Friday, July 2, 2010

Historic St. Louis: The Old Post Office

Following the Civil War, the five fastest-growing U.S. cities at the time were slated to receive federal buildings to help handle the burgeoning new government’s responsibilities in the post-Reconstruction era.

Those five cities were Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Boston, New York and St. Louis. Alfred B. Mullett, secretary to the Treasury Department from 1865-1874, presented designs for these structures.
All five structures were completed between 1880 and 1885. Today, the only one of these buildings that remains is this one in the heart of downtown St. Louis. This massive structure takes up an entire city block, bounded by Locust and Olive, between 8th and 9th Streets.

Construction began in 1873. It was a painstaking process. With memories of the Great Chicago Fire just a few years in the past, builders were determined to use as little wood inside this structure as possible. As a result, the building is a cast iron fortress.

Its massive interior columns -- and even this grand staircase, one of two in the building -- are cast iron. The structure is a living tribute to the beauty that can be had from cast iron!

It took more than 11 years and nearly $6 million to complete. But, finally, on March 15, 1884, the U.S. Customs House and Post Office opened its doors with much fanfare. Everybody who was anybody made their way downtown for all the hoopla.

If you were a famous somebody, you were invited to the affair being formally summoned. And you no doubt got to keep a lovely little program, outlining the day's events, as a souvenir like this.

The building originally did triple duty, serving as the United States Court House, Custom House and Post Office. It later housed offices of federal agencies, and once served as the St. Louis Visitors’ Center.

The building was home to the Federal 8th Circuit Court, the largest in the nation in 1891, covering 10 states and four territories, representing more than 11 million people. At one point, in its post office duties, more than a million pieces of mail were handled each day.

But within 30 years, its usefulness began to wane. The main post office to 18th and Clark in 1912. Two years later, the Weather Bureau vacated the cupola (which you can see in the design photo; it was removed around mid-century and not replaced). The federal courts and offices stayed remained until 1935, when they moved to a new government building at 12th and Market.

The once state-of-the art building languished for decades. It was threatened with demolition in the 1960s after the government declared it "surplus property" in 1957. Preservationists, however, rallied on its behalf. The nationwide effort lasted more than a decade and got it placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1968 and subsequently declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

Unfortunately, these accolades didn't resolve what to do with the building and it was vacant by 1975. Demolition again became part of the conversation. But, less than a decade later, it would undergo a two-year facelift. Just in time for its centennial, the Old Post Office got a new lease on life.

But within just a few years, like much of the rest of downtown during the 1990s, it languished.

A redevelopment project emerged from a public-private partnership in 2000. It breathed new life into the Old Post Office once again. The Missouri Court of Appeals, Webster University and later the St. Louis Public Library and a handful of merchants would become the building's new occupants. Sadly, these plans brought about the felling of another historic structure, the Century Building, in 2004. It proved once again that in downtown St. Louis old buildings never die; they just become parking lots. Luckily, this one came with a Schnuck's store attached.

I'm glossing over quite a bit. There are things wrong with how this was achieved and I disagree with a lot of it. The bottom line though is that that area is bustling again. I'm hoping it stays that way. Can you even imagine having lost any of this?

But I'm neglecting another really cool feature.

Ever heard of a guy named Daniel Chester French? No? Me neither. But I'll bet you're familiar with this.

Well, decades before he even thought about that, he was commissioned to do a piece to grace the outside of the Old Post Office. You can see it there today on the Olive Street side of the building. Oh, wait. That's not the real one. It's just a replica. They moved the real one inside in 1990 because after more than 100 years, it was starting to show its age. Here's the real deal.

Depending on which resource you consult it's either called "America at War, America at Peace" or "Peace and Vigilance." Doesn't matter that much to me. I choose to call it gorgeous!


Kate R said...

That building is gorgeous! And you've piqued my curiosity. Since I grew up in Cincinnati, I'm going to have to research what happened to theirs.

NV said...

Kate -- Isn't it? I'm totally smitten! I think that there's a new bldg in Cincy where the old one once stood. I think it came down in the '30s.

Fans said...

Looks wonderful. Great reading your post as well.Thanks.

Vicki said...

Beautiful building! And I'm loving the new look! Taking tonight to get caught up on my favorite DIYer :)

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