Dubuque U.S. Post Office and Courthouse

Building History

As Dubuque expanded during the 1920s, the post office was not large enough to handle the increasing volume of mail. Rather than enlarge the existing building, city officials decided to construct a new post office. Congressman T.J.B. Robinson led the effort to secure a more appropriate postal facility. Officials determined that the new building would function as both a post office and courthouse, and the building continues to serve these purposes today.

The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse was constructed with funding from the 1926 Public Buildings Act, in which Congress appropriated substantial resources for Federal buildings throughout the United States. Dubuque received approximately $650,000 for site acquisition and construction costs. Renowned city planner John Nolen intended for the building to be part of his civic design, "Administrative Center at Washington Park," which he developed in 1931. City officials hoped to construct a city hall, courthouse, and park adjacent to the post office, but these plans were never realized.

The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse was designed by James A. Wetmore, Acting Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, who received input from Iowa architects. Among the local designers was the office of Proudfoot, Rawson, Souers & Thomas, a highly respected Des Moines firm. This venerable firm (including earlier variations of the founding office) had a long of history of designing high-profile public buildings in Iowa, including the Polk County Courthouse in Des Moines and buildings for Iowa State University and the University of Iowa. Although little is known about the Dubuque architect involved in the project, Herbert Kennison, he likely served as an onsite consultant and provided the valued contribution of a designer who was also a local resident.

The building's cornerstone was laid in 1932, and a dedication ceremony was held the following year. The building was occupied in early 1934. In 1985, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing resource within the Cathedral Historic District, which encompasses historically significant residences and public buildings.

Architecture

The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is located in the heart of the business district in downtown Dubuque, Iowa, and fronts Washington Park. Construction commenced in 1932 and was completed in 1934. The building, which was designed in the Art Deco style, displays the strong rectilinear qualities that influenced Modern architecture in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. The building has a form that is similar to public architecture of earlier periods, but most of the elaborate ornamentation found on buildings from previous eras was omitted. The result is clean and restrained, yet still monumental. Many civic buildings constructed during the Great Depression display this reserved quality.

The building consists of a centrally placed, projecting, four-story tower flanked by three-story wings. The tower was originally designed to accommodate an observation room for the local weather bureau. The exterior is clad in cream-colored Bedford limestone cut into ashlar (squared and smooth) blocks. Decorative details that are consistent with typical Art Deco ornamentation are found on the building. These include stylized flowers, swags, dentil (rectangular blocks), and chevron (V-shaped) elements. The corners of the tower are chamfered with a 45-degree bevel cut and contain stylized eagle motifs that express the Federal government's presence in Dubuque. The tall, vertical windows are evenly spaced and have bronze mullions, which are common on Art Deco architecture. The windows are separated by fluted pilasters (attached columns) that add to the classical appeal of the building's design.

The interior features several important murals in the lobby vestibule. The murals were funded with $2,000 of the original money allotted for construction of the building. Although a competition to select an artist was held, officials intended to select Grant Wood, the famous Iowa painter of "American Gothic," to complete the murals. When Wood did not enter the competition, William E.L. Bunn was selected. The selection was subsequently overturned in favor of a painter named Bertram Adams. As a compromise, both Bunn and Adams, who each studied and worked with Wood and were friends from the University of Iowa, were allowed to paint murals. Adams painted "Early Settlers of Dubuque" in 1936 and 1937. The painting depicts several symbols of the city's pioneering days, such as the Julien Dubuque Monument and the Mesquakie Native American village. Adams also represented impending industrialization by painting the Shot Tower and a bridge. Bunn painted "Early Mississippi Packet 'Dubuque III'" (also referred to as "Early Mississippi Steamboats") at the same time. His mural illustrates life in Dubuque in 1870, when steamboats were a primary method of transportation in the Midwest. The two murals show a harmony of scale and color use.

The lobby is also decorated with American walnut veneer panels topped by an ornamental cornice with designs of leaves and circles. Bronze grilles with geometric patterns are a typical Art Deco feature. The main staircase on the north end of the building is richly finished with rose-gray marble wainscot, stairs, and landings. The brushed aluminum railing adds a strong Art Deco character to the space.

The courtroom is located on the second floor. Cardiff green marble encircles the base of the room. American walnut paneling is laid in a herringbone pattern and topped with a scalloped band of wood. The scalloped motif is repeated in metal grilles and furniture. The most elaborate feature of the room is the plaster cornice with carved dentils, leaves, floral designs, and chevrons highlighted with metallic paint.

