Acting as a point of departure during the great migration to the West, Kansas City experienced phenomenal urban growth and development during the early years of the twentieth century. By 1930, the city's increasing population warranted a new federal building to replace an existing post office and custom house. The 1930s New Deal programs, created to generate employment during the widespread economic downturn of the Great Depression, provided funding for construction of new federal buildings nationwide. Responding to Kansas City's need for a larger, more efficient building, the program funded a new U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in 1935. The building's construction, from 1938 to 1939, symbolized the ideals of the progressive public works projects. As one of the New Deal's last major construction projects of the 1930s, the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse provided modern space to accommodate the burgeoning presence of the federal government in Kansas City.
The building's architectural design was produced by the prominent local architecture firm Wight and Wight, whose distinguished civic work includes the Jackson County Courthouse (1934), City Hall (1937), and the Municipal Courts Building (1938). These projects, including the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, represent Wight and Wight's shift from the Classical Revival, which previously dominated federal architecture, toward the Modern movement that was beginning to emerge nationwide during the 1930s. The Courthouse's abstracted classicism with Art Deco references embodies this stylistic transition.
In 1952, the building received national attention when Thurgood Marshall represented the plaintiff of the Swope Park Swimming Pool desegregation case. As the first major desegregation case in Kansas City, the deliberations stirred the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.
Plans have been made to renovate the entire building to accommodate new, nonfederal tenants as part of an upcoming outlease program. The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse artfully embodies the Art Modern style that was becoming increasingly influential by the late 1930s - a time when many federal architects experimented with abstracted classical motifs combined with a reduction in architectural ornament. The building's flat planes of Indiana limestone are nearly devoid of classical ornamentation, which is limited to the punctuated regular rhythm of elongated bays.
Encompassing a full city block along Grand Avenue, each of the four sides of the immense ten-story edifice is similar in design, divided into three horizontal sections. The facade's (west elevation's) three-story base rises with smooth walls pierced by elongated bays enclosing the first- and second-story windows, which are divided by decorative spandrels. Each bay is pierced by paired punched windows separated by limestone mullions at the third story. A series of wide granite steps with bronze handrails leads from Grand Avenue to the three central bays enclosing the entrances. The striking dark texture of the cast-bronze door framing and grillwork above exhibit restrained classical detailing, and contrast with the light tones and smoothness of the pale-gray Indiana limestone walls.
The upper stories are set back from the base at each elevation, rising five stories in similarly planar limestone walls. The fifth story echoes the fourth-story fenestration and creates the building's middle section by an elegant stringcourse of Greek fretwork. The bays above are elongated to enclose eleven bays of four-story stacked fenestration, with each window divided by decorative aluminum spandrels repeated from the base. Above the ninth story is a wide entablature, composed of a blank architrave and frieze, and a simple cornice.
The interiors retain their original design and continue the spare ornamentation with emphasis on fine materials and abstracted geometric motifs. The vestibule is clad in marble upon a black granite base and features original bronze sidelights flanking each doorway and adjacent recessed wood-paneled telephone niches. The T-shaped central lobby is finished with multicolor terrazzo floors, golden-veined Genevieve marble for the walls, and high plaster ceilings. The cream-colored terrazzo is bordered with black and green terrazzo cross bands to reflect the geometric patterns of the ceiling beams. Marble pilasters detailed with Greek fretwork divide the walls into three bays, while four freestanding, rectangular marble-clad columns dominate the central space. The former postal lobby has similarly refined materials of marble pilasters and terrazzo flooring, with marble wainscoting at the service windows.
At the east side of the central lobby, molded marble surrounds with black granite plinth blocks enclose a bank of six elevators. The north and south lobby walls contain marble-framed double doors with panelized details; these doors lead to the main stairwells, where flights of pink marble stairs and brass railings ascend to the north and south lobbies.
Four historic courtrooms, located on the fourth and sixth floors, exude modernity with elegant finishes, making them the most historically significant spaces within the building. The courtrooms are nearly identical, rising two stories and featuring leather-covered doors, light and dark cork-tile flooring, pink-granite baseboards, and wood-paneled wainscoting. Pilasters divide the space into regular bays, rising to support wood trim and plaster crown moldings. The recessed ceiling panels contain two original brass pendant lights and a large circular aluminum air grille, and are divided by wide beams adorned with gold-leaf paint finishes. The courtrooms are windowless, relying on advanced lighting and an air-conditioning system, considered to be state-of-the-art when the building was completed.
1935: Congress appropriates $3,300,000 for the construction of the new U.S. Post Office and Courthouse building.
1938: The ceremonial cornerstone is laid and construction begins under the supervision of local architects Wight & Wight.
1939: The building opens for business.
1952: Thurgood Marshall represents the plaintiff of the Swope Park Swimming Pool desegregation.
