Back to Chicago’s Main Post Offices
Post Office and Custom House
Life Span: 1855-1871
Location: NW corner of Dearborn and Monroe
Architect: Ammi B. Young, of the Treasury Department, and Colonel John , H. Eaton, of Chicago,
History of Chicago, A.T. Andreas, 1884
Custom House and Collectors.—Before the establishment of Chicago as a port of entry, the town was a tributary to the Detroit District, and the revenue was collected by Seth Johnson, formerly an officer of the garrison, with the office at 38 Clark street. Upon April 1, 1846, William B. Snowhook was appointed special surveyor of the port of Chicago, and after the making of Chicago as a port of entry by the act of July 16, 1846, on August 10, 1846, he was appointed Collector of the Port; some time during his administration removing the custom-house to No. 3 Clark Street.
The first importation of foreign goods from the Atlantic was in 1848. It consisted of a cargo of salt, directed from Turk’s Island, aboard the brig McBride. The vessel passed through the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and Canada waters, in bond, the duties being paid at the custom house in Chicago on its arrival, December 4. The Chicago Democrat of December 12, 1848, states that this was the first shipment ever made from the Atlantic direct to any port on the upper lakes, and adds that it passed through the Lachine and Welland canals.
Shipped the first cargo of grain from Chicago to Black Rock, NY, September, 1839.
Chicago Tribune, May 8, 1855
The New Post Office and Custom House
We have prepared the following description of the new Post Office and Custom House from the drawings which have been put out from Washington.
The building will front on Monroe street, its front line being twelve feet from said street and its east end fifteen feet from Dearborn street. The dimensions will be 85 by 60 feet, and three stories high besides the basement. In the basement there will be a packing room, for the Post Office, 79 feet long and 35 feet wide, besides fuel and furnace rooms, wash rooms, & c.
The Post Office will occupy the whole of the entrance story. The main room will be 53 feet long and 43 feet wide. On the Dearborn street side of this will be the Postmaster’s room, the Route Agent’s room, the Ladies’ Delivery room, and a Vestibule, and passage leading to the boxes. The grand entrance will be from Monroe street, and will open on a Vestibule. On entering this vestibule, the spectator will find himself in front of SEVENTY FEET OF BOXES, in the centre of which is the General Delivery.
A spacious hall runs through the center of the second story. On one side of this is the General Business Room of the Custom House, 45 by 20 feet; the Collector’s Room 17 by 30; the room of the Inspector of Steamboats 17 by 20. On the other side, is the room of the Post Office Clerk’s 45 by 20, the Post Master’s Room 17 by 20, and the room of the District Attorney, 17 by 20.
The United States’ Court Room occupies nearly the whole of the third story, being a large apartmenrt 55 by 45 feet. The four corners of this story are occupied by the Library and Grand Jury Room, 17 by 20 feet, the Marshal’s Room the same size; the Judge’s Room 12 by 20 feet, and the room of the Clerk of the Court, the same size.
The style of the building is Roman. The front elevation presents a flight of six broad steps, 52 feet long, in front of the door of entrance. There are windows on each side of these, one of them lighting the Grand Jury Room and the other the public stairs to the Custom House and Court Room.
The second story front presents five windows, and the third story front the same number.
The building is to be constructed of stone, faced with the white marble from the quarry at Athens.
The outside doors and window shutters are to be of iron.
The flooring of the whole building are to be composed of small segmental arches of hard burned brick work, turned from wrought iron beams resting upon the exterior walls, and upon girders supported by cast iron columns, the whole covered with tile. The ceiling of the upper story is to be composed of iron beams and brick arches.
The entrance hall and vestibule to the post office, the vestibule and entrance to the custom house, and the entrance and passages to the court rooms and its offices are to be paved with the best quality 2 inch marble, or German tile in tessellated manner, dark and light alternating.
A thorough system of drainage and sewerage is provided for.
The stairways are to be of wrought and cast iron with a mahogany handrail.
The fire places are to be made of fire-brick, and to have marble mantles worth $30 each.
There will be in the cellar one or two furnaces of sufficient power and capacity to warm the entire building.
The roof is to be of galvanized, corrugated iron.
Chicago Illustrated, February 1866
POST OFFICE—This is one of the best buildings erected in the West by the Government, for the accommodation of its officers. It is built of Illinois marble, and presents a finished and handsome appearance. It is erected at the north-west corner of Dearborn and Monroe streets, the main front being on Dearborn street. The building is three stories high, and has a very fine basement. The main floor and basement are occupied exclusively by the Post Office; the second story by the Collector of Customs, the Public Depositary, the Collector of Internal Revenue, Steamboat Inspector, United States Marshal, United States Commissioner, and by clerks of the Post Office. The Hon. Luther Haven is Collector and Depositary, and T. J. Kinsella Deputy Collector. The third story is occupied by the Federal Courts, Clerks, and District Attorney, with rooms for grand and profit jurors.
