General Post Office, Washington, DC
In 1810, the U.S. government purchased Blodgett's Hotel, a three-story, Washington, DC, building designed in 1793 by James Hoban, to house the General Post Office and U.S. Patent Office. After British troops burned Washington in 1814, Congress met in the former hotel until the city could rebuild its public buildings. In 1836, fire destroyed the post office and patent office building, and plans were made to construct a new building on the site.
The General Post Office was one of three buildings, along with the U.S. Treasury Building and the Patent Office, commissioned by President Andrew Jackson. President Jackson selected architect Robert Mills to design all three buildings. For the General Post Office, Mills desired a marble exterior, "according to the ancient practice," and upon its 1842 completion it was the first all-marble clad exterior in the capital. Robert Mills would later design the Washington Monument.
Thomas Ustick Walter, the architect who designed the Capitol dome, oversaw the General Post Office's expansion beginning in 1855. Expansion work was halted during the Civil War, and the Union used the building's basement as munitions storage. From the building's upper floors in 1863, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair pioneered home mail delivery. Sympathetic to the Mills design, Walter's addition was completed in 1866. Captain Montgomery C. Meigs engineered the addition's inbuilt mechanical heating and cooling system.
After the General Post Office relocated in 1897, over time numerous government agencies occupied the building. In 1919, when the building housed the National Selective Service Board, General of the Armies John J. Pershing ensconced himself there to write his final report on the World War I involvement of the American Expeditionary Force.
The Tariff Commission, later called the U.S. International Trade Commission, was the building's primary twentieth-century tenant, occupying it from 1932 to 1988. After some years of vacancy, the building underwent restoration and in 2002 reopened as the Hotel Monaco. The General Post Office was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1971.
The General Post Office building is located in the Penn Quarter Section of Washington, DC, and consists of two sections: the original building and an early expansion that enclosed the plan. Completed in 1842, the original section is a three-story, U-shaped plan designed by architect Robert Mills facing south onto E street, with a nineteen bay block and seven bay wings extending up Seventh and Eighth streets. The expansion, completed in 1866 by architect Thomas Ustick Walter, extended each wing to nineteen bays and added a thirteen-bay north elevation that became the building's primary elevation. From the exterior the building's two sections, similarly detailed and clad in Carrara marble, are virtually seamless.
The building strongly references the work of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Palladio's sixteenth-century treatise, The Four Books on Architecture, elevated ancient classical design and was influential upon early American institutional and residential architecture. Palladian features on the building include the rusticated ground level, the pedimented and hierarchically treated windows, and the elevated and centered temple-like portico. In Palladian architecture such elaborated upper-elevation detailing identified the piano nobile, or principal floor of the building.
All four elevations feature two-story colossal orders of standalone and paired freestanding columns, engaged columns, or pilasters that sometimes project as shallow pavilions. Their Corinthian capitals with interlocking volutes reference the Roman temple of Jupiter Stator. Of its columns, Palladio himself wrote in Book IV, "I have never seen any better or more delicately executed work." Upon the General Post Office, the elevated columns support a full Roman entablature with a plain frieze and dentil molded cornice. A low parapet, Greek in influence, crowns the carefully proportioned building.
Mills employed true brick masonry vaulting, likely learned working under Benjamin Henry Latrobe, to make the building as fireproof as possible. Fire destroyed the predecessor building in 1836. The Mills interior contains groined and vaulted corridors with ornamental plaster friezes and ceiling medallions. Additionally, it features two domed alcoves sheltering graceful, marble treaded circular stairways with decorative wrought iron railings.
Walter's addition is believed to incorporate bulb tees: iron railroad rails used to support the numerous brick segmental arches. These are early instances of wrought iron joists, and a harbinger to the advent of steel frame construction some thirty years later. The completed building surrounds a courtyard containing ancillary structures. Courtyard elevations are of grey polished granite.
The F Street facade features a rusticated arcade of five arched openings beneath an octastyle portico of paired of Corinthian columns. The building faces the Greek Revival-style National Portrait Gallery: the Robert Mills-designed former U.S. Patent Office.
An arched carriage entrance is present on the west-facing Eighth Street side. Above its entry are three sculptural pieces designed by Thomas Crawford, who also designed the bronze Freedom allegory atop the Capitol dome. Executed in plaster by Guido Butti, the projecting female face at the keystone represents Fidelity. Facing the entry, to the right a figure with bat-like wings holding a locomotive represents Steam. To the left, a second winged figure, titled Electricity, holds a scroll and a thunderbird. On the building's opposite elevation, a bronze plaque, which commemorates the site where Samuel Morse opened the first public telegraph office in 1845, is present near the corner of Seventh and F Street.
