Harold D. Donohue Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Worcester, MA

Exterior:  Harold D. Donohue Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Worcester, Massachusetts

Building History

Established in 1722, Worcester, Massachusetts, remained a relatively small but prosperous village until the 1835 construction of the Boston & Worcester Railroad. The railroad established the town as an important commercial and industrial hub, and businesses burgeoned. In 1848, as a result of rapid growth, Worcester was incorporated as a city.

The earliest postal facilities in Worcester were located in postmasters' homes. In 1897, a post office was constructed on the site of the present building. As Worcester expanded in the twentieth century, it needed a courthouse and federal office space in addition to a larger post office building. Officials decided to construct a single building to meet all of those needs. Disputes arose over the selection of a site that was appropriate for a prominent federal building yet situated in a convenient location within the commercial district. Ultimately, the 1897 post office building was demolished and the site utilized for the current building, which would house the first and only presence of the U.S. District Court in Worcester.

The present building was constructed from 1930 to 1931 with funding made available through the Public Buildings Act of 1926. The design was approved by Louis A. Simon in the office of Acting Supervising Architect of the Treasury James A. Wetmore. The Murch Brothers Construction Company of St. Louis, Missouri, completed the construction for a cost of $670,000 plus an additional $37,747 for the installation of Otis Elevation Company elevators. The building officially opened in January 1932.

In 1987, the building was renamed the Harold D. Donohue Federal Building to honor the city's beloved U.S. Representative, a World War II veteran who served in the House from 1947 to 1974.

Federal Square, which fronts the northeast elevation of the building, was constructed in 1991. In 1993, the U.S. Post Office left the building and the interior space was reconfigured to accommodate the needs of the court.

The Harold D. Donohue Federal Building was a regional winner and finalist in the Building Owners and Managers Association's The Office Building of the Year (TOBY) Award for 1996 to 1997.


The Harold D. Donohue Federal Building is located on a triangular lot in the southern end of the commercial district in Worcester. It is bounded by Main, Myrtle, and Southbridge streets and is adjacent to Federal Square.

The five-story building is a blend of the Classical and Renaissance Revival styles of architecture. The building's design conveys the dignity and stability of the federal government, which was particularly important during the Great Depression.

Native New England materials were used to construct the building, which is divided into three horizontal zones: base, midsection, and attic story. The base is clad in West Townsend, Massachusetts, granite laid in ashlar blocks. Middle stories are sheathed in Danby, Vermont, marble. The attic story is distinct and contains bays divided by terra-cotta panels with raised relief motifs bordered by stylized palmettes and inverted waterleaf designs. The attic story is topped by a flat roof. A circular terra-cotta cupola with a colonnade (series of columns) and dome roof sits atop the building.

The narrow northeast facade serves as the principal elevation from a design perspective. It contains monumental engaged columns with granite bases, marble shafts, and terra-cotta capitals. Three arches form an arcade. The central keystone in the arch over the entrance is adorned with a scale of justice and a key motif contained within a cartouche (decorative oval).

Beneath the roofline, the frieze contains three recurring motifs. A bull's skull surrounded by oak leaves and banderols is followed by a ram's head festooned with fruit and nuts. A corn wreath crowned with an armorial helmet completes the trio.

The interior of the building has relatively simple finishes that remain primarily in the courtrooms, judges' chambers, lobbies, stair halls, and corridors. The first-floor elevator and postal lobbies retain many original finishes. Floors are covered with pre-cast orange terrazzo set in pigmented grout with polished Travertine and Vermont marble inlay. The plaster walls have marble wainscot. Brass radiator grilles, bronze writing desks, and an iron grille above the original service entrance remain. The transom area above the opening to the staircase in the west entrance vestibule is adorned with a raised-relief plaster eagle, which conveys the federal presence.

The building was renovated between 1972 and 1973. At that time, major mail processing activities moved to a recently completed facility nearby. Hellman-Kempton Associates of Falmouth, Massachusetts, retrofitted the building for new tenants. This work left the building exterior intact, but the interior was reconfigured. The renovation included the replacement of windows; removal of skylights; and installation of new floors, ceilings, light fixtures, plumbing, and wiring. A portion of the west postal lobby and the postal workroom were divided into smaller spaces.

Between 1993 and 1995, a lightwell that extended from the second to the fifth stories in the central portion of the building was filled to accommodate additional courtrooms. In 1995, artist Michael Hachey completed a mural to commemorate the case of Quock Walker, an African-American slave who successfully sued for his freedom in a 1783 case that was popularly believed to have abolished slavery in Massachusetts.

