U.S. Courthouse in Wichita Exterior

Building History

The U.S. Courthouse in Wichita, originally the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, is distinguished by its modern facade and Depression-era murals. The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of a group of Kansas Post Offices noted for their artwork. The U.S. Courthouse demonstrates a skillful blending of Art Deco and classical influences; it retains the symmetry and proportions of Classical architecture while modernizing exterior ornamentation. It is representative of the large and cohesive body of architectural work by Louis A. Simon, who was responsible for the design of government buildings under Supervising Architect of the Treasury James Wetmore. The building was constructed between August 1930 and April 1932 at a cost of $1.2 million.

As a courthouse and post office, the building was significant in the development of the city of Wichita. From the time of the earliest settlement, the Wichita Post Office was a focal point of the community, and when the location of the post office shifted, the downtown commercial area grew up around it. When the site for the new U.S. Courthouse, which was to include the new post office, was selected at 401 North Market Street, it was only a few blocks from the site of Wichita's original post office in the Durfee Ranch Store. The new building provided an anchor for development and helped draw businesses north along Main Street from Douglas Avenue.

Architecture

Modernistic for its time, the U.S. Courthouse is a U-shaped, flat-roofed, steel-framed building clad in beige Bedford limestone. The building is 224 feet by 157 feet, and is three levels in height, with a fourth level across the south elevation, and a fifth level at the towers of the east and west corners. While the receding walls of the towers stress the vertical, the long facades of the building express an overall horizontal emphasis. All windows are in slightly recessed planes, with pilasters between openings. The even fenestration pattern and the rusticated first story of the building are common themes in classically inspired architecture. The main entrances in the towers on the south elevation have heavy molded surrounds, ornamental reveals, and shelf heads. Above the shelf are two winged limestone lions holding a plaque.

Stone carving on the exterior-primarily around the entrances and near the tops of the towers-combines classically inspired, Art Deco, and regional motifs such as winged lions, eagles, buffalo, Native Americans, wheat, and ears of corn. The latter symbols reflect Wichita's cultural and historic heritage. An ornamental band with a stylized, winged-bird motif is centered between the window heads and the cornice line.

Styles displayed on the exterior are continued throughout the interior of the building, where regional motifs blend with classicism. The entrances in the towers on the south elevation open into marble-clad vestibules. The interior doors are hollow bronze set in a wrought-bronze and glass-panel framework. A cast-bronze cornice with four bronze eagles tops the entire framework. The plaster ceiling is coffered with egg-and-dart molding and a star pattern inside the coffers.

The walls of the primary corridors on the second level are clad in Kasota Cream marble. Two pairs of double walnut-paneled, sliding doors are located directly off of the main corridor. When court is in session these doors are opened, exposing leather-covered doors with oval windows that open directly into the historic courtroom. The coffered ceilings feature ornamental plaster work, and the elaborate cornice is also plaster.

The exterior of the U.S. Courthouse retains its original appearance. The most impressive interior spaces with grand materials remain intact; these include the lobbies, corridors, and courtrooms. After the Postal Service moved out in 1984, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) restored the finishes of the main lobby and transformed the postal workroom with its wood block floor and warehouse appearance into two courtrooms. Original marble was painstakingly matched and the original paint colors were recreated. Light fixtures, wood paneling and judges' benches were accurately replicated using historic documentation. GSA undertook additional renovations in 1998.

Oil-on-canvas murals, painted in 1935-1936, are located on the east and west walls of the lobby. Artists J. Ward Lockwood and Richard Haines received the commissions through a post office mural project awarded by the U.S. Treasury Department's Painting and Sculpture Section.

Pioneers in Kansas, the mural by Lockwood (a Kansas native), is a collage of images associated with role and evolution of the Postal Service during the settlement of the western United States. A stagecoach laden with mail and passengers marks the center of the canvas, with the other images radiating around it. A Pony Express rider and a Native American exchange fire on the left side of the canvas. A vulture flies above the rider, symbolizing imminent danger and death. A pioneer couple stands on the right side of the canvas, the woman reading a letter. A black steam engine emerges behind the couple, symbolizing continued western expansion.

Kansas Farming, the mural by Haines, depicts various aspects of rural life and farm production, focusing on the importance of urbanization, industrialization, and technology to the economic growth of the region. Rolling hills ripe with the bounty of the fall harvest comprise the idealized rural landscape. Tall corn and sunflower plants frame the center panel of the canvas, in which a farmer on horseback visits his neighbors. Nearby, a young girl holds mail in both hands as the boy waves to an unseen mail plane. A farmer feeds corn to his hogs and looks toward a group of produce packers on the left side of the canvas. In the distant background, a small town with a railroad depot and grain elevator represent the growing role of industry in agriculture.