The lowering of the street grade in 1872 exposed the basement level and necessitated the extant staircases to various entries. Aside from this early alteration, the exterior remains largely intact, as do principal interior spaces.
1839-1842: Building design and construction
1855-1866: Construction of building expansion delayed by Civil War, then completed
1863: Working out of the building, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair initiates home mail delivery
1897-1917: General Land Office occupies the building
1919: Within the building, General John J. Pershing writes his report on World War I American Expeditionary Forces
1932: Tariff Commission occupies the building
1971: General Post Office is listed as a National Historic Landmark
1988: U.S. International Trade Commission (formerly Tariff Commission) vacates
2002: Restoration and adaptive reuse into Hotel Monaco
Location: 701 E Street NW
Architects: Robert Mills; Thomas Ustick Walter
Construction Dates: 1839-1842; 1855-1866
Landmark Status: National Historic Landmark
Architectural Style: Neoclassical with Palladian influences
Primary Materials: New York marble; Sandstone; Granite
Prominent Features: Full Roman Classical entablature; Colossal Corinthian columns and pilasters; Circular granite stairway; Vaulted masonry
The General Post Office occupies the block bounded on the south by E Street, NW, on the east by Seventh Street, NW, on the north by F Street, NW and on the west by Eighth Street, NW, in Washington, DC. The building measures approximately 204 feet along its north-south axis by 300 feet on its east-west extent around a rectangular granite-faced courtyard 95 feet by 194 feet containing a one story pavilion extending from the north end of the building. The exterior is faced with marble.
The building was built in two stages. The south and earlier portion was built under the direction of Robert Mills from 1839-1842, the north and later portion was designed by architect Thomas Ustick Walter and built from 1855-1866.
The exposed foundation wall on the street elevations is 9" thick marble with masonry backup. The exposed foundation on the courtyard elevations is granite with masonry backup. The exterior walls below grade are rubble stone. The exterior walls are faced with nine inch polished marble with masonry backup on all street elevations. The four elevations on the courtyard are faced in grey polished granite with masonry backup. The style of the exterior is Italianate with a rusticated basement supporting a principal story and third (attic) story articulated by a collosal order of Corinthian columns supporting a full Roman Classical entabulature with plain frieze and medallioned cornice, which is carved from granite on the courtyard elevations and carved from marble on the street elevations. A parapet is a crowning element of all elevations. The entrances on the north, south and east elevations have marble steps and landings.
The sash and frame of all the windows are constructed of wood. The windows on the first and second floor are double hung, two over two lights on the street elevations and six over six lights on the courtyard elevations. The third floor sash is two over two lights. All windows facing the courtyard appear to be original, however, the windows on the street elevations of the Mills section were originally casement type, and were replaced during or shortly after the Walter addition. The basement windows on the street elevations were replaced with larger double hung sash when the street was lowered in 1872. Except for some replacements, the courtyard basement windows are original.
The Walter, or north, section of the building had a central heating system, therefore chimneys appear on the Mills, or south, section only. Sixteen marble chimneys are symetrically placed on the roof. The roof is an "A" shape formed by the truss frame below. The Mills section of the roof was covered with copper sheets approximately 18x20 inches, soldered together. The north section of the roof was covered with corrugated iron, terminating into a copper gutter behind the parapet wall. The Mills wing of the building was crowned with three skylights. One over the center room, one over the third floor and one over each of the two circular stair wells. The original skylights were remodelled later, raising the curbs and adding vents into the building. The Walter section of the building had a skylight over each third floor office, a double four-section skylight over the large room in the center block and skylights for the courtyard pavilion. The roof skylights were removed when the corrugated roofing was replaced, but the ceiling skylights still remain. The wooden louvered penthouse on the roof in the northwest corner of the roof ridge is the only remaining evidence of Walter's ventilating system.
The first floor plan of the building is a rectangle enclosing an open court. The east, south and west wings have a central corridor with rooms on either side. The north wing has a large center room opening onto a one story building in the courtyard. The second and third floors have similar plans except the central area of the third floor of the south wing is one space.
The interior of the original section of the building is entirely masonry-vaulted, the offices having groin vaults and the passages being barrel-vaulted. The extension is constructed of wrought-iron I-beams carrying brick segmental vaults and supported on brick bearing walls.
The two stairways in the Mills wing are circular in plan and cantilevered from the wall. The treads and risers are marble with decorative wrought iron balusters supporting a curving wooden handrail. An elevator has been added in the middle of the Southeast stair. The two stairways in the Walter wing are marble and are original. The well in the northwest stair has been enclosed and an elevator installed.