Significant Events

1897: First post office building constructed on site

1930-1932: Earlier post office building demolished and new building constructed

1972-1973: Building renovations upon departure of majority of post office functions

1987: Building renamed to honor U.S. Representative Harold D. Donohue

1993-1995: Courtrooms addition constructed

1996-1997: Regional winner and finalist in TOBY awards

Building Facts

Location: 595 Main Street

Architects: James A. Wetmore; Leers Weinzapfel Associates

Construction Dates: 1930-1932; 1993-1995

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Architectural Style: Classical and Renaissance Revival

Primary Materials: Granite, Marble, and Terra Cotta

Prominent Features: Cupola; Decorative frieze

The Donohue Federal Building, formerly the U.S. Post Office and Court House, conforms to a triangular-shaped site resulting from the intersections of three major streets near the south end of the central business district of Worcester. The building is situated along a primary northeast-southwest axis. For the purposes of this report, and to conform with architectural plans for the building's rehabilitation, reference north is considered to be the Main Street facade.

The five-story building is bounded by a Franklin Square, a pedestrian plaza to the east, Main Street to the north, Myrtle Street to the west, and Southbridge Street to the south. The building occupies the entire west end of the site. The site gently slopes to the west, with the east entrance located at grade, the entrance at the center of the north facade one-step above grade, and the entrance at the north end of the west facade four steps above grade. A full basement is located below grade, with daylight provided by window wells at the south and west. A vault formerly used for delivery of coal extends below the south sidewalk at the east end.

The plans of the basement, first and second floors are quadrilateral, being five bays wide at the east, or principal facade, widening to 10 bays at the west facade, and respectively 13 and 14 bays deep at the north and south facades. A light court located above the second story near the center of the south facade renders the third, fourth and fifth stories roughly U-shaped in plan.

The former Post Office and Court House is organized around a circulation system comprised of a major lobby and corridor spine parallel with Main Street in the northern section which terminates in elevators and a staircase at the east end, and a staircase at the west end. The original program accommodated Post Office uses on the first, second, third and much of the basement floors. Service windows and lock boxes were located in the first floor lobby, behind which was a large, open-plan work room connected internally to the loading dock, a second floor work room above and basement storage spaces below by two internal freight elevators and staircases which are no longer present. Offices of the Postmaster, Assistant Postmaster, and other senior postal staff were located at the east end along the corridor and elevator lobby of the second floor.

Additional postal offices and carriers' toilet and a swing room were located in the west half of the third floor. The courtroom, Judge's chambers and related support spaces were located on the fifth floor, with jury chambers located below the courtroom on the fourth floor. The remaining offices at the north and west perimeters of the third and fourth floors were unassigned in the original plan. The building's heating plant, and additional unassigned storage space, was located in the basement.

The major changes to the original plan occurred in 1972 when the east end of the west postal lobby and former postal work room spaces were subdivided into smaller spaces. Other alterations included the lowering of ceiling heights in corridors, lobbies and most offices, and the renovation of several toilets. The west end of the postal lobby, courtroom, most of the basement and light court retain their original volumes.

Designed in 1930 by the Office of then Supervising Architect of the Treasury Wetmore, the former Post Office and Court House, which is visible from all directions, gracefully complements the eclectic collection of public and commercial buildings in downtown Worcester. Its chaste classical revival exterior, combining Greek and Renaissance revival motifs, retains most of its original character, and within the building, many original architectural features, also austere in character, survive below suspended ceilings. The infilling of original lobby and work room spaces to new offices and support spaces, conversion of some original offices to mechanical spaces, and upgrading of mechanical systems throughout the building, completed in the mid-1970s, however, adversely effected the integrity of the building's interior.

The Worcester Post Office and Courthouse was constructed in 1930-1931 as a post office, courthouse, and federal office building. Inclusion of a courtroom and offices for federal judiciary officials marked the first presence of the U. S. District Court in Worcester. The new building replaced a handsome Romanesque Revival style Post Office that has occupied the site since 1897. Designed in 1928-1930 by the Supervising Architect of the Treasury's Office, the Post Office and Courthouse is a good example of "Starved Classism," the architectural style that characterized the majority of federal buildings constructed in the late 1920's and 1930's. Along with the Worcester War Memorial Auditorium and an extension to the Worcester Art Museum, it is the major public building constructed in downtown Worcester in the 1930's. Its site, which dominates Franklin Square and the southern end of the central business district, is noteworthy.

The major mail processing activities were removed from the building in the early 1970's when a new automated facility was completed on Summer Street. Shortly thereafter, the vacated spaces were renovated woth new windows, HVAC system, and interior finishes including partitions, dropped ceilings and fluorescent lighting. In 1987, it was renamed the Harold D. Donohue Federal Building in honor of the U.S. Representative who had championed postal affairs for the city. The exterior of the building remains largely intact, while the interior spaces, especially in the area of the postal workrooms, have been extensively reconfigured. The relatively simple historic finishes that characterized the building at the time of its opening remain primarily in the corridors, lobbies, stair halls, courtroom, and Judge's chambers.

Description Architect
1930 1931 Original Construction James Wetmore, of the Treasury
1972 Renovations Hellman-Kempton Associates
Last Reviewed: 2021-09-07