Significant Events

1930-1931: Building constructed

1935-36: Under the Department of the Treasury's newly formed Painting and Sculpture Section, lobby murals are commissioned and installed

1984: The Post Office relocates to new building

1987-1988: Postal workroom converted into two courtrooms

1989: U.S. Courthouse listed in the National Register of Historic Places

1998: GSA undertakes a third renovation of the courthouse

Building Facts

Architects: James A. Wetmore and Louis A. Simon

Construction Dates: 1930-1932

Landmark Designation: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Kansas Post Offices with Artwork Multiple Property Submission

Location: 401 North Market Street

Architectural Style: Art Deco

Primary Materials: Bedford limestone

Prominent Feature: Lobby murals, Pioneers in Kansas, by J. Ward Lockwood, and Kansas Farming, by Richard Haines

U.S. Courthouse in Wichita Exterior

The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in Wichita, Kansas, now referred to as the U.S. Courthouse, is located on the north side of Third Street, between Main Street on the west side and Market Street on the east. The multi-story, limestone-clad building occupies almost the entire site, with the exception of the parking area at the rear (north) of the site.

The site was originally a number of residential lots, with an alley dividing the site in half from north to south. There is a slight slope, with the lowest elevation at the northeast corner. A concrete sidewalk and grass strip extend along the east, south, and west elevations. The flagpole is located in the center of the planting strip on the south. At the east and west end of the south facade are main entrances to what was originally the post office lobby, with granite steps that lead up to the entrance and extend across nearly the entire face of each corner tower.

The north side of the site provides all on-site parking. Originally used as a loading and unloading area for the U.S. Post Office, the dock remains with parking spaces in front.

The building is 224 feet by 157 feet and is in the style referred to as "Starved Classical" that characterizes federal buildings of that era. The building is generally three levels in height, with a fourth level across the long dimension, and a fifth level at the towers of the east and west corners. The portion of the building originally housing the postal workroom is one story in height, with a mezzanine level above one-half of the postal workroom. The portion housing the original courtrooms has the height of a three-story structure, due to the interior height of the ceilings. The structural system is steel and concrete, clad with sanded buff and light beige Bedford limestone. The building blocks are 21-1/2 inches by up to 42 inches with light colored mortar. With the exception of a few areas of carved ornamentation, the detailing of the building is quite simple.

All windows are in slightly recessed planes, making the stone divisions between windows appear as pilasters, an effect which is reinforced by simple carved ornamentation in the position of the pilaster capital. The cornice line of the main structure is plain, but emphasized with heavier limestone blocks. The main entrance has heavy molded surrounds, ornamental reveals, and shelf heads. Above the shelf are two winged limestone lions holding a plaque. The original cast bronze-framed transoms remain, but the original cast bronze doors have been replaced by bright metal ones.

Each tower has a fifth level which is set back from the main tower face. A carved ornamental band in a winged bird motif is centered between the window heads and the cornice line. The cornice line is ornamented similarly to the cornice of the tower corners, but is much less elaborate.

The north facade is broken up into different levels and is visually more complex than the other facades although it is recognizable as the back of the building. From this aspect, the entire structure appears as a U-shape with two-story infill, and towers at each end of the "U".

The building has a flat single ply roof with parapet at all levels. All skylights have been covered over with standing seam metal roofing material, but the structures remain intact. The original elevator penthouses are located above the fifth level roof.

While the basement of the courthouse is almost square, the building is laid out in a squared "U" shape. At the first level, there are four entrances, one at each outside corner of the east and west towers. At the second, third, and fourth levels, the courtrooms, court support facilities, and offices open onto the cross corridor. Wing corridors divide the east and west wing offices. At the second level, the center of the "U" is partially filled by the District Courtroom and the Appellate Courtroom above it. These courtrooms have high ceilings and fill in the space between the second and fourth level roofs. The fifth level of the east and west towers is office space.

At the south elevation, there are two vestibules which are clad in Kasota Cream marble with Tennessee Ross Mahogany marble base. The floors are of a square-and-rectangle pattern made from Oriental and Roseal marbles. The inside doors are hollow bronze set in a wrought bronze and glass panel framework. The entire framework is topped by a cast bronze cornice and four cast bronze eagles. The floor of the lobby is marble of several types, predominantly Napoleon Grey banded by Republic Pink. Patterned bands are made up of Oriental and Roseal.

The ceiling is coffered plaster with egg-and-dart molding and a star pattern inside the coffers. On the east and west end walls of the lobby hang two murals which were painted by the winners of a Department of the Treasury-sponsored competition in 1935.

There are two staircases leading from the first level lobby to the second level Elevator Lobby. The stair wraps around the back of the elevator shaft, with plaster walls and Kasota Cream wainscot. Stair treads and platforms are of Napoleon Grey marble, with risers and stringers of Tennessee Ross Mahogany marble. The handrails are cast bronze, and where the rails pass across the window, bronze grillework fills the area between the rail and the treads. The details of all the stair levels are the same except above the fourth level leading to the tower offices and penthouses.

