By Nancy Pope, Historian and Curator
September 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Washington, DC city post office building. While the building still has an operating post office, the bulk of the space was turned over to other agencies after an extensive renovation of the building at the end of the 20th century. Among the new tenants to the building was the National Postal Museum, which opened in 1993.
The building is located on Massachusetts avenue next to Union Station, which had itself just opened seven years earlier. At the turn of the 20th century, Washington’s main city post office was in a large building on Pennsylvania avenue between 11th and 12th streets. (1) Although that building was originally planned as a city post office, the Postmaster General soon moved a number of Post Office Department’s national offices into the building, including his own office. When the city’s postmaster and Postmaster General George von L. Meyer urged Congress to find a new space for the city’s postal facilities, they initially faced reluctance. Since it was the Department’s own fault that the city had lost space in its own building, some in Congress felt it was up to the Department to locate and finance a new space on its own.
DC’s postmaster, Benjamin Barnes, argued that a new space located near the new Union Station building would allow for speedier mail deliveries, since mail could be transferred immediately from train cars to a building next door for processing. Such a location was a break from the tradition of placing post office buildings, especially the large, ornate ones found in America’s biggest cities, in town centers.
Congress began considering the bill in the House early in 1908 and agreed on funding soon thereafter. Few debated a location near Union Station, but where? The final six potential lots were #632, the old Baltimore & Ohio railroad station site, for almost $371K, #681, then occupied by a lumber yard, for $353K, part of lot #723 for $275.5K, part of lot #754 for $153K, buildings #60 and 62 on H street, northeast for only $14K, and finally lot #678, just west of Union Station for $495K owned by Thomas J. Fisher & Company. Although the most expensive by far, the perfect location proved irresistible this lot was chosen for the new city post office building. Fortunately, Congress had approved $500,000 for the purchase of land for this purpose.
Obtaining funding for the building and seeing it through to final construction was a long process that stretched through the administration of four DC postmasters, Benjamin Barnes, Norman Merritt, Charles Granfield, and Otto Praeger, and three postmasters general, George von L. Meyer, Frank Hitchcock and Albert S. Burleson. Even before the ground had been purchased for the building, postal officials touted a new DC city post office as the opportunity to create a model operation for the nation’s post offices.
Plans for construction of the post office for $3.5 million were submitted by Daniel H. Burnham & Company, the Chicago architects who had designed Union Station. There was some grumbling about the proposed construction price. But the constant pressure for this new, model, post office won out. In the end Congress approved $200K in preparation costs and $3 million for construction.
Even though the new DC post office was being constructed because there had not been enough space for the city post office in their old building (after much of it had been appropriated by the Post Office Department headquarters staff), the city workers would still not own all of the new building. In addition to serving DC’s mailing needs the building would also house a number of national mail services, including the division of railway mail service, the dead letter office and the area’s postal inspectors.
Much of the support for the new building’s location came because of promised swifter DC mail service. To insure rapid transit between Union Station and the new post office, an elevated bridge would link the two buildings. Postal officials boasted that mail coming into the city by train would “be on the assorting table . . . within a minute after the train comes to a stop.” (2) Helping to speed things along even more, the Department invested funds in new motor trucks and automobiles, replacing the horse-drawn wagons that had been carrying mail over the city’s streets.
Construction began in 1911. Workers made their way through three different strata of earth, from the top soil that was comprised of soil dumped there from construction of Union Station, then a variety of soil, stone, brick and wood that was determined to be dumped at the site when nearby Tiber Creek had been filled in a few decades earlier as part of a city improvement plan. The bottom strata was sand, water and clay. On April 4, 1911, the Washington Star quoted workers as saying that on one day they had pumped over 1.5 million gallons of water from the site. They raised the ground that served as the base for the building more than 30 feet. The cement piers for the foundation were much larger in both diameter and depth than those used for similar projects of the time. Between 300 and 600 men worked on the construction of the building. The general contractor for the building was John Gill & Sons, of Cleveland, Ohio.
The building’s foundation was laid on March 2, 1912. The building’s exterior was white Vermont granite. The main lobby was 250 feet long and decorated with 24 massive columns, each 28” in diameter and 20’ high and constructed of gray New Hampshire granite at a final cost of $1,200 each. The lobby’s floor was covered in Tennessee marble. The public could use one of the hand-carved marble, bronze and glass writing tables for addressing or writing their letters. The writing table tops rested on carved marble lions that gave the impression of the great beasts standing back to back. The lobby’s lighting was provided by a massive bronze chandelier that hung over the center table as well as a series of eight-foot high pedestal lights lining the corridor. A series of glazed and bronzed grilled windows also lined the lobby, offering the public a number of clerks stationed at them to provide all measure of postal needs. The final cost for the lobby’s magnificence was $400,000.
