As the steel industry boomed in Pittsburgh during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the population of the city grew. New residents required federal services, so Pittsburgh native and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon helped to allocate funds for a new federal building in his hometown. Mellon supported the construction of a building that would represent the rise of Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania to national political and economic prominence.
The New York architectural firm of Trowbridge & Livingston designed the building under the auspices of Supervising Architect of the Treasury James A. Wetmore. Construction commenced in 1931 but stopped shortly thereafter due to a labor dispute. The strike ended and construction resumed in 1932. The building was erected over the rail line in order to eliminate transporting mail to and from stations. It was completed and opened to the public in 1934 amid much fanfare, as was typical for federal building dedications during the Depression era, when federal buildings were symbols of hope for economic recovery and social stability. Referred to as the New Federal Building until 1964, when another federal building was built across the street, it was the city's main postal distribution center until the majority of postal functions moved to a new facility in 1983. GSA acquired the building the following year.
During the twentieth century, the building underwent several significant interior alterations, which included the addition of new courtrooms and the removal of the train tracks. Renovations that began in 2002 involved the modernization of existing courtrooms and the installation of six new courtrooms and judge's chambers to accommodate the growing needs of the courts. Lobby spaces were restored, and the building's exterior was cleaned and re-pointed.
The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is a contributing building in the Pittsburgh Central Downtown Historic District, which was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Ten years later, the building was individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The renovation design received a citation at the 2001 GSA Design Awards Ceremony.
The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse occupies the entire block bounded by Seventh and Grant streets and the Pennsylvania Railroad. The most significant exterior elevation faces Grant Street and contains the primary entrance to the courtrooms and offices.
The building was designed in the Stripped Classical style of architecture, which was commonly used for government buildings during the late 1920s and early 1930s. It is a refined style that conveys the dignity and stability of the federal government, which was particularly important during the Great Depression. It does not, however, contain excessive or exuberant ornamentation that was deemed inappropriate for a somber period in American history. It was one of the last classically inspired buildings to be constructed in Pittsburgh before Modern architecture became popular.
The building contains two distinct masses. The first mass is four stories in height and originally housed the postal facilities. The second mass is set back slightly and includes the fifth through eleventh floors, which contain courtrooms, jury rooms, judge's chambers, and other offices.
The Post Office and Courthouse has a steel frame clad in granite on the lower levels, while the upper stories are faced in limestone. The lower portion of the building is covered in rusticated blocks that provide an appropriate foundation for the tall arched window and door openings that dominate each elevation. Massive carved limestone eagles above the entrances convey the federal importance of the building. The upper stories feature pilasters (attached columns) topped with circular medallions.
High-quality metals such as bronze and aluminum, which were commonly incorporated in federal buildings constructed during this era, were used on doors, window frames, window sash, and grilles. These original features remain in place throughout the building.
The building has undergone several renovations and alterations to its interior. In the 1960s and 1970s, before the post office vacated the site, original finishes in some portions of the interior were covered or removed. Some office spaces were finished with modern materials and part of the main post office area was sheathed in drywall in 1975. However, many public spaces remain intact. The south lobby at Grant Street is two stories. Walls are covered with pink Alabama marble and a marble dentil course encircles the room. Floors are covered with gray marble, while decorative coffered plaster ceilings top the space. Mouldings surrounding the bronze and glass doors contain ornate rope and garland designs. Original custom glass light fixtures remain in the lobby.
Other important public spaces include stair and elevator lobbies and corridors. Walls are generally clad in marble wainscot, and floors are covered in terrazzo. The plaster ceilings are less ornate than those found in the ground-floor lobby. Staircases have original brass handrails. The first floor contains an elaborate groinvaulted, terra-cotta ceiling with gold-leaf trim, now visible from the main lobby.
The original courtrooms are among the most notable interior spaces in any historic public building in Pittsburgh. Five ceremonial courtrooms are located on the sixth and eighth floors. Each courtroom is two stories in height with wood-panel walls, decorative plaster ceilings, and ornamental lighting. During the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stimulated the economy through public works and other government expenditures. Three murals were commissioned for the courtrooms under the Section of Planning & Sculpture and installed in 1936 and 1937: Steel Industry by Howard Norton Cook; Pittsburgh Panorama by Stuyvesant Van Veen; and Modern Justice by Kindred McLeary. A 1972 survey found that Modern Justice had been removed. It remains lost today.
