Little Rock Old Post Office and Courthouse

Building History

The Old Post Office and Courthouse was constructed between 1876 and 1881 to accommodate Little Rock's need for various federal services. James B. Hill, supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, designed the building. The original architectural plans remain in existence, and may be among the oldest surviving plans in Arkansas.

Originally, the first floor contained postal services, while the second floor consisted of office space for federal agencies including the Collector of Internal Revenue. The U.S. District Court occupied the third and fourth floors with spaces for courtrooms, judges, and juries, as well as the U.S. Marshall's office. As Little Rock continued to grow and the need for federal services increased, the building was enlarged several times. Supervising Architect William Martin Aiken designed a 9,000-square-foot addition that was built to the north of the original building in 1897. It housed a larger mail-sorting space and courtroom. In 1908, Supervising Architect James Knox Taylor designed two additional wings, which wrapped around the east and west sides of the building and totaled 16,000 square feet, to accommodate postal service needs.

Despite the enlargements, both the postal service and the court vacated the building in 1932 for other facilities in Little Rock; however, federal agencies such as the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station continued to occupy it. In 1975, the building was declared surplus federal property, transferred to the Arkansas Commemorative Commission, and renovated for use by the University of Arkansas Law School. In 1992, the law school vacated the property, and the State of Arkansas returned it to the federal government. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) oversaw a renovation of the building from 1994 to 1997, and rear wings were added. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court and U.S. Marshal Service currently occupy the building.

The building is one of the most notable examples of the Italian Renaissance Revival style in Arkansas. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and was nominated for the 2004-2005 The Office Building of the Year (TOBY) Award in the historical building category by the Building Owners and Managers Association.

Architecture

The Little Rock Post Office and Courthouse is an example of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture, a decorative style of the Victorian era. Although the building has several additions, they are compatible with the original portion and the building remains an excellent example of the style. The original four-story building sits atop a Cabin Creek, Arkansas, sandstone foundation. The base is clad in pink Indiana granite and walls are clad in Berea, Ohio, sandstone on the upper stories. Stone on the first level is rusticated, while the stories above are clad in smooth ashlar, an exterior treatment that is common in classically inspired architecture. When GSA completed the 1994-1997 restoration, broken protruding stones and eroded cornices were carefully patched or replaced using stone from the same quarry as the original. Similarly, Virginia slate covering the roof was meticulously repaired or replaced.

A four-story central pavilion dominates the principal facade. It contains windows in tall, round arches on the upper stories. The arches have carved classical motifs, such as crests, urns, and foliated designs, and are separated by simple pilasters (attached columns). The wide overhanging eaves are supported by ornamental brackets, a characteristic of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture. Iron cresting surrounds the roof, which also contains elaborately capped tall chimneys. The pavilion is flanked by three-story wings that contain windows with segmental-arch openings on the first level. Pediments, another classical feature, are located on the side elevations. A dentil (rectangular block) course tops these wings. Single-story wings added from 1908 to 1910 are rusticated as is the first level of the original building. A modern steel-and-glass addition is located to the rear of the building. Despite the additions, the building's facade remains symmetrical.

The interior contains many ornate, richly finished spaces. A stunning plaster coffered ceiling tops the 23-foot space of a courtroom in the original portion of the building. Decorative bands and motifs are distinguished by vivid shades of paint, which were commonly used during the Victorian era when the original portion of the building was constructed. When the ceiling was repainted as part of the 1994 to 1997 restoration, meticulous paint analysis revealed that more than 25 different colors were originally used and these were replicated. The courtroom also features articulated segmental arches over large windows separated by pilasters. Historic wood wainscot surrounds the lower portion of the room. A courtroom in the 1897 portion is clad in pink and gray Tennessee marble. The judge's bench is flanked by marble Ionic columns. Most of the original hardware, including brass window pulls and bronze ventilation grilles, remain.

Columns in the main lobby (formerly the postal lobby) are plaster that has been painted to imitate marble. The columns have cast-iron bases and capitols. Floors are covered in terrazzo with gray Tennessee marble borders. Bronze and brass are prominently used in grilles and door hardware. An open-cage elevator from the 1890s has wrought and cast-iron features that have been restored and painted with historically accurate colors. One of the first elevators in Arkansas, it is not operational due to modern safety requirements. An elaborate iron staircase with a painted iron and mahogany handrail has also been restored. The balustrade features both curvilinear and geometric motifs, and a painted rosette is located on the outside of each step. Newell posts contain the same rosette pattern as well as other colorful foliated motifs.

As part of the 1994 to 1997 renovations, GSA commissioned Jim Sanborn to create a work of art for the plaza sidewalk adjacent to the building. Entitled Ex Nexum, the sculpture consists of a text-inscribed serpentine bronze screen flanked by two tall blocks of granite. The work comments upon the changing history of the law which now allows individuals and corporations to survive financial collapse.

