Old Post Office Building, Washington, DC

Building History

Built from 1892 to 1899 to house the U.S. Post Office Department Headquarters and the city's post office, the Old Post Office Building is the second-tallest structure in the nation's capital, after the Washington Monument. For most of the twentieth century, it seemed that the massive Romanesque Revival structure was destined to be demolished, but through the efforts of dedicated preservationists it has become one of Washington's favorite landmarks.

In 1928, the Old Post Office Building was slated for demolition in the development now known as the Federal Triangle. Lack of funds during the Great Depression saved the building at that time, and over the next 30 years, it provided space for various Government agencies. In 1964, the President's Council on Pennsylvania Avenue recommended the demolition of all but the clock tower. As a result, local citizens banded together and, with the help of Nancy Hanks (the politically influential chairperson of the National Endowment of the Arts), convinced Congress to reverse its decision.

A decade later, redevelopment plans for the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor included preservation of the Old Post Office Building, and renovation began in 1977. The plan called for retail commercial spaces on the lower level, with Federal offices on the upper levels. This adaptive, mixed-use approach received national attention as a viable approach to historic preservation. In 1983, the building was officially renamed the Nancy Hanks Center in recognition of her devotion to the preservation of significant buildings.

In honor of our nation's Bicentennial celebration in 1976, the Ditchley Foundation of Great Britain presented a set of English change ringing bells to the U.S. Congress as a symbol of friendship. The bells were permanently placed in the Old Post Office clock tower in 1983 and are rung at the opening and closing of Congress and for national holidays.

The Old Post Office Building is a reminder of the foresight of preservationists devoted to conservation of our built environment. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Architectural Significance

The Old Post Office Building occupies an entire city block, centered on the north side of the Federal Triangle along Pennsylvania Avenue -- the link between the Capitol and the White House. Designed by Willoughby J. Edbrooke, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, the Old Post Office Building exhibits a matured version of the Romanesque Revival style, which was popularized by renowned architect H.H. Richardson in the late nineteenth century. The building's massive scale, rustication, arched fenestration, and ornamentation evokes the Romanesque Revival style, while incorporating a variety of complementary features such as Byzantine sculptural capitals, French Gothic dormers and sculpture, and French Renaissance detailing. The eclectic effect of these details creates a delightful visual vitality that is now regarded as a virtue along Pennsylvania Avenue's predominantly Classical Revival corridor.

Sheathed in granite from Vinalhaven, Maine, set upon an iron and steel superstructure, the vast nine-story building was the first steel-frame building erected in Washington. Unlike other contemporary tall buildings, the five-feet-thick granite masonry walls are self-supporting, while the steel girders are used to support the interior floor beams. As a fire-proofing measure, a terra-cotta shell encases each steel and iron structural member.

Along Pennsylvania Avenue, three large semicircular Romanesque arches frame the principal entrance and are ornamented with Romanesque Revival columns, capitals, moldings and richly foliated spandrels. The rock-cut rustication at the first-story and mezzanine walls contrast with the smooth surfaces of the upper stories, where vertically stacked bays are crowned with a continuous springing course and wide arches at the fifth story. The sixth and seventh floors, separated from the lower floors by a stringcourse, are composed of narrow, two-story window units separated by twin-columned mullions, capped by arcades. At the top of the wall, a wide, dentiled cornice is reminiscent of the machicolation used in medieval fortifications.

The facade (north elevation) is divided into three vertical sections, defined by the central recessed portion of the building. At its center, a lofty clock tower projects forward and rises 315 feet to a hipped roof accentuated by pinnacles at the belfry. Tall stone pilasters support the clock face, which is simply framed by a Roman arch. Above this, an observation deck is pierced by three large, arched openings that offer some of the best views of the city. The east and west wings of the facade project forward slightly, with corners embellished by soaring pinnacles with conical roofs. The steeply pitched, slate-clad roof is pierced by stone-clad dormers adorned with stone finials.

The most remarkable feature inside is the nine-story light court topped by an enormous skylight that floods the interior with natural light. When it was built, the room was the largest, uninterrupted interior space in Washington. The building's renovation uncovered the skylight and added a glass-enclosed elevator on the clock tower's south side to provide visitor access to the observation deck. A lower glass atrium at the east side of the building was added in 1992.

Significant Events

1892-99: The building is constructed.

1928: Development of the Federal Triangle south of Pennsylvania Avenue threatens the Old Post Office.

1964: Plans to finish the Federal Triangle jeopardize the Old Post Office Building, prompting a vocal campaign to save the building, led by Nancy Hanks.

1973: The Old Post Office Building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

1976: The Ditchley Foundation of Great Britain presents the Congress Bells in honor of the nation's Bicentennial.

