A superb example of monumental Art Deco civic architecture, the John W. McCormack U.S. Post Office and Courthouse presents intriguing exceptions to typical narratives of 1930s federal architecture. The use of Art Deco on large-scale federal buildings of that decade is rare. Originally named the U.S. Post Office, Courthouse, and Federal Building, it was designed by an architect famous for Gothic Revival ecclesiastical work, and is located in a city historically associated with solidly traditional architectural idioms.
Led by James A. Wetmore, the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury supplied the basic layout. The firm of Cram and Ferguson, led by Ralph Adams Cram, one of the nation's foremost architects and responsible for New York's Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, designed the exterior and primary interior spaces. Its important public faces were clad in New England granites, not in less costly Indiana limestone, after Massachusetts legislators won a fierce campaign on behalf of local granite suppliers, a way of aiding the local region during the depths of the Great Depression.
Located in Boston's Financial District, the 1933 structure replaced an overcrowded Post Office and Sub-Treasury Building. The Public Buildings Act of 1926, with $165 million allotted for new federal buildings across America, funded the much larger structure to service greater Boston, now a metropolitan power and by then the fourth largest postal district in the United States. It also accommodated a courthouse and related agencies.
Upon its completion, the building was featured in the September 1933 issue of Architectural Forum magazine devoted to "The Planning of Public Buildings." The issue focused upon public buildings designed by private practitioners in conjunction with the public sector, an arrangement made possible through a 1930 amendment to the 1926 Public Buildings Act.
The building was rededicated in 1972 as the John W. McCormack U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in honor of one of the Commonwealth's most respected politicians. McCormack acted as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1962 until his resignation in 1971.
The John W. McCormack U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is a significant example of Art Deco civic architecture in Boston, and helped define the city's early twentieth-century skyline. Facing Post Office Square, the building encompasses an entire block. The building's frame is steel and reinforced concrete, and its foundation rests on an innovative nine-foot-thick concrete mat that helps to distribute the building's load.
Three towers of two different heights rise above a five-story base. With their sense of accelerating verticality, one of the hallmarks of the Art Deco style, these towers also exploit the sloping site. A twenty-two-story tower at the top of the slope faces Devonshire Street, and the other seventeen-story towers act as the north and south arms of a "U" opening to the square. The upper floors of the Devonshire tower step back in ziggurat fashion, another Art Deco trademark, reflecting concerns that light and air reach the street level. The four primary elevations are clad in several varieties of New England granite, including dark grey Quincy at the basement stories, a finely grained, lighter grey Concord for the first two stories and the even lighter Chelmsford for the upper floors. Ingalls Indiana limestone clads the deep central court rising above the fifth floor and for the top six floors of the Devonshire Street tower.
While north and south elevations are virtually identical, the Congress Street elevation is the most dramatic. It overlooks the square, created after the Great Fire of 1872 that leveled much of the area. This elevation features a five-story pavilion that connects the two flanking towers. This pavilion contains three deeply inset bays set between four colossal granite pilasters. These are rounded and scored with shafts of embellished fleur-de-lis ornamentation finished with chamfered capitals of abstracted palmetto leaves that peak above the parapet. Each bay contains entrance door sets with anodized aluminum and glass set behind bronze grilles set in polished black marble surrounds.
The typical window grouping is long recessed strips of aluminum-framed windows separated by wide, ornately detailed spandrels of aluminum, a metal often used in Art Deco design. Two broad decorated granite belt courses, or frieze bands, wrap around the building at the top of the third and thirteenth floors in the Classical manner, articulating the parts of a column or building as base, shaft and capital. This gesture tempers the building's verticality. Below the lower belt course, the wider central window/spandrel combinations double in width, which visually anchors the building; these wider insets are aligned with the elongated groupings above. A continuous terracotta water table in a Greek fret motif separates the base from sub-base levels. The Devonshire Street facade, with its own central entrance portal, is the most massive of the four, since the twenty-two-story tower assumes the block's entire middle breadth except for the corner segments ending at the seventeenth floor.
