OPO Building History


Begun in 1892, the Old Post Office (OPO) was the first federal building constructed in the Federal Triangle. Erected during the last decade of the nineteenth century, it is one of the few remaining examples of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture; expressing the boldness of Victorian design through a combination of styles and influences. The building's basic shape seems inspired by the great municipal halls of Italian medieval cities with a central clock tower representing the traditional campanile. Its symmetry suggests a nineteenth century academic influence. Higher up, the turreted pavilions, steep sloping roofs, and gabled dormers evoke the French Renaissance or Chateau style.

Completed in 1899, the Post Office Department had already outgrown the building prior to its completion. The New Post Office Building, known today as Ariel Rios, was built across 12th Street to house the growing department. The Old Post Office tower, soaring 315 feet high, is one of the tallest structures in Washington D.C. and was the first clock tower incorporated into a federal building. Today, the tower is open to the public and offers spectacular views of the city and its monuments, including an unsurpassed view of the iconic terra cotta roofs of the Federal Triangle

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Constructed prior to the redevelopment of the Federal Triangle, the architecture of the Old Post Office fell out of style in the early twentieth century as the rest of the Triangle took shape. At odds with the classically inspired grandeur envisioned by the Triangle's designers, it was proposed that the building should be torn down to make way for a large circular plaza on 12th Street. However, demolition of the building was halted due to a lack of funding caused by the Great Depression and onset of World War II.

A second effort to demolish the building occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. This time it was rescued by the emerging historic preservation movement which made the OPO a centerpiece of its campaign to protect historic structures. Over the following decades, appreciation grew for its individualistic style and today the building is celebrated as a delightful variation of form, size, and style.

Its distinctive clock tower now houses ten change ringing bells, a 1976 bicentennial gift to the United States by the Ditchley Foundation of Great Britain, symbolizing the enduring friendship between the two nations. Replicas of those found in Westminster Abbey, the bells range in size from 581 to 2,953 pounds. They are rung at the opening and closing of each session of Congress and on national holidays.

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