John W. McCormack U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, Boston, MA
A superb example of monumental Art Deco civic architecture, the John W. McCormack U.S. Post Office and Courthouse presents intriguing exceptions to typical narratives of 1930s federal architecture. The use of Art Deco on large-scale federal buildings of that decade is rare. Originally named the U.S. Post Office, Courthouse, and Federal Building, it was designed by an architect famous for Gothic Revival ecclesiastical work, and is located in a city historically associated with solidly traditional architectural idioms.
Led by James A. Wetmore, the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury supplied the basic layout. The firm of Cram and Ferguson, led by Ralph Adams Cram, one of the nation's foremost architects and responsible for New York's Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, designed the exterior and primary interior spaces. Its important public faces were clad in New England granites, not in less costly Indiana limestone, after Massachusetts legislators won a fierce campaign on behalf of local granite suppliers, a way of aiding the local region during the depths of the Great Depression.
Located in Boston's Financial District, the 1933 structure replaced an overcrowded Post Office and Sub-Treasury Building. The Public Buildings Act of 1926, with $165 million allotted for new federal buildings across America, funded the much larger structure to service greater Boston, now a metropolitan power and by then the fourth largest postal district in the United States. It also accommodated a courthouse and related agencies.
Upon its completion, the building was featured in the September 1933 issue of Architectural Forum magazine devoted to "The Planning of Public Buildings." The issue focused upon public buildings designed by private practitioners in conjunction with the public sector, an arrangement made possible through a 1930 amendment to the 1926 Public Buildings Act.
The building was rededicated in 1972 as the John W. McCormack U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in honor of one of the Commonwealth's most respected politicians. McCormack acted as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1962 until his resignation in 1971.
The John W. McCormack U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is a significant example of Art Deco civic architecture in Boston, and helped define the city's early twentieth-century skyline. Facing Post Office Square, the building encompasses an entire block. The building's frame is steel and reinforced concrete, and its foundation rests on an innovative nine-foot-thick concrete mat that helps to distribute the building's load.
Three towers of two different heights rise above a five-story base. With their sense of accelerating verticality, one of the hallmarks of the Art Deco style, these towers also exploit the sloping site. A twenty-two-story tower at the top of the slope faces Devonshire Street, and the other seventeen-story towers act as the north and south arms of a "U" opening to the square. The upper floors of the Devonshire tower step back in ziggurat fashion, another Art Deco trademark, reflecting concerns that light and air reach the street level. The four primary elevations are clad in several varieties of New England granite, including dark grey Quincy at the basement stories, a finely grained, lighter grey Concord for the first two stories and the even lighter Chelmsford for the upper floors. Ingalls Indiana limestone clads the deep central court rising above the fifth floor and for the top six floors of the Devonshire Street tower.
While north and south elevations are virtually identical, the Congress Street elevation is the most dramatic. It overlooks the square, created after the Great Fire of 1872 that leveled much of the area. This elevation features a five-story pavilion that connects the two flanking towers. This pavilion contains three deeply inset bays set between four colossal granite pilasters. These are rounded and scored with shafts of embellished fleur-de-lis ornamentation finished with chamfered capitals of abstracted palmetto leaves that peak above the parapet. Each bay contains entrance door sets with anodized aluminum and glass set behind bronze grilles set in polished black marble surrounds.
The typical window grouping is long recessed strips of aluminum-framed windows separated by wide, ornately detailed spandrels of aluminum, a metal often used in Art Deco design. Two broad decorated granite belt courses, or frieze bands, wrap around the building at the top of the third and thirteenth floors in the Classical manner, articulating the parts of a column or building as base, shaft and capital. This gesture tempers the building's verticality. Below the lower belt course, the wider central window/spandrel combinations double in width, which visually anchors the building; these wider insets are aligned with the elongated groupings above. A continuous terracotta water table in a Greek fret motif separates the base from sub-base levels. The Devonshire Street facade, with its own central entrance portal, is the most massive of the four, since the twenty-two-story tower assumes the block's entire middle breadth except for the corner segments ending at the seventeenth floor.
Stone and marble, both smooth and carved, is present in the lobbies, public entrances, the grand stairways of the Devonshire and Congress Street sides, in seven original courtrooms, and in the library. The Devonshire lobby is distinguished by a seventeen-foot-tall aluminum window group covered with a massive geometric bronze exterior grille. A spread-winged, deco-styled eagle motif is consistently applied throughout the building.
An extensive building renovation was completed in 2009. This project included a roof replacement, new energy efficient windows, mechanical and electrical systems upgrades, new exterior insulation, a green roof, and office space modernization.
- 1930-1933: Building constructed
- September 1933: Building featured in the nationally published Architectural Forum magazine
- 1972: Renamed to honor U.S. Congressman John W. McCormack
- 1985: Determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places
- 2004: Building slated for major refurbishment and renovation
- 2009: Federally funded energy-efficiency and systems upgrade project completed
- Architect: Cram and Ferguson
- Architectural Style: Art Deco
- Construction Dates: 1930-1933
- GSA Building Number: MA0013ZZ
- National Register of Historic Places Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
- Primary Materials: Granite, limestone, marble, and glazed terracotta
- Prominent Features: Granite-clad walls with marble accents; Decorative metal grilles; Glazed terracotta relief panels; Multi-height towers