The second level is the same as the first, except the District Courtroom fills in only a portion of the "U" building plan. The walls of the primary corridors are clad in Kasota Cream marble from base to cornice. Door trim is Kasota marble, and bases are Tennessee Ross Mahogany marble. The doors are American walnut with obscured glass lights, except for the courtroom doors, which are two pairs of double walnut panel doors with oval lights. The ceilings are of highly ornamented, coffered plaster, as is the elaborate cornice.

The third level is the same as the second level, except the detailing is much simpler. The upper portion of the second level District Courtroom takes up a large portion of the third level, with the Petit Jury Room, a toilet, and stairs also located at the third level.

The fourth level changes substantially from those of the lower levels. At this level there are no wing corridors. All offices, the Appellate Courtroom, and the library open off the cross corridor.

The fifth level floors are two unconnected towers at the southeast and southwest corners of the building. Each is reached by one of the end staircases or elevators. The stairs do not wrap around the elevator shaft at this level, but land at stair halls onto which the elevators also open.

The exterior of the courthouse is generally intact and in excellent condition. With the exception of the addition of the mechanical equipment housings there have been no major alterations. Dropped ceilings and modern lighting fixtures have been installed, many of the office floors have been covered with tile or carpeting, and partitions have been added or removed. In spite of these changes, the most impressive spaces with the grandest materials remain intact. Examples of these spaces are the lobbies, corridors, courtrooms, and court offices.

U.S. Courthouse in Wichita Exterior

The Wichita U.S. Courthouse is architecturally significant as a good example of the federal style termed as "starved classical", which characterized the architecture of the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department during the 1920s and early 1930s. This building is significant as part of an unusually large and cohesive body of architectural work of Louis A. Simon, who was responsible for the design of government buildings under Supervising Architect James Wetmore and later as Supervising Architect himself, from about 1915 until the office closed in the 1930s.

The history of the U.S. Courthouse is a significant factor in the development of the city of Wichita itself. From the times of the earliest settlement, the U.S. Post Office has been the focal point of the community, and as the location of the Wichita post office shifted from site to site, the downtown commercial area grew up around it. When the site for the new U.S. Post Office and Courthouse was selected, it was only a few blocks from the site of early Wichita's original Post Office in the Durfee Ranch Store.

In March of 1930, Wichita received official word that bids for construction would be taken on May 1, 1930. The building cost would be $1.2 million. It would be modernistic in appearance, clad in sanded Bedford limestone, and four stories in height, with two main entrances on Third Street and one entrance each on Market and Main Streets. The interior of the first level would have a large public lobby extending east and west, and would resemble the interior of a modern bank. The second level would house the District Court, with courtroom, Judges' suite, library, offices, and rooms for clerks, juries, and marshals. The Internal Revenue Service was to occupy the third level, and the Appellate Court with support facilities would occupy the fourth level. Because of the size and complexity of the building, it was expected to be completed in 18 months, but was finished ahead of schedule.

The building was occupied during the first week in April of 1932. A ceremony to dedicate the new building was held on April 8, 1932, by the Wichita Chamber of Commerce and consisted of a pageant and a parade led by Postmaster Griffith.

One thousand three hundred tons of structural steel, forged in Pennsylvania and assembled in St. Louis, were contained in the building. More than 230 tons of reinforcing steel was used with over one million bricks, and two thousand seven hundred cubic yards of concrete were used. A new type of wood block flooring, of varnished yellow pine set in an asphalt base, was used for the floor of the first level postal workroom.

In January of 1935, Wichita area artists were invited to submit designs for two murals to be placed in the lobby of the building. Ward Lockwood, an artist living in Taos, New Mexico, but a Kansas native, was one of the competitors selected. The theme of his mural was the evolution of the postal service during the settling of the West. Richard Haines of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was the artist commissioned to paint the other mural. His design titled "The Transformation" shows the contrast between the old and the modern, with a scene of a Kansas farm family.

In February of 1939, remodeling and modernizing measures for the federal building were announced, and major renovation work for the building was begun in the fall of 1957. Fluorescent lighting was installed throughout the building, an air conditioning system was installed, and portions of the interior were repainted.

In 1984, the U.S. Post Office moved out of the building, and more renovations were completed in 1986 to transform the vacated spaces into useable office space for the courts.

National Register listing: Kansas Post Offices with Artwork, 1936-1942 MPS

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1930 1932 Original Construction JAMES A. WETMORE, DEPT. OF TREASURY
1957 Lighting installed, air conditioning installed
1962 Install ceiling, wall, door & frame in basement
1963 Install 60 gallon hot water tank
1965 Five toilet compartments
1966 Install fire alarm system
1968 Roof repairs
1972 Third floor alterations
1986 New courtrooms & related facilities,basement ren.
1989 HC ramp,basement ren.,misc. renovation Norman Mair, General Engineer, GSA