High efficiency lighting, modern elevators, and new HVAC equipment were installed. Important interior public spaces also underwent renovation and restoration.

The Federal Building and U.S. Post Office was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. In 2004, the building won The Office Building of the Year Award in the historic category from the Building Owners and Managers Association Northwest Region.

Architecture

The Federal Building and U.S. Post Office in Spokane, Washington, skillfully blends elements of two styles of architecture. Beaux Arts Classicism and Second Renaissance Revival were popular styles in the early years of the twentieth century. Both styles were often executed on monumental public buildings and feature rusticated ground floors and balustrades. The building's architect, James Knox Taylor, was a strong proponent of architecture inspired by Classical forms and ornamentation, which he believed appropriately conveyed the dignity of the federal government.

The exterior is finely detailed and proportioned. The symmetrical facade has a granite-faced basement level capped by a granite water table. The first story is clad in rusticated limestone and is dominated by arched openings. Cartouches (scrolled ovals) separate the first and second stories. The second and third stories are covered with smooth limestone and feature prominent Tuscan pilasters (attached columns) between window bays. The facade is topped with an entablature with a smooth frieze and medallions. The cornice contains a dentil course of small squares, a common feature on classical buildings. A parapet wall with a balustrade sits above the entablature.

The addition that was completed in 1941 blends harmoniously with the original 1909 building. Louis A. Simon, who designed the addition, appreciated both Modern and Colonial Revival forms of architecture. However, Simon designed the addition using Beaux Arts Classicism and Second Renaissance Revival styles to complement the existing building. Similar massing, material, and architectural details provide continuity.

The interior contains several ornate spaces. The first floor of the building contains formal public spaces such as the lobby, elevator vestibule, and main staircase. These areas have impressive proportions and finishes. Marble pilasters, floors, and wainscot; decorative plaster wall panels and coffered (recessed) ceilings; and terrazzo flooring are present.

The federal district courtroom and its lobby, which are located on the third floor, underwent renovation and restoration work in 1994. Marble floors and walls are located in the lobby, and the courtroom features rich details such as Ionic pilasters and decorative plasterwork. An oval skylight is set within an oval dome in the courtroom. Original stained oak rails, benches, and desks remain.

Offices are on the second and third floors. Wide corridors with terrazzo floors and marble baseboards separate perimeter offices from interior light courts.

In addition to the ornate spaces, the building contained a common feature in post offices of the era. The "sneak hole" was a specially constructed, enclosed gallery located above the postal workroom that allowed inspectors to secretly observe the actions of employees through strategically placed peep holes. The "sneak hole" is no longer in use today.

Significant Events

1903: Land at Riverside Avenue and Lincoln Street purchased for new Federal building

1909: Building completed and occupied

1941: Addition completed

1983: Building listed in the National Register of Historic Places

1994: Renovation and restoration completed

2004: Building receives The Office Building of the Year Award

Building Facts

Location: West 904 Riverside Avenue

Architects: James Knox Taylor; Louis A. Simon

Construction Dates: 1909; 1941

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Architectural Style: Beaux Arts Classicism and Second Renaissance Revival

Primary Materials: Limestone; Granite

Prominent Features: Monumental Facade; Ornate First-Floor Lobby; Third-Floor Courtroom with Skylight

Federal Building and U.S. Post Office, Spokane, Washington

Site

The Spokane Federal Building/U.S. Post Office is located in the city's downtown, on a 110' by 300' urban parcel. The original 1908-09 portion of the building is situated on the southern portion of the site, and the 1940-41 addition on the northern portion. The total building footprint is approximately 109' by 297' and the primary façade faces south. The block is bounded by West Riverside Avenue on the south, Lincoln Street on the east, and Main Avenue on the north. The Federal Building/U.S. Post Office is bounded by paved sidewalks on all four sides.

West of the subject site, on a separate adjacent parcel, is the Thomas S. Foley U.S. Courthouse, constructed in 1967. A narrow pedestrian corridor separates the buildings, and the U.S. Courthouse plaza is south of the courthouse and immediately west of the southern portion of the subject building.