1977-83: GSA rehabilitates the building while remodeling it for adaptive-use.

1983: The building reopens with a combination of Federal offices and retail spaces. It is officially renamed the Nancy Hanks Center.

Building Facts

Architect: Willoughby J. Edbrooke

Construction Dates: 1892-99

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 12th Street & Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Architectural Style: Romanesque Revival

Primary Materials: Granite, steel, iron

Prominent Features: Clock tower, atrium, Congress Bells

Old Post Office Building, Washington, DC

The Old Post Office, designed in the tradition of Romanesque Revival architecture of H.H. Richardson, occupies the entire city block bounded by 11th, 12th, C and D Streets at the juncture of Pennsylvania Avenue. A massive rectangular structure, it measures approximately 200 feet from east to west and 300 feet from north to south. The nine-story building rises 135 feet to the flat portion of the roof. The tower, located in the center of the north façade, rises to a height of 315 feet above grade.

The massive structure, faced with granite from Vinalhaven, Maine, is a solid masonry load-bearing structure with walls over five feet thick. The plans indicate that the exterior walls of the building are self-supporting, not reinforced with steel girders at each floor, as was customary for tall buildings. The steel columns embedded in the walls seem only to support the interior floor beams (the above structural information was taken from a paper by Watterson).

The heavy masonry massing and detailing of the building are typical of the Romanesque revival style. The main Pennsylvania Avenue entrance is defined by three massive arches with smooth-faced voussoirs, ornamented archivolts and the ciphers US and PO in richly foliated spandrels. On the second story, with its contrasting surface of smooth, rusticated masonry, are three rectangular windows above each arch. Above the windows is an ornamented parapet. The entrances on the east and west sides contain one large arch flanked by two smaller arched openings. The south façade contains a loading dock.

The exterior of the first, mezzanine and second floors flanking the entrance and on the other sides of the building is of rock-faced masonry. The second story is separated from the upper stories by a molded stringcourse, which continues around the building. Twin arched windows flank the main entrance. On the second floor are found narrow, rectangular two-light windows.

In contrast to the rock-faced masonry of the lower floors, the upper walls are of smooth, rusticated granite. Above the main entrance, the third story terrace is cut into the building, allowing the east and west ends to project, forming wings. Each wing is terminated on both ends by round towers with conical roofs topped by stone finials. The windows in the tower are narrow and rectangular. The fenestration on the third, fourth and fifth floors are conceived as a unit: rectangular windows on the third and fourth floors with round-headed windows on the fifth floor. Each bay is separated by a pilaster terminating in a cornice. From the cornice springs an arch on the front wings, forming two arcades and six arcades on the sides. The ordering of the windows and placement of the terraces above the entrances is similar for all sides of the building.

The sixth and seventh floors are separated from the lower floors by a stringcourse. The fenestration is conceived as a two-story unit terminating in round-headed windows below the arches, which are supported by twin-columned mullions forming four arcades on the east and west wings and twelve arcades on the sides. Above the machicolated cornice rises the steep slate Chateau roof containing large stone dormers terminating in stone finials.

The tower rises 315 feet above grade from the center of the main façade. Below the cornice line, its massing is accentuated by a projection of several feet from the central façade. Above the arched fifth story window is the inscription: ANNO DOMINI MDCCXCVII (reflecting the architect's optimism that the building would be finished by 1897). From the cornice line the tower rises as a solid mass with only narrow slits for openings and decorative arches above the clock face on each of the four sides. Above the clocks are four turrets, one on each corner, separated by five narrow arched windows. Above rises the steeply slanting roof.

The interior of the building opens onto a grand court or cortile, which is ringed by offices that open onto corridors overlooking the court. The court was originally roofed in glass and flooded with light, but at present has been covered with insulation material, resulting in a very dark open space. The first floor of the cortile was roofed over with a steel and glass roof so that it could be heated and used. The interior corridors on the first floor are linked with marble wainscoting. The open cage elevators are also of interest.

The Office of Building Management, Public Buildings Service, described the building in 1962 as obsolete and recommended the limitation of improvements to those required for seven to ten years occupancy. The report warned that an extension of life expectancy to an indefinite period would require complete modernization.

(Information taken from the 1973 NR Nomination)

Old Post Office Building, Washington, DC

Over time, there has been little appreciation for the Old U.S. Post Office Building. It was constructed during the last decade of the nineteenth century, a period of architectural change, when tastes were turning from the boldness of Victorian styles to the refinement of the Classics. It seems fair to say that the Old Post Office was long viewed as a graceless intruder to an elegant setting.

Only in recent years has the building attracted attention for its own values. What was once regarded as a fault--its unique visual quality--is now a virtue, a delightful variation of form, size, and style.