The 2002 to 2006 modifications include glazed additions to house new courtrooms within the existing light courts. GSA commissioned Brian Shure and Lia Cook to create new works of art. Shure's three murals depict contemporary Pittsburgh from a variety of vantage points. Cook's work, a textile painting depicting images of children, combines hand weaving techniques with computer technology.
1931-1934: Building constructed and occupied
1960s-1990s: Various alterations to interior spaces
1984: GSA acquires the building from the U.S. Postal Service
1985: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Pittsburgh Central Downtown Historic District
1995: Individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places
2002-2006: Renovations and repairs to interior and exterior spaces, including the addition of six new courtrooms
Location: 700 Grant Street
Architects: Trowbridge & Livingston; Shalom Baranes Associates
Construction Dates: 1931-1934; 2002-2006
Landmark Status: Individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places and a contributing building within the Pittsburgh Central Downtown Historic District
Architectural Style: Stripped Classical
Primary Materials: Granite and Limestone
Prominent Features: Original lobby with decorative finishes; Elaborate courtrooms with murals
The building encompasses the entire city block bounded by Grant and Seventh Streets on the west and south sides, respectively, and the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks and station on the east and north sides, respectively. It contains a total of ten floor levels above grade, three subgrade floors and a penthouse floor. The structure is framed in concrete encased steel columns and beams, with exterior walls constructed of cubic limestone with brick and terra cotta backup.
The hierarchal layout of the building is reflected in its exterior design. The original building is massed into two volumes; the first, which includes the sub-basement parking area and track-level mail loading/unloading area, as well as the post office and office space areas on the first through fourth floors, conforms roughly to the configuration of the site and tapers to a rectangular shape alongside the railroad tracks to the east. The second volume contains the fifth through penthouse floors. It is set back somewhat, to resemble the shape of the letter "E", in plan from the fifth to the tenth floor, and is articulated by massive pilasters and recessed windows with verde antiqua spandrel panels. The court rooms, jury rooms, judge chambers, clerk rooms, and U.S. Attorney offices are all on these floors. The penthouse floor is slightly set back from the facade, and is punctuated with small double-hung windows that also align with the rhythm of the bays.
The exterior of the building is clad in stone – smooth, dressed granite on the lower level and Indiana limestone on the upper floors. At the base, the granite water table provides a leveling course for the slope in the site. A pair of torus moldings cap the granite water table. The first three floors of the exterior limestone façade, that are part of the lower volume, are heavily rusticated, and provide a background for the large, two story round-arched windows and doors. Bronze grilles decorate the arched aluminum windows of the first floor as well as the transoms above the classically styled bronze triple door frames. Stone carved eagles with extended wings perch above the keystone of the portals indicating the Federal ownership of the building. The upper stories are sheathed in smooth, dressed limestone.
Originally, the east façade was penetrated deeply by lighcourts formed by the “E” shape of the upper volume (from the fifth to the tenth floor). The lightcourts provided natural ventilation and daylight into the offices and courts. In the 2001-2006 renovation project carried out by Shalom Baranes Associates metal and glass infills were added within the lightcourts. New double-height courtrooms were accommodated within these lightcourt infills. The outer skin of the new infill design is composed of a glazed curtain wall with steel framing and insulated glass and insulated aluminum infill panels. They also added skylights on the roof to bring in natural light into the infill construction.
The major public spaces within the building consist of:
- The North and South lobby off Grant Street, which are finished with polished stone walls, pink marble floors, decorative coffered ceilings, and ornamental light fixtures. At the top of the south stair on the Grant Street side, at the second floor level, there exists a groin vaulted, terra cotta ceiling with decorative gold trim and sandstone walls, in the area where the public originally stood to conduct postal business. Both the lobbies were restored during the 2001-2006 renovation by Shalom Baranes Associates. During the renovation project the South Lobby was extended further back, creating a more dramatic yet open entrance to the building. A cut-out with a glass walkway was added in the extended double-height portion of the lobby, providing a glimpse of the newly-restored groin-vaulted terra cotta tile ceiling which had been covered over by dropped ceiling in the 1970s.
- The stair and elevator lobbies which are typically finished with marble wainscots, terrazzo floors, polished bronze stair rails and glazed doors, and plaster walls and ceilings with shallow cornice mouldings.
- Corridors which are generally finished with marble wainscots, terrazzo floors, and plaster ceilings.