Exterior

The four-story building is well-proportioned and finely detailed, with symmetrical façades. Its massive, horizontal appearance is accentuated by deeply-set arched door and window openings at the first story and rectangular openings at the basement and upper stories. The tripartite composition of base, shaft, and cap is typical of Classical architecture.

A raised basement, finished with smooth light grey granite walls capped by a granite water table, forms a plinth for the building. The smooth limestone first story, which provides the base, is treated with deep banded rustication, which angles to give the impression of voussoirs over wall openings. The first story is separated from the upper stories by a belt course, which is visually supported by decorative scrolled consoles. The second and third stories are finished with smooth Bedford limestone and monumental Tuscan engaged columns (on the primary south façade) and pilasters (on the north, east, and west façades), which emphasize and separate the window bays. A fourth story, set on the roof of the south portion of the building, is clad with pebble-textured stucco. This story is set back sufficiently from the parapet as not to be visible from the street.

The building cap is formed by an entablature and parapet. The entablature consists of a smooth limestone frieze, with an oval medallion set above each column on the south façade, and a simple cornice band with block modillions. The cornice band projects 2'-8" from the walls. The 5'-8" tall limestone parapet contains a balustrade above each window bay. Similar limestone balustrades embellish second-story window openings.

Three central arched openings in a projecting bay on the south façade serve as the main entry to the building. A flight of granite steps, punctuated with raised cheek blocks with cast iron light standards, provide access to the entries. The original paired doors and central revolving door have been replaced with more contemporary doors. A second public entry with a revolving door is provided at the southernmost bay of the east façade.

There are two light courts within the building, which originally contained large steel-framed skylights over the original and expanded post office work room. The skylights have been reconstructed. The walls of both light courts consist of buff-colored brick laid in a modified common bond. (Instead of a course of headers, every sixth row is comprised of alternating headers and stretchers.) Terra cotta banding and voussoirs, as well as cast stone sills, are provided at the original south light court. Walls of the north light court, which was part of the 1940-41 expansion, lack the detailing of the 1908-09 construction. However, a portion of the north façade of the 1908-09 building remains and serves as the south wall of the north light court. This wall contains the large, arched windows and stone materials characteristic of the original exterior façades.

Windows are wood with double-hung or fixed sash, composed in groups, pairs, or individually. On the street façades, windows consist of divided-light sash. The north end, which dates from 1940-41, provides access to a covered parking and loading dock area. Vehicle entries occur on the northernmost bays of the east and west façades. Five at-grade openings in the north wall are protected by simple metal grilles.

Structure

The building's perimeter walls are stone with brick backing and are load-bearing. Floors and roof of the 1909 portion are reinforced concrete slabs supported on steel beams and columns. Those of the 1941 portion are of reinforced concrete joist construction with concrete slabs. Wall infill is typically hollow clay tile with smooth plaster finish. New partition walls consist of metal studs with gypsum wallboard.

Interior

The first floor of the building originally contained the Main Spokane Post Office. The formal, public spaces of the Post Office--the original lobby, expanded lobby, elevator vestibule, and main stair--have been retained. These spaces have impressive proportions; terrazzo and marble floors; marble pilasters, base, and wainscot; decorative plaster wall panels and coffered ceilings; bronze lockboxes; and stained oak casework and interior windows.

The third floor originally contained the Federal District Courtroom. This room and its associated lobby are characterized by tall proportions, marble-clad floors and walls in an arcaded lobby, Ionic pilasters, and decorative coffered plaster ceilings. An oval skylight is set within an oval dome in the courtroom ceiling. Stained oak rails, benches, desks, and window trim are original features also. These elements were restored and/or replicated during the 1991-94 project, and new details and materials match original.

The first, second, and third floors retain most of the spatial character of the original building. Wide corridors separate perimeter offices from the interior light courts. These corridors are characterized by terrazzo floors with marble borders and base, coffered plaster ceilings, and stained five-panel oak doors and frames. Other historically significant spaces have been retained, including the marble-clad men's restroom at the second floor.

Two non-original courtrooms and associated judicial offices are located in the buildings. One of these, the District Courtroom, was constructed in the 1960s. The new Bankruptcy Courtroom was installed in 1991-94. At the same time, a second exit stair was extended to the fourth floor, and former storage spaces on that floor were rehabilitated as offices.

