A group of Swiss and German colonists led by Baron Christoph von Graffenried founded New Bern, North Carolina, in 1710 at the confluence of the Trent and Neuse rivers. Named after Bern, the capital of Switzerland, the town's excellent location made it a government and trade center. In 1765, Governor William Tryon established New Bern as the colonial capital of North Carolina.
As the town became a bustling port and mercantile center, citizens required federal services. In 1897, the government constructed a Romanesque Revival building at the corner of Pollock and Craven streets to house a post office and courthouse. By the 1930s, New Bern needed a larger building. Deciding not to expand the 1897 building, the U.S. Department of the Treasury chose a site bounded by Middle, Broad, Hancock, and New streets. Controversy arose when business owners objected to the new location, and the Daughters of the American Revolution passed a resolution opposing the destruction of the John Wright Stanly House, an 18th-century Georgian building on the proposed lot. Officials proceeded with the project after the City of New Bern agreed to purchase the 1897 building for its city hall, and the Stanly House was relocated.
Construction of the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse began in 1933. Local architect Robert F. Smallwood designed the building, which opened on April 1, 1935, and cost $325,000 to build. At the time of its completion, it was one of the largest and most expensive buildings in the Eastern Carolina region. For a brief time, the new building also served as a custom house. During World War II, the U.S. Marine Corps Command Contingent occupied the second and third floors.
John Davis Larkins Jr. was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and served until his death in 1990. Judge Larkins tried several important cases, which greatly strengthened both civil rights and environmental protection legislation, in the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse.
In 1992, the post office vacated the building but retained ownership. In 2004, the U.S. General Services Administration assumed ownership and initiated a renovation. In 1973, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing building within the nationally significant New Bern Historic District.
The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is an excellent example of the Georgian Revival style of architecture. This style is heavily influenced by colonial-era precedents and employs classical ornamentation. The building is three stories and sits atop a granite base. It is clad in red brick veneer that is laid in a common bond pattern. Contrasting limestone trim accentuates the exterior.
A central colonnade with six pairs of two-story limestone columns dominates the symmetrical facade. The first level contains five arched entrance openings topped by decorative swag-and-garland motifs executed in limestone. The classically designed entrances have broken pediments surmounted by cast-bronze eagles. A limestone water table encircles the building between the first and second levels. Projecting pavilions articulated by limestone quoins flank the colonnade. Arched windows with classical surrounds span the second and third floors. Classical pilasters support pediments. The same round-arch motif is repeated on two small copper-clad dormers. Double-hung, wood windows are found throughout the building. A parapet with balustrades tops the facade above a dentilled cornice. The steeply pitched roof is covered in slate. A prominent wood cupola with arched windows is capped with a copper roof.
The postal lobby spans the width of the building on the east side on the first floor. The east wall of the lobby contains fluted Royal black and white marble pilasters topped with plaster Ionic capitals. Alabama Creme and black marble tiles set on a diagonal cover the floor. The coved plaster ceiling features massive bronze octagonal light fixtures. The west wall of the lobby contains bays that formerly housed post-office boxes and service windows. The upper portions of the bays are filled with iron grilles with painted floral designs. Other remnants from the post office era include wall-mounted postal tables with black marble tops that extend from the eastern wall and are supported by scrolled brackets. Original directory boards are contained in classical frames topped by broken pediments and urn ornaments. Located at the each end of the lobby, steel-frame marble staircases have ornamental iron balusters and aluminum handrails with large scrolled brackets.
The most significant interior space is the ceremonial courtroom located on the second floor. The walls are clad in mahogany panels punctuated by fluted pilasters with Ionic capitals. Behind the judge's bench is an arched opening surmounted by a broken pediment with a carved eagle. A dentilled cornice encircles the tops of the walls. The courtroom contains bronze chandeliers with eagle motifs that were meticulously designed by the building's architect Robert F. Smallwood.
The courtroom contains significant murals from the New Deal era. In 1938, David J. Silvette of Richmond, Virginia, painted three oil-on-canvas murals behind the judge's bench in the courtroom. The paintings were commissioned for a cost of $3,000 through the Section of Painting and Sculpture, U.S. Department of the Treasury. The murals illustrate significant events in New Bern's history and express the themes of justice, liberty, and freedom. The Bayard Singleton Case of 1787 established that the legislature's power is limited by the Constitution. The First Printing Press (1749) shows a representation of the earliest press in North Carolina and also illustrates Baron von Graffenried, the founder of New Bern, recruiting settlers to accompany him to the New World. Finally, First Provincial Convention in North Carolina (1774) depicts the first meeting of the local Congress in New Bern.