Significant Events

1932-1934: U.S. Post Office and Courthouse constructed

1933: Cornerstone dedication ceremony

1935: Competition held to select artists for murals

1937: Murals by Bertrand Adams and William Bunn completed

1985: U.S. Post Office and Courthouse listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing resource within the Cathedral Historic District

Building Facts

Location: 350 West 6th Street

Architect: James A. Wetmore

Construction dates: 1932-1934

Landmark Status: Contributing building within the National Register of Historic Places Cathedral Historic District

Architectural Style: Art Deco

Primary Material: Bedford Limestone

Prominent Features: Projecting central tower Art Deco details Lobby murals by prominent Iowa artists

Dubuque U.S. Post Office and Courthouse

The United States Post Office and Courthouse is a three-story steel frame building, constructed from 1932 to 1934. The building was designed in the Art Deco Style with strong Classical overtones. The building, extending 182 feet along West Sixth Street, and 112 feet on Locust and Bluff streets, has a rectangular-shaped footprint that results in a box-like form and a flat roof. The main entrance is located on the north elevation, with secondary entrances on the east and west elevations. The exterior of the building is clad with cream-colored Bedford limestone ashlar. The building is composed of three stages: a raised base clad in light gray limestone ashlar; a two-story middle section; and a slightly recessed third story with a rectangular block shape. Carved limestone ornamentation enhances each stage of the building and is continuous throughout all of the elevations. The carved limestone details, featuring friezes of stylized flowers, swags, chevrons and dentil, are consistent with typical Art Deco ornamentation. The three-story, box-like form of the building is interrupted by a four-story tower with a rectangular footprint projecting from the north elevation. This tower serves to distinguish the principal elevation and main entrance facing West Sixth Street from the secondary elevations. The tower, designed originally to contain an observation room for the use of the weather bureau, presently accommodates a stair tower, an elevator, and toilet faculties on each floor and elevator machinery and mechanical equipment on the top floor. The corners of the tower are chamfered on the third and fourth stories; stylized carved limestone eagles are incorporated into the covers of the tower, proudly announcing the federal character of the building. The fenestration throughout is organized in an arrangement repeated on all of the elevations. The first two stories of the building feature a series of two-story vertical bays that are separated by a colonnade of two-story fluted limestone pilasters. Each bay is comprised of bronze sash casement windows with bronze mullions that are grouped in each row into sets of three. The original lobby extends east and west, from the entrance on Bluff Street to the entrance on Locust Street. The lobby, eighteen feet wide, is paneled full-height with American walnut veneer crowned by an ornamental cornice with a leaf and geometric circle design.

Dubuque U.S. Post Office and Courthouse

Contributing structure in Historic District - Transferred to the City of Dubuque on 06.23.06.

The United States Post Office and Courthouse is located at 350 W. 6th Street, in the heart of the business district in downtown Dubuque, Iowa. Construction of the building began in 1932, and the building was completed and officially opened in 1934. The building, designed in the Art Deco Style with strong Classical overtones, fronts on Washington Park and was the only executed component of a civic center plan and administrative center for the city.

Dubuque's three-story Federal Building and US Courthouse was erected under the aegis of James A. Wetmore (1863-1940), Acting Supervising Architect for the Treasury from 1915 to 1933. During his Tenure as the Supervising Architect, Wetmore was responsible for the passage of the 1926 Public Buildings Act that prompted the construction of the $300,000,000 Federal Triangle project and other important federal buildings across the country. Typically working with local design architects, Wetmore's office would oversee the construction project. Wetmore is credited with overseeing the construction of more than 2,000 post offices and other public buildings nationwide.

To assist in the design and detailing of the Dubuque Post Office and Federal Building, Wetmore selected two local associate architecture firms: the firm of Proudfoot, Rawson, Souers, and Thomas from Des Moines, Iowa, and independent architect Herbert A. Kennison from Dubuque. The employment of the associate architects for this project was officially authorized on March 31, 1930 by the Secretary of the Treasury.

The firm of Proudfoot, et al was an established and highly respected architecture firm. Eminently qualified to assist in the design of the Dubuque Courthouse, the firm specialized in the design of public buildings such as court houses, libraries, general college buildings, office buildings and hotels. William R. Proudfoot, (1860-1927) a native Iowan, was the original founder of the firm. Proudfoot received his education in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. In 1880, Proudfoot founded the firm of Proudfoot & Bird when he was only twenty years old. Architect Harry Rawson joined the firm in 1911. Rawson is known to have been personally involved with the design of the Dubuque U.S. Post Office Building, as well as the Polk County Tuberculosis Hospital, the State National Bank, several office buildings in Des Moines, and Grinnell College. [From Withey, Henry F. and Elsie Rathburn, "Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (Deceased)," (New Age Publishing Company: Los Angeles, 1956): 492 and 532]. By 1932, at the time of the construction of the Post Office and Federal Building, Proudfoot had died, Bird had left the firm, and the name of the firm had changed to Proudfoot, Rawson, Souers and Thomas.