The original courtrooms are the superlative spaces within the building. On Floors 6 and 8, five ceremonial court rooms all contain two story spaces, wood paneled walls, built-in wood furniture, decorative plaster ceilings, ornamental lighting, upper galleries on the sides, and windows with draperies behind the galleries. Indeed, two of the courtrooms contain WPA-era murals (relating to Pittsburgh's history) on the walls behind the judges. The judge’s chambers and jury deliberation rooms for these courtrooms are also architecturally detailed with wood paneling, wood cornices, ornamental plaster ceilings, operational fireplaces, wood shelves, and decorative lighting. Apart from the original courtrooms, a courtroom was added on the sixth floor in the 50s. In the 60s and 70s a number of smaller courtrooms were added on the 7th, 9th and 10th floor levels. These courtrooms typically are single-height spaces that contain carpeted floors, veneer wood paneling and pilasters on the walls and acoustic tile ceilings.
During the latest renovation and security improvements carried out by Shalom Baranes Associates, private elevators and walkways were added for the judges for each of the courtrooms. Prison cells were also constructed for each of the courtrooms with separate elevator and walkways for the prisoners. Six new double-height courtrooms were added—two each on the third, fifth and seventh floors. Each of these courtrooms have been designed with their own holding cells and secure, private elevators and lobbies for the judges and prisoners. The new courtrooms are equipped with the latest audio-visual equipment and security systems. They feature carpeted floors, sapele wood and architectural bronze patina pilasters, sassandra wood horizontal bands and paneling, limestone paneling and portals behind the Judges’ benches, Black Impala stone bases and solid wood lecterns. The ceilings of the new courtrooms are coffered with recessed and surface mounted fluorescent lights. The ceilings are also pierced along the perimeters of the courtrooms letting in natural light through the atriums and the glazed curtain wall. Three large-scale murals depicting present-day scenes of Pittsburgh by artist Brian Shure were commissioned and installed behind the judge’s bench in three of the courtrooms.
The new design by Shalom Baranes included the addition of a large lobby on the third floor in between the two courtrooms added to that floor. The lobby has atriums on either side that are lit by skylights added to the roof. A large hand-woven tapestry by textile artist, Lia Cook has been installed in the lobby on the third floor. Many of the office spaces on the lower floors have been fitted with modern materials (carpeting, drywall partitions, and acoustical tile ceilings) and do not contain any historic finishes.
The "United States Post Office, Courthouse, and So Forth," as it was called during design, is typical of Federal courthouse designs in the period of transition between the Beaux Arts and the Art Deco styles of architecture of the 1920s and 30s and is an amalgam of the two styles. It was designed by New York architects Trowbridge & Livingston in the late 1920s, under the initiation of U.S. Secretary of Treasury Andrew W. Mellon, a Pittsburgh native; as such, it represents the rise of western Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh in particular, to national political and economic prominence. It represents a period when the Federal Government was aggressively expanding its presence in cities small and big, all across the country. The building is of further note as representing the Federal Government’s belated attempt to integrate rail lines with postal distribution centers. The building has contained a variety of mail sorting systems throughout its history that describe the changing technologies of the century from human to mechanical to computerized systems.
Throughout the 1920s, Pittsburgh was in need of an enlarged, more modern Post Office facility. It had outgrown its space downtown and was occupying leased space elsewhere on the North Side of the city. Also, Federal offices located in the city were spread about in rented spaces, in a manner consistent with Federal office space usage policies in other large cities. By 1928, the Hoover Administration and Congress, in cooperation with the Post Office and Treasury Departments, began the implementation of the Public Buildings Act, a massive program to construct Post Offices, Courthouses, Custom Houses, and Federal offices, in cities all across the country. In 1928, Pittsburgh became funded for a large Post Office and Courthouse building through the political efforts of Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon, a Pittsburgh native. Immediately thereafter, an architect was selected for the commission. The building’s architects, Trowbridge & Livingston, were prominent New York City practitioners; at the time they were awarded this commission, they were completing the Art Deco style Gulf Building (located in the next block across Grant Street from the site). Several years earlier, they completed the Mellon Bank Building on Smithfield Street for Secretary of the Treasury Mellon. It is not surprising, therefore, that they were selected for this commission.
Many potential sites were studied for the building, but ultimately the site selected was a vacant lot, chosen in part, because of its adjacency to the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks and Station and in part because of the fact that the land was indeed unoccupied, while still being within walking distance of downtown. It was situated on the edge of the office and business center of the city, and although public infrastructure was largely in place, the area surrounding the site was still largely undeveloped for business. Indeed, at the time, there were no government offices in the immediate area.
