Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, San Antonio, Texas

Building History

The Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is an important landmark and symbol of continued federal presence in downtown San Antonio. Situated across from the historic Alamo, the building holds a prominent position in Alamo Plaza, one of the city's three major plazas.

The building was a product of the Federal Public Works programs enacted to relieve widespread unemployment during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Its construction accomplished several goals--generating employment, housing all federal agencies in a single building, and streamlining San Antonio's quickly expanding postal needs.

Prominent local architect Ralph Haywood Cameron designed the building in association with renowned Philadelphia architect Paul Philippe Cret under the direction of the Office of the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department. Both Cameron and Cret studied at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Cameron, a native Texan who also designed the Dewitt County courthouse, went on to become one of the leading Beaux-Arts architects of south Texas, and Cret was nationally recognized as one of the foremost practitioners of the style. A ceremonial cornerstone was laid for the new federal building in 1935. Construction was completed in 1936, and the building officially opened in 1937. At that time, the first floor and basement were air-conditioned, a new technology that had not been installed in the any other post office in the country.

Shortly after the building's completion, noted artist Howard Cook painted an epic 16-panel fresco mural in the entry lobby; it is regarded as one of the showpieces of the federal mural program. Cook was selected from among 185 artists in a national competition conducted by the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts. In 1999, art conservators restored the mural to its original brilliance.

The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is located in the Alamo Plaza Historic District. In 2000, the building was individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2005, the building was renamed to honor Judge Hipolito Frank Garcia (1925-2002), who served on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas from 1980 until his death.

Architecture

A skillful example of Beaux Arts classicism, the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is indicative of the federal government's goal of expressing democratic ideals through classically derived architecture featuring grand scale, symmetry, and refined details. The six-story building encompasses an entire city block and is constructed of steel and concrete clad in rich local materials--Texas Pink granite and Texas Cream limestone. The building is polygonal in plan, centered on a central light court. Its facade (south elevation) emphasizes a centrally recessed porch behind a screen of six monumental Ionic columns, rising to support an entablature that continues all around the building.

At the first story, the principal approach is created by broad steps of Texas Pink granite spanning the width of the building, leading to three arched entrances with keystones, alternating with four rectangular windows with decorative metal grilles. Limestone masonry walls are articulated by chamfered joints, rising to an overhanging stringcourse. The limestone walls of the upper stories are smooth in contrast, but are also divided into seven bays, featuring rectangular windows at the second story, and elongated fenestration formed by vertically stacked windows at the third and fourth stories. Above the entablature, the attic (sixth) story is similarly clad in smooth limestone veneer with rectangular fenestration flanked by flat pilasters. At the edge of the low-pitched mansard roof, six decorative stone acroteria (urn-like ornaments) are aligned with the pilasters and columns below.

On the interior, the Beaux-Arts tradition of grand entrances and circulation areas is boldly expressed by the entry and postal lobbies' rich architectural detail and ornamentation. The entry lobby is distinguished by a series of bracketed entryways capped by blind arches with egg-and-dart moldings. Light-colored St. Genevieve marble covers the walls up to the springing course. The most vibrant feature is Howard Cook's outstanding 16-panel mural, San Antonio's Importance in Texas History. The mural is a fresco, a technique of paint applied directly over wet plaster, and spans 750 square feet, making it one of the largest frescoes in the nation. Cook's mural evokes historical events in Texas, including the arrival of the first Conquistadors, the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence, and the arrival of the railroad.

The postal lobby features its original bronze and glass-topped tables, with 41 bronze sales window-boxes capped by a continuous band of fretwork and divided by marble Doric pilasters that rise to a wide dentiled cornice. The floors are Tennessee Golden Veined Pink marble, with dark cedar-colored marble bases, and light-colored St. Genevieve marble for the wainscot. Original bronze light fixtures grace the lobby in a variety of decorative motifs depicting eagles and shields.

The ceremonial courtroom, located in the south wing of the third floor, is a light-filled two-story space, featuring six bronze pendant chandeliers and dark-stained wood for the wainscot and all of the built-in furniture, including the original judge's bench, witness stand and clerk's desk. Tall, painted pilasters extend from the wainscot to a wide ornamental plaster entablature. The judge's bench is framed by an arched niche enriched with wide, intricately decorated plaster ornament, moldings, and gilding, contributing to the impressive character of the room.

The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse retains its character-defining details and craftsmanship, and continues to convey its significance as an excellent example of a monumental Beaux-Arts-style public building in San Antonio.

Significant Events

1932: Congress appropriates funds for the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse

1935-36: The building is constructed

1937: The building is ceremonially opened

1937-39: Howard Cook designs and executes the fresco mural, San Antonio's Importance in Texas History

1999: Cook's mural is restored

2000: The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places

2004: Building renamed to honor Judge Hipolito F. Garcia

2012: Modernization earns LEED Platinum certification

Building Facts

Architect: Ralph Haywood Cameron and Paul Philippe Cret

Construction Dates: 1935-36

Landmark Status: Located in the National Register of Historic Places; listed in the Alamo Plaza National Register Historic District

Location: 615 East Houston Street

Architectural Style: Beaux Arts Classicism

Primary Material: Texas Cream limestone, Texas Pink granite, steel and concrete

Prominent Features: Howard Cook's 16-panel fresco mural; ceremonial courtroom

Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, San Antonio, Texas

A six story, neo-classical, Beaux Arts style Federal Building, with some Mission Style detailing; a polygonal plan with an open central light court above the first floor. The raised foundation and main entry steps are "Texas" pink granite. All facades are of "Texas Cream Limestone"; the main (South) facade has a rusticated base, above the granite foundation, with three arched openings, above which rise six monumental ionic columns supporting a cornice, frieze and parapet entablature with six large limestone finials. The mansard roof is red Ludowici pantiles in variegated red and russet.

The light court is open above the first floor, and is faced with cream brick to match the limestone. All of the original windows remain; they are generally a repetition of 4/4 steel double-hung, in pairs, except for five large openings on the South, primary elevation which have pairs of casement windows. These are in the ceremonial courtroom number 1, on the third floor.

See Zone 1B for description of interior public spaces.

Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, San Antonio, Texas

The San Antonio Post Office and Courthouse is a good example of the Beaux Arts style of Federal buildings of the period. It has some Mission Style influence but is an extension of a national program of Federal building construction. It is significant at the state and local level as an example of the Beaux Arts style and as a reflection of the Federal presence in San Antonio.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1937 Original Construction Cameron, Ralph H.
1980 Replace #7 freight elevator
1980 Replace boiler contracts, safety valves, cutoffs
1980 Repair A/C cooling tower
1982 Repainted exterior metal work, including windows
1983 Handicap ramp and 1st floor toilet
1984 Constructed new 4th flr entrance & 2 interview rms
1986 Steel grates added to areaways
1986 A/C Repair
1987 New flat roof membrane
1990 Major rehabilitation on all levels