Stone and marble, both smooth and carved, is present in the lobbies, public entrances, the grand stairways of the Devonshire and Congress Street sides, in seven original courtrooms, and in the library. The Devonshire lobby is distinguished by a seventeen-foot-tall aluminum window group covered with a massive geometric bronze exterior grille. A spread-winged, deco-styled eagle motif is consistently applied throughout the building.
An extensive building renovation was completed in 2009. This project included a roof replacement, new energy efficient windows, mechanical and electrical systems upgrades, new exterior insulation, a green roof, and office space modernization.
1930-1933: Building constructed
September 1933: Building featured in the nationally published Architectural Forum magazine
1972: Renamed to honor U.S. Congressman John W. McCormack
1985: Determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places
2004: Building slated for major refurbishment and renovation
2009: Federally funded energy-efficiency and systems upgrade project completed
Location: 5 Post Office Square
Architect: Cram and Ferguson
Construction Dates: 1930-1933
Landmark Status: Eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places
Architectural Style: Art Deco
Primary Materials: Granite, limestone, marble, and glazed terracotta
Prominent Features: Granite-clad walls with marble accents; Decorative metal grilles; Glazed terracotta relief panels; Multi-height towers
The John W. McCormack Post Office and Courthouse (POCH) consists of three towers of two different heights rising above a five story base. It occupies an entire city block that measures 227'x 207' x 248' x 201'. Because the building is exposed on all four sides, all four elevations may be considered facades, although the side facing Angell Memorial Park (on Congress Street) is the most dramatic in terms of massing and appearance. The major entrances are on Devonshire Street and Congress Street (facing Angell Memorial Park), while secondary entrances occur at Milk and Water Streets.
The 16-story main mass rises to a height of 258' on Angell Memorial Park, while the six additional stories of the Devonshire Street tower result in a total height of 331' on Devonshire Street, and 336' on Congress Street, where the partially-belowgrade basement is fully exposed. The height most commonly cited is the lower Angell Memorial Park total of 336'. The building encloses 10,290,000 cubic feet, with a total floor space of over 600,000 square feet.
Designed from the start as a multi-use building, the POCH includes a few specialty spaces such as Post Office workrooms, court rooms, court support facilities, and judge's chambers, but the bulk of the building is standardized office zones that have adapted remarkably well to the changing needs of the Federal Government. Public elevator lobbies, the main elevators and stairs serving all floors are located along the west side of the building, oriented parallel to Devonshire Street. The sub-basement, basement, and first three floors cover the entire block area. The fourth floor forms an 'O', but with a light well and freight elevator penthouse in the center. The fifth through sixteenth floors are 'U'-shaped in plan, with "legs" of the 'U' facing Angell Memorial Park. Floors 17 through 22 represent the setback tower, which fronts Devonshire Street. Circulation above the third floor level is provided by continuous corridors that divide the building width in half at all levels.
Secondary elevators and fire stairs are located at the northeast and southeast corners of the building through the 16th floor. The exterior design is an excellent example of Art Deco institutional design. The "ziggurat" massing, consisting of the full block base rising through to the setback upper tower; the vertical emphasis of the stone pilasters and window openings,
and the use of stepped parapets rather than a horizontal cornice are all features of the style. The use of granite and limestone in large, unadorned base and tower planes along with the relatively new and unusual choice of aluminum for windows and spandrel panels further reinforces the modernity of the building. The POCH was constructed with a steel and reinforced-concrete frame clad in granite and limestone with terra cotta and marble ornament at the base and parapets. The frame included 10,000 tons of steel and $485,000 worth of concrete. The foundation rests on a reinforced, nine-foot-thick concrete mat that represented a new construction approach in Boston at the time. Its important public faces were clad in New England granites, instead of the less costly Indiana limestone, after Massachusetts legislators advocated the use of granite from local suppliers. A combination of several eastern granites were chosen to face the seventeen stories of the main block. Polished dark gray Quincy, Massachusetts, granite was used for the basement story; a lighter, finely grained Concord, New Hampshire, granite for the first two stories; and an even lighter, Chelmsford, Massachusetts, granite for the upper stories. The top six floors of the Devonshire Street tower and the light well were faced with "Ingalls" Indiana limestone, due to budgetary measures. Details of the base levels of the building, more elaborate due to greater visibility from confined city streets, include: polished marble door surrounds; decorative bronze grilles over sidewalk-level windows; finely-detailed aluminum spandrel panels between the first and second floor windows; a continuous terra cotta water table in a Greek motif; and dramatic grillework and relief panels at the Angell Memorial Park and Devonshire Street entrances (with less elaborate but similar treatments at the other two secondary entrances).