The unprecedented growth of the Federal government after World War II saw the building fill to capacity, and by the late 1950s, another Federal Building was designed and constructed across Grant Street, and ten years later, a new Federal Reserve Bank was designed and constructed next door to the new Federal Building, diagonally across from the US. Post Office and Courthouse. Currently, the area surrounding this Federal complex is comprised of high rise office buildings, corporate office towers, and luxury hotels. The area has blended seamlessly into the downtown of Pittsburgh and these three Federal buildings represent the totality of the Federal presence in Downtown Pittsburgh.
The building exerts a strong Federal presence through its imposing size, its enduring masonry exterior materials, its large bronze windows, and its carved shields and inscriptions – clearly distinguishing itself from its commercial neighbors. In addition, the imposing size and detailing of the court rooms on the upper floors imparts the dramatic sense of importance and dignity associated with federal court cases. The architectural design produced by Trowbridge & Livingston was influenced by the Beaux Arts style, with its symmetrical and hierarchical organization of masses and corresponding spaces. It was also influenced by the Art Deco, with its more plain, flat elements, and restrained facades that rely on the richness of material and proportion rather than traditional decorative elements (such as applied garlands, brackets, dentils, and so on) to convey a sense of quiet dignity and elegance. Like other Federal buildings being designed in cities across the country by practicing architects in the mid-to-late 1920s, this building demonstrated the same juxtaposition between the two styles, and metaphorically, it embodied the same transition of identity being experienced by the Federal government, as it grew in the 1920s from a collection of identifiable, individual offices to a concentrated amalgamation of bureaucracy and services that represented the Federal presence.
Details of the historic public spaces on the interior of the building are restrained and do not evoke the use of classical elements typically found in the Beaux Arts style. Instead, they evoke the influence of the Art Deco; corridors in the office areas contain long, polished marble wainscots and shallow, projecting plaster cornices and terrazzo floors. The original courtrooms, however, provide an exception to this rule; they are richly appointed with wood paneling, wainscots, decorative pilasters and trim on the walls and ceilings, carved judges’ benches, glass ceiling fixtures, and murals set into the reredos behind the benches. These elements combine to create a sense of judicial formality and dignity.
The primary public areas, including the stair halls, the ceremonial courtrooms, the public circulation spaces associated with the courtrooms, have had little alterations over the years. However, the less public offices on the lower floors and the Post Office lobby area have been altered to accommodate lighting and occupancy needs.
In 2001-2006 the building underwent a major renovation project that included several security upgrades and added six new courtrooms in the building. The 820,000sf design project was carried out by the respected Washington, DC-based firm, Shalom Baranes Associates. Established in 1981, Shalom Baranes Associates are acclaimed for their governmental and institutional design and renovation projects that blend modern sensibility with a respect for historic details. Some of their current Federal work include renovation of the Pentagon, modernization and renovation of the General Services Administration Headquarters in Washington, DC, a new athletic facility for U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
The latest renovation by Shalom Baranes Associates reversed several of the improper changes that had occurred in the primary public spaces in the building, including the addition of the dropped ceiling in south lobby off Grant Street and the installation of acoustic panels in the historic courtrooms, returning the spaces to their original grandeur. Their design left most of the historic public spaces and details intact, making only necessary ADA, security and mechanical modifications and upgrades. The interiors of the office spaces in the less historic sections of the building, particularly on the lower floors, were upgraded to meet contemporary standards and finishes. The six new courtrooms added use contemporary materials and detailing. The richness of the materials used including the exotic wood paneling and trim work, limestone wainscoting behind the judges’ benches as well as the inclusion of commissioned art work in the courtrooms mimic the grandeur of the historic courtrooms. With the use of skylights and atriums the architects bring in a lot of natural light into the new courtrooms and the lobby areas connected to the courtrooms, similar to the original courtrooms with their large clerestory windows.
The aluminum and glass infill design within the light wells clearly distinguishes itself from the original stone facade with its use of modern materials and technology, yet blends well with the Stripped Classical façade. Without competing with the original historic design, the contemporary infill design stands out on its own merit for the quality of design, workmanship and detailing. The lightness of the aluminum and glass construction enhances the quiet formality of the Stripped Classical design through contradiction and juxtaposition of varied materials and textures. The modified east façade facing the highway with its glazed curtain wall, whether illuminated at night or shimmering by day, serves as a beacon for the federal government's presence in Pittsburgh.
The building was listed in the National Register as a contributing building in the Downtown Pittsburgh Historic District on 17 December, 1985. It was individually listed on the National Register on 2 February, 1995. The renovation design by Shalom Baranes Associates received a citation at the 2001 GSA Design Awards Ceremony.