Original ceilings are painted plaster on lath, with coffering and cast plaster elements embellishing the primary corridors and public spaces. Newer finishes, including painted gypsum wallboard and suspended or ceiling-mounted acoustical tile are provided in less significant offices and tenant spaces.

Federal Building and U.S. Post Office, Spokane, Washington

Historical & Architectural Significance of the Building

The Spokane Federal Building and U.S. Post Office opened in October 1909, as the first major federal building constructed in the "Inland Empire," a historic and geographic region encompassing eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon, northern Idaho, and western Montana. The building is one of the few works of formal federal architecture of substantial quality found in this region.

While the building was constructed in two phases (1908-09 and 1940-41), its exterior appearance is consistent and exemplifies federal architecture designed with Beaux Arts Classicism and Renaissance Revival motifs and detailing. When the building's first 110' by 178' phase was completed, it represented a new level of urbanism for the City of Spokane. The expansion, which added the 110' by 119' northern portion, was carefully designed to maintain the massing, architectural features, and materials of the original design. On the interior, impressive spaces include public lobbies for the original post office and courtroom, as well as the courtroom itself. These spaces are notable for their ornamental plaster work, marble and terrazzo flooring, and grand proportions.

Architects

The architect for the first phase was James Knox Taylor, the Supervising Architect for the Department of the Treasury. Taylor (1857-1929) was born in Knoxville, Illinois and was educated at MIT. He worked in Boston and in the New York office of the renowned Beaux Arts architect Cass Gilbert, before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1895 to work for the Department of the Treasury. Taylor served as senior draftsman for two years and then in 1897 assumed the leadership role as the office's Supervising Architect.

During his 15-year tenure as Supervising Architect, Taylor directed the designs for numerous federal buildings, including the U.S. Post Office and Custom House in San Francisco, as well as post offices in Annapolis, Maryland; Norwich, Connecticut; and Asbury Park, New Jersey. In Washington State, designs for two smaller, Classical-style Federal Building/Post Offices in Bellingham (1910) and Yakima (1911) are attributed to Taylor. The formality and the fine materials of these buildings are consistent with the Spokane building. Taylor was a strong proponent of Classical design, noting in his 1901 Annual Report that, "[t]he Department has finally decided to adopt the classical style of architecture for all buildings...The experiences of centuries has demonstrated that no form of architecture is so pleasing to the great mass of mankind as the classic..." Taylor also served as the architect for several 1911 modifications to interior offices and to the loading dock at the Spokane building. He retired to a private practice in Boston in 1912 at the age of 55 and died in 1929.

When the Spokane Federal Building and U.S. Post Office was expanded with a second phase in 1940-41, the New Deal's Public Buildings Administration (PBA) was responsible for its design and construction. The agency's Supervising Architect was Louis A. Simon (1867-1958). He, like Taylor, was educated at MIT. Simon began working in the Treasury Department in 1896, becoming head of its Architectural Division in 1905. He retained that position until 1933, when President Franklin Roosevelt named him Supervising Architect of the PBA, a position Simon held until 1939.

Work under Simon's direction during the 1930s, in addition to the Spokane building, included the Moderne design for the U.S. Courthouse in Seattle (now known as the William Kenzo Nakamura U.S. Courthouse). The contrasting designs of these two buildings demonstrate the conflict occurring in the 1930s between Classicism and Modernism as the preferred federal building style. It also indicates Simon's deliberate decision for design consistency with, and preservation of, the original Spokane building.

Louis Simon was known as a strong advocate of simplified Classicism and the American Colonial style for government buildings. Under his direction as Supervising Architect, however, the PBA sponsored competitions for standardized designs of post offices and federal buildings. This program allowed Modern architecture to garner support.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1967 Skybridge to Thomas S. Foley U.S. Courthouse added
1906 1909 Original Construction Taylor, James Knox/Simon, Louis A.
1939 1941 second phase/addition Louis A. Simon
1991 1994 Renovation and restoration
2007 2008 Granite entry steps replaced in-kind