The interior of the POCH was and is largely devoted to office space for the employees of federal agencies. Public access was generally confined to post office spaces at the basement, first, second and third floors; upper story courtrooms; and associated halls, stairs, and elevators. The highest level of finishes were confined to those areas.
The John W. McCormack U.S. Post Office and Courthouse (POCH) was constructed in downtown Boston in 1931-1933 as a monumental expression of the city's regional and national stature. It replaced a handsome but overcrowded Second Empire style Post Office and Sub-Treasury Building that had occupied this site since the early 1870s. The building is located at the north end of Post Office Square, facing Angell Memorial Park. Within the park is the Angell Memorial Fountain, dedicated in 1912 in honor of George T. Angell, the first president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In 1957 the fountain was surrounded by a small triangular park, which became known as Angell Memorial Park.
Design of the replacement building resulted from an unusual collaboration between the Supervising Architect of the Treasury's office and the noted private architectural firm of Cram & Ferguson. Led by James A. Wetmore, the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury supplied the basic layout. The firm of Cram and Ferguson, led by Ralph Adams Cram, one of the nation's foremost architects and responsible for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, designed the exterior and primary interior spaces. Originally named the U.S. Post Office, Courthouse and Federal Building, it was rededicated in 1972 as the John W. McCormack U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in honor of this former Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Along with the United Shoe Machinery Corporation Building (1928), the Batterymarch Building (1927), and the State Street Bank & Trust Company Building (1929), it is one of the finest Art Deco style buildings constructed in downtown Boston in the 1920s and 1930s. Its history embodies the strength of Boston's community in the early to mid-20th century, and the inception of federal relief programs developed in the 1930s to counteract the effect of the Great Depression. These four buildings had a major and unprecedented impact on the center city as their bulk loomed above all predecessors to pierce Boston's skyline. They served as urban beacons, providing orientation for both pedestrians and motorists. All but the slightly earlier Batterymarch Building responded to a 1928 zoning amendment that allowed buildings to rise above 155 feet if they followed defined setback rules, reflecting concerns that natural light and air reach the street level. This distinctive "ziggurat" massing, fostered by zoning laws in Boston and other large cities around the country, was a hallmark of the Art Deco style.
Although Art Deco was in vogue at the time, its choice for the POCH was unusual for several reasons. First, it was seldom used for Federal buildings, most of which were designed in a spare interpretation of the Classical Revival style. In addition, Boston was known as a conservative city, one which generally favored classically oriented approaches to architectural design rather than experimentation with modern ideas. Finally, Ralph Adams Cram, who produced the exterior design, was often known as a vocal critic of modern architecture. According to Charles G. Loring, writing about the POCH in the November 1933, issue of American Architect, Cram chose the Art Deco style because Gothic trappings on such a large building would have been a sham, and a false interpretation of the style he admired so much. According to Ethan Anthony's The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and his Office, he was disappointed when the General Services Administration limited him to design of the exterior veneer of the building, not the design of the building mass. Whatever Cram's rationale, the resulting design was praised for its response to the dense urban environment that formed its context.