1710 New Bern founded
1765 New Bern established as colonial capital
1935 U.S. Post Office and Courthouse completed
1973 Listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing building within the New Bern Historic District
1992 U.S. Post Office vacates building
2004 GSA assumes ownership of the building and initiates renovations
Location: 413 Middle Street
Architect: Robert F. Smallwood
Construction Dates: 1933-1935
Architectural Style: Georgian Revival
Landmark Status: Contributing building within the National Register of Historic Places New Bern Historic District
Primary Materials: Red brick veneer with limestone trim
Prominent Features: Central colonnade with paired limestone columns; Cupola; Ceremonial courtroom with murals
The United States Post Office and Courthouse in New Bern is a three-story Georgian Revival style building clad with red brick veneer (laid in common bond) with limestone trim and a granite base. The building is 144' wide by 69' deep and the primary elevation (east) consists of two projecting pavilions, one at each end, connected by a central colonnade consisting of four pairs of two-story limestone columns. Corners are enriched by limestone quoins. Windows are typically wood, double hung. Wood pediments and spandrel panels enrich the first and second floor windows at the end pavilions at the east (main) lobby. End walls at the north and south side elevations culminate in a parapet. The roof consists of a steeply pitched slate roof with copper-clad arched dormers at each end and a four-story wood cupola, painted white. The west (rear) elevation consists of a relatively simple, unornamented red brick veneer wall punctuated by white painted wood double-hung windows and a short parapet with limestone coping. Large arched topped windows at the second floor courtroom rise above the postal landing dock canopy. The ground floor is dominated by a central postal loading dock with a flat steel-framed canopy and concrete loading platform with molded rubber bumper pads. The most significant interior space is the ceremonial courtroom, located in the center of the second floor on the west side. It is a symmetrical Georgian-styled, mahogany-paneled room with fluted Ionic pilasters along the walls and returned at the corners. The east wall consists of solid wood paneled bays between pilasters; the west wall has 4' wide by 12' high double hung multi pane arched windows. The front wall behind the judge's rostrum consists of full height wood paneling with faulted pilasters supporting a split pedimented entablature; the north wall, at the opposite end of the room is a mirror image. The central doorway behind the judge's bench opens into the judge's chambers. A central door at the opposite end of the courtroom opens into the Marshal's office. The doorway to the east of the judge's bench opens to a stairway which leads to the jury room on the third floor. Two sets of double leather-covered fly doors on the east wall access double wood paneled entry vestibules opening onto the second floor corridor. A remarkable feature of the room is the lighting. Eight massive copper and bronze urn-type pendants up-light the ceiling. These fixtures consist of a 6' long copper-clad iron shaft from which a 4' bronze bowl is suspended by four copper-clad iron rods. An ornamental copper shaft rises from the bowl to the converging copper rods. A frieze of murals, approximately 4' high, depicting "Justice", "Liberty", and "Freedom" caps the panel ling on the south wall above the judge's bench. In the same located on the east wall are three murals depicting Tryon Palace. The murals on the east wall were painted by local artist, Willie Taglieri in 1981. The postal lobby runs the width of the building at the east side of the first floor. The east wall of the lobby has fluted Royal black and white marble pilasters terminating in Ionic plaster column capitals. The wall is punctuated with large arched top double-hung multi-pane wood windows and two symmetrical double entry vestibules. The lobby floor consists of Alabama Creme 2' marble tiles set on the diagonal with 6" black marble squares set at a diagonal at the intersections of the tiles. The floor has a 10" Alabama Creme while marble border. The ceiling is a coved, painted plaster ceiling with massive bronze hexagonal fixtures. The lobby is terminated at either end by steel-framed marble stairs with curved returns. Stair rails consist of ornamental iron balusters capped by an aluminum handrail. Stairs are accented by large aluminum scroll brackets along the handrails at the ground floor. Marble walls in the stairwells are curved to follow the curved stair return and contain 4' long, curved, cast iron vent grilles. Other significant interior spaces are the largely original second and third floor corridors (see Zone 3B), and the second floor Jude's Suite (see Zone 3C)
In 1938 the United States Post Office and Courthouse in New Bern, North Carolina is significant because for almost sixty years it has represented the Federal presence in New Bern; has served as the main Post Office; and continues to serve as the District Court within the historic downtown area. In 1790 an act of Congress created the first Federal court in North Carolina. From 1790 until 1861 the Federal district court was located in county courthouse. After the Civil War the state was divided into two judicial districts, and until 1897, the court was located in Stanley Hall at Pollock and Craven Streets. In 1897, a new Post Office and Courthouse was completed. It is a Romanesque Revival building located at the northwest corner of Pollock and Craven Streets. After the Federal government moved to the newly completed Federal building in 1935, the City of New Bern purchased the 1897 Victorian building for its City Hall.
Construction began on the present Federal Courthouse in 1933. Congressman Charles L. Abernethy was instrumental in obtaining WPA funds of $325,000 for the construction. There was some controversy regarding the cost of construction for a Federal building in a town the size of New Bern, when the usual appropriation for the average small post office was $50,000. Will Rogers satirized the situation in an article entitled "Please Pass the Pork." The building was designed by New Bern architect Robert Smallwood and was one of the largest and most expensive structures in Eastern Carolina.
In 1938, artist David J. Silvette of Richmond, Virginia created three murals on the plaster walls behind the judge's bench in the courtroom. These murals are entitled "Justice", "Liberty", and "Freedom". The center mural, representing "Liberty", is divided into two panels. The murals on the east wall of the courtroom were painted in 1981 by New Bern artist Willie Taglieri. These murals depict the famous local landmark, Tryon Palace.
In 1971, upon creating the Postal Service, Congress transferred the title of the building to the United States Postal Service. In July 1991, the Postal Service ceased operations in the building and moved out but retains ownership of the building.
In 1973, the Post Office and Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing property to the New Bern Historic District. Throughout it's history the New Bern Federal building has served the United States as a Post Office and as an integral part of the United States District Court system.