Significant Events

1897: First addition constructed

1876-1881: Building constructed

1908-1910: Second addition constructed

1932 : Federal courts and post office vacate building

1973 : Building listed in the National Register of Historic Places

1978-1992: Building declared surplus federal inventory and used by the University of Arkansas Law School

1992: Building returned to the federal inventory

1994-1997: Major renovation, including construction of new rear wing

Building Facts

Location: 300 West 2nd Street

Architects: James B. Hill; William Martin; Aiken James Knox Taylor; Witsell Evans Rasco and Polk Stanley Saunders & Associates

Construction Dates: 1876-1881; 1897; 1908-1910; 1994-1997

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Architectural Style: Italian Renaissance Revival

Primary Materials: Sandstone and Granite

Prominent Features: Central pavilion; Restored open-cage elevator and courtrooms

Little Rock Old Post Office and Courthouse

The Old Post Office and Courthouse is built of Berea Ohio sandstone on a pink Indiana granite base. The original building consisted of a center pavilion three bays wide and four-stories in height with the ground floor walls executed in rusticated stone, and capped by a bracketed entablature. It has a relatively low pitched hip roof with a flat top surmounted by wrought iron cresting. This center section has four chimneys, two on either side adjacent to the two three-story two-bay wings, one on either side of the main pavilion. These two wings are capped with a dentillated entablature and a matching hip roof with a flat center section again surrounded by wrought iron cresting. These two wings have a projecting pediment bay in the center of either end of the building with one chimney on either side of this pediment in each wing, for a total of four additional chimneys. All of the chimneys are executed in sandstone with complete cornice-type caps.

In 1908, two additional one-story two-bay wings were added to the building on the east and west sides adjacent to the first two wings and projecting an equal distance on either side. These one-story wings are of matching rusticated stone with the pink granite foundation and the other detailing duplicating the design of the lower floor of the original building. The one-story wings, however, are flat roofed and capped with a parapet wall which matches the height of the window sills on the second floor of the original building.

All first floor openings have segmental arch lintels in rusticated stone. The second and third-story windows are complete with sills and architraves in entablature fashion with cornice. Interior woodwork is naturally finished with picture frame style architraves on doors and windows. The main staircase is U-shaped with an elaborate "bronzed" iron balustrade and wood handrail. The stair treads and risers are also metal. The floors on the first floor are executed in terrazzo with 10" gray Tennessee marble borders. All door hardware is of heavy brass and bronze.

The building has a full basement under the original section and the 1910 one-story wings. Quality materials and construction are apparent throughout the building. The architecture is very classical in appearance, specifically it is of Renaissance Classical or Italianate Renaissance style.

Little Rock Old Post Office and Courthouse

The primary significance of the Old Post Office and Courthouse building lies in its architecture. In addition, it has become one of the most important landmarks remaining in Little Rock. The central portion of the building was begun in 1876 and completed in 1881. It was designed to serve as Post Office, Federal Courthouse and Custom House. Originally, the 1st floor was used by the Post Office; the second floor by various government offices; the 3rd and 4th floors by the U.S. District Court with additional rooms for judges, juries and U.S. Marshal's office. Plans were prepared in 1879 by the U.S. Treasury Department with James B. Hill acting as Supervising Architect. The original plans are still in existence and are thought to be the oldest surviving plans in Arkansas.

The building was first modified in 1897 when a more spacious mail sorting space was needed along with a larger court room and additional office space. At this time an addition of approximately 9000 square feet was built to the north of the original building. In 1908 still more mail sorting space was needed. Two wings encompassing 16,000 square feet were built to wrap around the east and west sides of the building. The U.S. District Court met in the two courtrooms between 1881 and 1932; and the post office moved to another building in 1932. Since 1932 the building has been used by various federal agencies. It was declared federal surplus property in 1975 and was used by the University of Arkansas Law School. After complete renovation the U.S. Bankruptcy Court moved into the building in October 1997.

Of historic and architectural interest, the Old Post Office and Courthouse building forms the nucleus of a group of public buildings which represent an unusual variety of architectural styles; i.e. the old State Capitol, the Pulaski County Court House and Annex, and the Capital Hotel. Of particular interest is the elaborate elevator at the east end of this building. Its intricate wrought iron cage blends perfectly with the Italianate Renaissance style of the building. This elevator was one of the first in Arkansas and is the oldest elevator in continuous use in the state.

The source of this information is the National Register form.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1876 1881 Original Construction JAMES G. HILL
1897 9000 square foot addition built to north of bldg. unknown
1908 16000 sq. ft. addition built as 2 wings, E and W unknown
1977 75% of space rehabilitated after surplus to city