Robert N. C. Nix, Sr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Philadelphia, PA
Location: 33 S 9th St, Philadelphia, PA 19107
The Robert N. C. Nix, Sr. Federal Building and Post Office is significant as a representative example of a relatively large, federally-funded, Depression-era project. Built under the auspices of the Public Works Administration (PWA), the building displays the stylistic approach of much late-1930s PWA architecture. A product of the locally prominent architect Harry Sternfeld (1888-1976) in association with the Ballinger Company (fl. 1920-present), it is one of a small number of high quality Art Deco buildings constructed in Philadelphia. Buildings of comparable style and quality in the Philadelphia area include the Main Branch of the United States Post Office (Thirtieth and Market Streets), the United States Custom House (Second and Chestnut Streets), and Central High School (Ogontz and Olney Avenues), all of which are PWA projects.
The PWA was created as part of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act and was organized to assist in easing the financial devastation brought on by the Depression. Its goals were to provide jobs, stimulate business, increase the national purchasing power, and fulfill the needs of the country for permanent and useful public services. Under the direction of Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, the PWA provided loans and grants for the construction of over 34,000 civil engineering and architectural projects by the conclusion of its programs in 1939.
Overt stylistic direction was not an acknowledged component of the PWA, but frequent use of Art Deco vocabulary often led to public and professional criticism of the apparently inevitable choice of “PWA Modern” for its projects. Although fundamentally traditional in their approach to construction and arrangement of interior spaces, Art Deco buildings employed a decorative vocabulary that emphasized expression of volume rather than surface decoration, simplicity of form, unbroken line, purity of color, strong contrast between light and shadow, expressive use of construction materials, and retention of stylized architectural elements derived from Classical forms. Such an approach provided an intentionally strong contrast to the more traditional, predominately Classically derived styles found in public works of the previous generation.
The architectural design of the Robert N. C. Nix, Sr. Federal Building and Post Office is also reliant on the use of a new technology, central air conditioning, in response to site-specific and program-specific circumstances. The application of this technology allowed for a traditional relationship of public and private spaces within courtrooms and adjacent areas in the context of a non-traditional urban through-block site. The use of air conditioning permitted the creation of architecturally distinguished and acoustically isolated public spaces by placing seven courtrooms and a law library at the center of the second and third floors. This approach retained the use of parallel public and private corridors, a circulation pattern typical of courthouse design and one that the architects, Harry Sternfeld in association with the Ballinger Company, were able to accommodate within the building’s linear configuration.
Harry Sternfeld was highly regarded within his profession as both a practicing architect and as an educator. He received his Bachelor of Science and Masters’ degrees in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1911 and 1914, respectively. As a student, he received the Beaux-Arts Institute’s Paris Prize Scholarship, the most prestigious award available at the time for architecture students. The outbreak of World War I prevented Sternfeld from traveling to Paris and attending the École des Beaux-Arts until 1919. During the war, Sternfeld joined the faculty of Carnegie Institute of Technology, currently Carnegie-Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. Following his year at the École des Beaux-Arts, Sternfeld studied in Rome as a visiting fellow at the American Academy. Upon returning to the United States, he resumed teaching. In 1923, he joined the University of Pennsylvania as a Professor of Design. Major commissions executed by Sternfeld include the United States Post Office in Milton, Pennsylvania; the United States War Memorial at Audernarde, Belgium; and the Headquarters Building and War Department School at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Sternfeld associated with several architects at different points in his career, including George I. Bright, Edward H. Wigham, and the Ballinger Company.
The Ballinger Company was founded in 1920 by Walter Francis Ballinger following the end of an eighteen-year partnership with Emile G. Perrot. The firm has designed numerous buildings throughout the eastern United States and Canada, but is perhaps best known for its innovative designs for factories and other industrial buildings. The Ballinger Company is still active today.
The Robert N. C. Nix, Sr. Federal Building and Post Office also includes fine examples of the type of sculpture commissioned by the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (known later as the Section of Fine Arts) during its most prolific period. Established in 1934, the Department’s programs were intended to assist emerging painters and sculptors and to encourage public interest in the arts. As with PWA-funded architecture, these programs also frequently appeared to promote the progressive styles deemed appropriate for their projects. Sculpture from this period is often typified by large, simple forms devoid of large amounts of detail. Sculptural panels by Donald De Lue and Edmond Amateis of idealized, heroic figures are excellent examples of the type of work produced under government programs during this period.
DeLue and Amateis achieved national prominence as artists during their careers. Donald DeLue was educated at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School. The sculpture he designed for the Philadelphia Federal Building and Post Office constituted his first major public work, and one of his first commissions. Other important commissions included “The Rocket Thrower” for the 1964 New York World’s Fair; the Mississippi and Louisiana Memorials at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and “The Spirit of American Youth,” the Omaha Beach Figure at the United States Military Cemetery in Normandy, France. Edmond Amateis was born in Rome and was educated at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design and the Académie Julienne. He served as fellow at the American Academy in Rome from 1921 to 1924, and in 1929 received the Henry O. Avery Prize from the Architectural League in New York. In 1933, he received the James E. McClease Prize from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
(Adapted from the Historic Structure Report compiled by John Milner Associates, Inc., October 1989.)
- Architect: Sternfield, Harry
- Construction Date: 1937
- GSA Building Number: PA0143ZZ
- National Register of Historic Places Landmark Status: National Register Listed