Herbert Kennison, a local Dubuque architect, was selected by Proudfoot, Rawson, Souers & Thomas. In a telegram from Proudfoot, et al to Ferry K. Heath, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Department, Kennison's attributes were evaluated:

"Dubuque Kennisons present organization consists of himself and stenographer. Two rooms, one with three drafting tables. Practised as architect about a year, inspected one building costing forty thousand, very creditable. Believe him excellent and practical draftsman, does not claim to be strong in design. Am sure satisfactory, associate arrangements can be made, work to be done in our office." [from NARS, RG 121, Box 1228, Folder "Jan-1926 - May 1932, P.O. New," Telegram dated 6/19/1931]

The style of the federal building illustrates the strong rectilinear qualities associated with the Art Deco style of the 1930s, and the later Art Moderne and Modern styles of the 1940s and 1950s. Typical of Art Deco buildings of the period, the architects employ stripped-down Classical elements in the design for the Dubuque U.S. Post Office and Courthouse as a tribute to the Beaux Arts federal buildings of the early twentieth century. The federal buildings of this era also continue the monumental scale established by Beaux Arts classicism. The style of the building reflects a new approach in the design of federal buildings that presents the form, materials and details in a restrained, clean-lined, and modest fashion. This building embodies the public architecture promulgated by the United States government for most of the country's history, and also illustrates the effect of modernism on the established ideals of American public design.

During the 1920s, the Dubuque main post office was severely overcrowded, and the pressing need for new postal facilities was a major concern for city officials. In a letter dated January 1927, Congressman T.J.B. Robinson of Dubuque wrote to Mr. Carl T. Schuneman of the Treasury Department complaining about the cramped quarters in the existing post office. Schuneman wrote back to assure the Congressman that over $100,000,000 was authorized by the Public Buildings Act to be appropriated by Congress for expenditures outside of the District of Columbia during an eight year period. Later that year, funding was identified and made eligible for a new post office in Dubuque.

After Dubuque was identified as eligible for federal funding in 1927, several federal investigators visited a number of proposed sites. By the end of 1930, a decision was made to build a new post office rather than enlarge the existing post office building, and a site was selected. A program was formalized to include a post office, courthouse and federal offices within the federal building. An Act of Congress on March 4, 1931 finalized the acquisition of a new site. Dubuque received $675,000 for the new building: approximately $125,000 for the site and $550,000 for the construction of the building. ["Let's Get the Postoffice," from the Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal of Dubuque, dated March 23, 1931] The site at Sixth and Bluff streets was officially selected in April 1931, with the offering of $165,000 by the U.S. Government to the owner of the site, realtor J.J. Nagel.

The U.S. Post Office and Federal building was one of three civic buildings proposed by city planner John Noland in his 1931 civic center design known as "Administrative Center at Washington Park." The plan included the Post Office and Federal Building in its present location at Sixth and Bluff, and two additional buildings: a city hall and a court house. The buildings were to be connected with an arcade. The civic buildings occupied a double block between Locust and Bluff streets to the north and south, and Fourth and Sixth streets to the east and west. Washington Park and another proposed park flanked the civic buildings. [NARS, RG 121, Box 1229, Dubuque, IA, P.O. New, Folder: "Site Papers" Drawing by John Nolen, 3/19/31] However, the post office and federal building was the only part of the plan that was ever realized.

Ground was broken and the cornerstone laid for the new building on September 14, 1932. The construction of the building was awarded to Chiabai & Garriup Construction company of Gary, Indiana for $327,000. An elaborate cornerstone dedication ceremony was held on August 6, 1933. The building was first occupied on January 2, 1934.

The interior lobby vestibule features murals by Bertram Adams and William E.L. Bunn. The Adams' mural is entitled "Early Settlers of Dubuque (1936-1937)" and Bunn's mural is titled "Early Mississippi Steamboats (1936-1937). The two murals were placed within the vestibule of the main entrance on the north side of the federal building. The murals were funded with $2,000 from the original $625,000 federal contract. A competition to select artists for the murals was held under direction of the Dubuque Art Association in 1935. When the preferred artist Grant Wood did not enter the competition, the Association's selection of William E.L. Bunn was overturned by the Washington office in favor of Bertram Adams, a student of Grant Wood. As a compromise, the commission was split between the two artists, each receiving $956. Bunn and Adams, friends from the University of Iowa, harmonized the scale and coloration of the paintings.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1932 1934 Original Construction Wetmore, James A., Supervising Arch