The corridor flooring in all wings consists of 12 inch square marble tiles laid in checkerboard pattern. The floors in the office are wooden covered with carpet.
The walls and ceilings throughout the building are finished in plaster, 90% of this plaster is original. The Mills section of the building has a continuous ornamental plaster freize and ceiling medallions in the corridor of the second floor. The stairwell domes and the dome below the skylight in the third floor center room also has plaster decoration. The plaster in the Walter section has no ornament.
The doors in the Walter section are wood with solid panels and transoms over. Louvered doors were added later to the corridor door openings. The architraves in the Mills section are severely plain freestone, whereas the architraves in the Walter section are lavishly ornate cast-iron.
1. Specific dates
The General Post Office (most recently the International Trade Commission) was commenced in 1839. The cornerstone was laid on May 25, 1839, and the building was first occupied in December, 1841. Ground was broken for the extension of the original (southern) portion of the building on April 26, 1855. The extension was partially occupied before the end of 1859, but final completion was delayed by the Civil War until 1866. During 1872 and the following five years the work of fitting up the cellar as office space proceeded piecemeal after lowered street grades allowed for enlarged fenestration. A power plant to serve several other Government buildings as well as the building itself was installed in 1901 and removed after 1933.
2. Building / Architect
Robert Mills (1781-1855) was the architect of the original section of the building, and Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-1887) was the architect of the extension. Montgomery Cunningham Meigs (1816-1892) designed the original mechanical equipment for the extension. Mills' initial design was modified (and improved) by the architect himself as construction progressed. Walter's design was drawn in 1853, but the first appropriation by Congress for the new construction was not pased until March 3, 1855.
3. Architectural Significance
The General Post Office is one of the three major Government buildings in Washington commenced under Andrew Jackson, the other two being the Treasury and the Patent Office. It differs from its two contemporaries in being faced entirely (except for the courtyard elevations) in marble. It is more stylistically advanced than the others, which are Greek Revival. The Palladian design of the General Post Office presents the Italianate style that flourished during the succeeding two decades. The first important marble building in Washington, the General Post Office displayed, before street regrading altered its carefuly calculated proportions, an exceptionally elegant design and was widely regarded as the finest of all the Government buildings in Washington. The interiors of Mills' section are the most richly ornamented of any of his public buildings and are unique among his otherwise austere works for the Government.
4. Technical Significance
The building is technologically significant for its two structural systems. The original portion is entirely of masonry-vaulted construction and was so built to render it as fireproof as possible. All the trim is stone, wood being restricted to doors, window sash, the interior window shutters, and the handrails capping the cast-iron balustrades of the cantilevered marble stairways. The brick masonry behind the marble veneer is set in hydraulic cement, which set up rapidly, allowing construction to proceed in about half the time usually required for such work. There is evidence that Mills' building was the first Government structure in Washington lighted by gas. The extension represents the most technically advanced structural system (exept for ferro-vitreous construction) used in the 1850's. Wrought-iron I-beams, concealed by plaster and resting on brick bearing walls, support a series of shallow segmental brick vaults, also concealed by plaster. That system permitted much lighter construction than that required by heavy groin vaults of the offices and the barrel vaults of the passages in the earlier sections thrust was minimized. The trim in Walter's extension is cast iron, as are the ceilings of the courtyard driveway, the loggia in the north front and the large room behind it. The original heating and ventilating system, devised by Montgomery Meigs, was advanced for its day. Meigs' installations no longer exist. In 1901 a central power plant to furnish heat and electricity to several Government buildings was installed. That early equipment, the latest model in its time, has been removed.
5. Historic Significance
The primary significance of the building lies in its important position in the history of American architecture rather than because of any association with events or persons other than its two architects and the engineer, Montgomery Meigs, who served as Quartermaster General of the Union forces during the Civil War. It sheltered routine bureaucratic functions. General John J. Pershing, whose office was in the building for about two years, was the most prominent person ever to work in the building. John Wanamaker was perhaps the best-known of the Postmasters General housed therein. (A full account of the building's history can be founded in "Appendix 'A' Historic Report" of the HSR.)
6. Landmark Significance
The General Post Office occupies an entire city block in a neighborhood of mixed commercial and Government uses. It is separated from its larger but no more dignified neighbor, the sandstone and marble Greek Revival Patent Office, now the National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art, by F Street, NW. The delicate detailing of its white marble elevations makes an elegant counterfoil to the more ponderous Patent Office. It is, by any standard, a splendid achievement of its age and was designated a National Historic Landmark on November 11, 1971, for its architectural merit.