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