Beyond the public areas lay a massive mail processing operation. A number of bids were received for the mechnical equipment. W.G. Cornell Company from New York City won the bid and agreed to provide the quipment for $207,351. The central massive workroom was a labyrinth of machines as mail flew along conveyor belts and chutes. Conveyor belts devoted to parcel post were strong enough that young boys sitting on them during a demonstration were carried along safely. Almost 120,000 feet of space of the building was reserved for processing the mail. Clerks were hard at work sorting mail into pigeon hole cases as hundreds of sacks of mail moved into the building across the bridge from Union Station. Along the top of the walls were a series of lookout rooms used by postal inspectors charged with insuring the security of the mail.
Early in 1914, in preparation for the move, Postmaster General Albert Burleson asked Congress for $118,472 to be appropriated for moving the city post office from its old building to the new one. The building, originally scheduled to open in April, opened for business on September 7, 1914. Alongside the main lobby were the offices for city postmaster Otto Praeger as well as space for the money order and registry departments. A pair of vaults in that space would be used to secure finances as necessary. On the other side of the corridor were the public access windows as well as space for the mailing and delivery systems and access to the bridge connecting the building with Union Station. The basement was set aside for supplies.
Above the Massachusetts entrances to the main lobby were the words of a poem titled, “the letter,” written by a former president of Harvard, Dr. Charles W. Eliot. But before Eliot’s words were immortalized on the building, they were passed to President Woodrow Wilson who made a few changes. Whether or not Wilson’s changes were improvements was a subject debated for weeks when they were made public in the local newspapers.
Dr. Eliot’s original prose:
Carrier of news and knowledge, instrument of trade and commerce, promoter of mutual acquaintances among men and nations, and hence, of peace and good will.
Carrier of love and sympathy, messenger of friendship, consoler of the lonely, bond of the scattered family, enlarger of the common life.
President Wilson’s alteration, which included reversing the verses, became the version and was placed on the building:
Messenger of Sympathy and Love
Servant of Parted Friends
Consoler of the Lonely
Bond of the Scattered Family
Enlarger of the Common Life
Carrier of News and Knowledge
Instrument of Trade and Industry
Promoter of Mutual Acquaintance
Of Peace and of Goodwill Among Men and Nations
As Postmaster Praeger and his staff proceeded with plans for moving the staff and equipment into the new building, they made major changes in delivery routes and staffing. Employees were moved from closing sub post offices into the new large post office, or transferred to the local offices that remained open. New schedules were planned to take advantage of the ability to move mail quickly from trains onto the postal workroom tables. Automobile wagons were purchased for moving carriers to their routes, getting them to their routes in less than 12 minutes after leaving the building.
The new city post office was opened for operations by Sunday, September 6, 1914, but the real test of the operations was the next day as deliveries were not made on Sundays. The transfer from the old to new city post office went smoothly, and the new carrier routes, aided by the automobile transport, were quick and efficient. On September 28, Postmaster Praeger opened the entire building up to the general public from 8-10pm. It was also a Sunday so visitors would not be interfering with mail processing. Praeger put on quite a show for the public. The city’s postal employee orchestra provided music as visitors were guided through the various parts of the main sorting floor.
The building served as the city’s central post office from its opening date in September 1914 to September 1986, when overwhelming mail volumes and the need for larger processing space meant a move of the operations to a large building just to the northeast. During its time as the city’s central post office, the building underwent two major changes. In 1932-1935 a major addition to the structure was made on its north side by the design firm Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, which was, fittingly enough, Daniel Burnham’s successor firm. In the late 1950s the building underwent an extensive interior remodeling that “modernized” not only the processing space, but the public lobby as well. A lower ceiling was placed in the lobby, the writing tables and lights removed. The clerk windows were closed and clerk-staffed counters were placed in the lobby, along with a variety of “do it yourself” machines that allowed customers to purchase stamps and other materials without waiting in line. While the changes may have modernized mail processing in the building, they were an artistic and architectural blight.
After central mail operations moved out of the building in 1986, the U.S. Postal Service began a major renovation of the building, including a restoration of the public lobby to its original design. A glass-enclosed atrium was created and became the central feature of the new Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, which opened in 1993.
(1) That building, commonly known as the Old Post Office Tower building, still stands, having served several groups and purposes over the years.
(2) Washington Times, Bids for the New Postoffice Opened at the Treasury, October 10, 1911, front page.