Originally designed by Willoughby J. Edbrooke, Supervising Architect of the Treasury between 1891 and 1893, the design and construction of the Old Post Office extended through the terms of five different Supervising Architects. Among them, Jeremiah O'Rourke and William Martin Aiken were responsible for major modifications to Edbrooke's design. Construction started in 1892 but progressed slowly and it was not until 1899 that the building was ready for occupancy.

Stylistically, the building has many features similar to designs by H. H. Richardson and therefore has been characterized as Richardsonian Romanesque. However, it is only in materials and certain details that the building is typical of this style. The basic shape was inspired by the large municipal halls of great Italian medieval cities, though its symmetry shows a nineteenth century European academic influence and there are details on the exterior best described as Renaissance. The turreted pavilions are capped by steeply sloping roofs with gabled dormers, giving the upper part of the building a strong flavor of French Renaissance or Chateau style. These sharp-edged, free-standing tops accent the building corners and lend an exciting independence of form.

The Old Post Office is noteworthy among Washington buildings for more than its individuality of style. With the exception of the Washington Monument, it is the tallest building in the city. Its construction incorporated many of the latest technical innovations of the day, such as steel and iron framing, fireproofing, and an electric power plant. The building encloses a magnificent interior space, the largest such uninterrupted space in the city.

Originally intended to house both the U.S. Post Office Department and the Washington City Post Office, the entire building was turned over to the federal department in 1914. The structure apparently was never large enough for even that operation alone, however, and in 1934, a new U.S. Post Office Building was constructed in the Federal Triangle across Twelfth Street. Since then, the Old Post Office has alternately housed the departments of Justice, Defense, Agriculture, and Interior, as well as the General Accounting Office, Interstate Commerce Commission, U.S. Information Agency, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Associative History

Apparently the Old Post Office was one of the first federal buildings to be constructed in this area of the District of Columbia. Unfortunately, little is known about its site history. The Preliminary Historic Structures Report recommended that additional research be undertaken relating to the site. However, planning funds have not been made available for this purpose. It can be easily seen, nonetheless, that the building's orientation and two of its facades were ignored in subsequent site development.

Architectural Character

The architecture of the building itself gives character to the Old Post Office site. Its style, essentially Richardsonian Romanesque, and its form-including the seven story stone facade, two story chateau-like roof, lofty clock tower and the highly decorative arches which define the main entrance--have a significant impact on the building's surroundings. One of the most important aspects of the building-to-site relationship is that the ponderous Romanesque nature of the architecture demands that the structure rest clearly, sharply and distinctly on its ground plane.

National Register 1973 Nomination
Historic Significance

The Old Post Office, with its huge clock tower, has long been one of Washington's favorite landmarks. In recent years the clock tower, which is visible from a distance of several miles, has received particular acclaim as an element of great vitality in the otherwise sterile skyline of the Federal Triangle.

The Joint Committee on Landmarks has designated the Old Post Office and Clock Tower a category II Landmark of importance, which contributes significantly to the cultural heritage and visual beauty of the District of Columbia. The Old Post Office is one of Washington's few significant Romanesque Revival buildings on a monumental scale. It was the first Federal building erected on Pennsylvania Avenue in the area now known as the Federal Triangle. Plans for the building were prepared in 1891 in the office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury, W.J. Edbrooke. Many similarly styled Richardsonian-inspired Federal Buildings erected throughout the country in the 1890¿s were designed in Edbrooke's office. At the time of its completion in 1899, the building with its 315-foot high clock tower was the third highest in Washington, exceeded only by the Capitol and Washington Monument. Its central enclosed court was one of the largest in the world.

Designed to house the U.S. Post Office Department as well as the Washington City Post Office, the building served as the headquarters of every Postmaster General from 1899-1934. IT was there in 1908 that the observance of Flag Day was initiated by some employees who met on the second floor balcony overlooking the court and sang homage to the Star Spangled Banner. Every Flag Day, a complete collection of State Flags was displayed from the walls of the central court. Normally on display was the largest correctly proportioned U.S. Flag in existence. This flag, which hung down nearly seven stories from the skylighted room, was furled on Flag Day to avoid dwarfing the smaller State Flags.

In 1914, the Washington City Post Office moved to a new building adjacent to Union Station. The department remained in its headquarters until 1934 when the new U.S. Post Office Building across 12th street was ready for their use. The Old Post Office has since been shared by a number of Federal Executive Departments and agencies.

For over 30 years, the Old Post Office has prevented completion of the final quadrant of the Great Circle on 12th street, an important element in the Federal Triangle plan of 1928-1938.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1892 1899 Original Construction Edbrooke, W.J.