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.