2003: The building is determined eligible for listing in the National Register
Architect: Wight & Wight
Construction Dates: 1938-39
Landmark Status: Eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places
Location: 811 Grand Avenue
Architectural Style: Art Moderne
Primary Materials: Indiana Limestone over steel and cast-in-place concrete
Prominent Features: Exterior bronze ornament; Historic courtrooms
The United States Courthouse and Post Office is located in downtown Kansas City and occupies an entire block bounded by 8th Street on the north, 9th Street on the south, McGee Street on the east and Grand Avenue on the west. The site slopes down to the west approximately 10' from McGee Street to Grand Avenue. The nine-story, rectangular-shaped, flat-roofed building is clad in smooth Indiana limestone atop a granite base. The overall design of the building is that of Art Moderne in appearance with some Art Deco references. Designed by the Kansas City firm of Wight & Wight, the building may be an important transitional structure to the modern aesthetic movement which prevailed after World War II. The building's structural system is composed of steel frame construction. Cast-in-place concrete is used for the floor and roof slabs as well as for fire-proofing for the steel columns and beams. The exterior limestone and granite cladding is hung from the steel frame or tied to back-up walls of unit masonry. The exterior elevations are similar with only minor differences. The main entrance is centered on Grand Avenue, secondary entrances are located at the western ends of the 8th and 9th Street elevations and the building's postal loading dock is situated along the McGee Street elevation. All elevations feature a six-story tower section atop a three-story base. The top section is set back from the exterior plane of the base on all four elevations. The base section of the building includes a raised basement and floors one through three. The exterior walls are clad in a gray/pink granite watertable and smooth-cut limestone veneer. The east and west elevations are divided vertically into eleven bays of fenestration while the shorter north and south elevations are divided into nine bays of fenestration. The paired first and second floor windows are stacked within two-story openings and are separated by decorative aluminum mullions and spandrels. The entrances, centered on the Grand Avenue elevation and at the western ends of the 8th and 9th Street elevations, are contained within two-story openings and feature cast bronze eagles and decorative grillework. The third-story windows appear as paired punched openings with limestone mullions. The upper portions of the building, floors four through nine, are faced with the same smooth-cut limestone and are divided by paired punched or vertically-grouped windows aligning with those of the base section. The east and west elevations feature the same eleven bays of fenestration while the north and south elevations are reduced to only seven bays each. The window openings on floors four and five match the paired punched openings on the third floor. The fifth floor is capped by a continuous band of Greek fretwork. This banding forms the sill for the vertically-grouped window openings stretching from the sixth through the ninth floor. These vertical openings feature the same decorative aluminum mullions and spandrels as the base section. Above the ninth floor is a tall entablature with blank architrave, blank frieze and simple projecting cornice. The entablature screens the tenth floor or mechanical attic level. On the interior, significant spaces include the first floor postal lobby and entry vestibule trimmed with decorative plaster and golden-vein Genevieve marble and the four original courtrooms. The two-story courtrooms, located on the interior of the 4th and 6th floors, are windowless. Their placement required artificial lighting and air-conditioning, considered an "ultra-modern touch" at the time of the construction.
Transferred to City Development Authority - October 2008
The U.S. Courthouse and Post Office, located at 811 Grand Avenue is Kansas City's third federal building. The history of the federal government in Kansas City begins in 1845 with Col. William M. Chick as postmaster for the "Town of Kansas." The post office was a drawer in a desk of his general store on the corner of Main and Levee Streets. The "Town of Kansas" was an important link in the great migration westward and was soon to become the point of a huge funnel which spread out to the west and southwest.
Kansas City's first permanent federal building, the "U.S. Custom House and Post Office" was located at the corner of Ninth and Walnut Streets. The building was begun in 1879 and completed in 1885. The building and site cost $325,000. The three-story gray sandstone structure was highlighted by twin towers. One of the towers contained the "Town Clock" and bell. Upon its demolition in 1930, the clock and bell were incorporated into the new twin-spired Fidelity National Bank and Trust Company high-rise building (MO0041ZZ) which replaced it on the site.
The small, three-story building gave way to a much larger second federal building, the "U.S. Post Office and Custom House." Located on the east side of Grand Avenue between Eighth and Ninth Streets, the building was completed in 1900. The new building featured a great gilded dome, spacious corridors, and high ceilings. The building and site cost $1,352,078.
The years following 1900 were years of great history making and years of phenomenal growth throughout the country. The "age of steam" was soon replaced by the "age of gasoline and electricity." The activities of the federal government were expanded to meet the needs of the changing times. By the time of the first World War, the building had become inadequate to hold all of the federal agencies. Due to a lack of space, the newer agencies went into rented quarters in the downtown area. In 1932, a large general Post Office was constructed at 315 West Pershing Road at a cost of $4,000,000.
With the "New Deal" programs came a further expansion of federal activities and Kansas City soon became a major center with more than 100 federal offices located in and near the city. It became important that the government construct a larger and more efficient building. Funds to construct a new federal courts building and parking garage were included in the Deficiency Bill passed by Congress in 1934. However, upon surveys undertaken in 1935, the original appropriation of $2,300,000 made in the Hoover administration was increased to $3,300,000. After two years of design and planning by the architectural firm of Wight and Wight, construction bids were opened on August 31, 1937. The Swenson Construction Company was awarded the contract to build the new facility at a cost of $2,403,219. The clearing of the old federal building was begun in February of 1938 and by July 1, 1938, the old building was completely demolished. The cornerstone for the new building was laid on October 20, 1938, and the first federal agency moved in on September 21, 1939. A dedication ceremony, attended by Harry S Truman, then a U.S. Senator, was held on October 5, 1939.
According to the Missouri State Historic Preservation Officer, the property is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. A Statement of Opinion, dated February 18, 1993, reads "The United States Court House and Post Office (Federal Courts Building) at 811 Grand Avenue, Kansas City, Jackson County, Missouri is potentially eligible under criteria of evaluation C and A and areas of significance, Architecture and Government to wit: The building was designed by Wight and Wight, the renowned architectural firm responsible for several depression era governmental buildings constructed in Kansas City, including the Jackson County Courthouse (1934), City Hall (1937), and the Municipal Courts Building (1938). The Federal Courts Building was constructed in 1939, the last of the major governmental construction projects of the 1930's. While Wight and Wight were known for their Neo-classical work, these projects were distinctly moderne, with many Art-Deco references. The austere Federal Courts Building reflects a clear transition from the historical references of the past and represents the ideals of the public works projects initiated under the Hoover and Roosevelt administration."