To the left of the Government buildings may be seen the Monroe-street entrance to the new marble block of Benjamin F. Lombard, Esq., a building nearly equal in size to the Post Office building, built of the same stone and finished in the best style. It is occupied by the Fourth National Bank of Chicago, of which Mr. Lombard is President, and by various insurance and banking companies, brokers, dentists, and other professional business men. To the right is the building known as “Reynolds’ Block,”owned by the Hon. Melville W. Fuller. E. G. Hawley, Esq., represents the Reynolds estate. It extends north to Madison street.
The site on which the building is erected was formally occupied by Doctor C. V. Dyer, as a residence. It was purchased by the Government in 1855, at which time an appropriation was made by Congress for the erection of the Post Office. The original plan was a building eighty-five feet on Dearborn street, and sixty feet on Monroe street, and the contract was awarded upon that plan on the 25th of October, 1855, the cost being eighty-four thousand dollars. Upon the earnest appeals of the citizens, Congress enlarged the appropriation, and the exterior dimensions of the building were extended to one hundred and fifteen feet on Dearborn street, and sixty-five feet on Monroe street. This was not satisfactory, however; and in 1856-7, Congress still further increased the appropriation, and the dimensions were increased to their present figures—one hundred and sixty feet on Dearborn street, and seventy-eight feet on Monroe street. These changes caused great delay in building, and nothing beyond the excavation of the basement was done until July, 1857, when the building was actively commenced. The original contractors —Jones and Bruff, of Rochester, New York —died during the succeeding winter, and were succeeded in the contract by L. A. Ward, of the same place. The building was completed and ready for occupancy in the autumn of 1860, and cost, completed, two hundred and forty-three thousand dollars. The plans of the building were prepared by Ammi B. Young, of the Treasury Department, and Colonel John , H. Eaton, of Chicago, was in February, 1857, appointed Superintendent of Construction.
The following were the persons engaged upon this building, besides the two we have named:
The Post Office business of any city generally gives a fair basis for an estimate of its comparative prosperity. The general postal business of the Chicago Post Office is only exceeded by that of New York city, and in merely local business it ranks third—New York and Philadelphia only equalling it. The number of clerks employed is one hundred and six. The executive officers of the Post Office are —Samuel Hoard, Postmaster; A. S. Reynolds, Assistant; T. L. Holbrook, Chief Clerk; S. F. Hoard, Cashier; George B. Armstrong, Special Agent.
Photographer: John Carbutt
John Carbutt #68
Custom House & Post Office
Reynold’s Block can be seen past the Post Office.
Stranger’s Guide to Chicago, 1866
The Post Office is located on the northwest corner of Dearborn and Monroe streets, fronting on Dearborn street, in a building built a few years ago, especially for the government, and under the supervision of officials sent here by the Treasury Department to oversee the work. The massive architecture of the building, its elegant finish, and its imposing proportions, make the Post Office one of the finest, as it is one of the costliest public buildings in the city of Chicago. It is built of iron and Athens marble, and is perfectly fire proof. Besides the Post Office, in the basement and first floor, the building is also occupied by the Custom House, the Collector of Internal Revenue, the United States Marshal, the United States Circuit Court Commissioners on the second floor, and by the United States Circuit and District Courts, and the United States District Attorney on the third floor.
The Post-Office is open during the following hours:
From April 1st to November 1st, 7 A. M. till 7½ P. M.
From November 1st to April 1st, 8 A.M. till 7½ P.M.; on Sundays, from 8.30 A. M. till 10.15 A. M.
A large number of street letter-boxes are stationed throughout the city, from which collections are made five times daily.
Custom House and Post Office
John Carbutt #68
Post Office and Custom House is next door to the Reynolds’ Block.
History of Chicago, A.T. Andreas, 1884
The annexed table shows by years the receipts at the port of Chicago from August 27, 1846, to June 30, 1871, an amount of duties on imports, tonnage duty, marine hospital collections, and the expenses of collecting the revenue from customs:
Statement of Duties collected at Chicago, Illinois, during the fiscal years, 1857-71, inclusive:
The following table shows the growth of the letter carrier system and the increase of revenue from local matter, by taking the work of January and July of each year from 1865 to 1871:
Post Office and Custom House
NW corner of Dearborn and Monroe
Post Office and Custom House
NW corner of Dearborn and Monroe
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map
Chicago Evening Post. December 4, 1871
The report of A.B. Mullett, Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department, has been submitted to the Secretary of the Treasury. The following abstract is of special interest here:
Concerning Fire-Proof Buildings.
The opinions expressed in the following extract from my report of September 30, 1866, viz.,
I regret to report that the Custom House building at Portland, Maine, which has been considered strictly fire-proof, was irreparably injured by the disastrous conflagration in that city, and must be rebuilt from the foundation walls. The total destruction of its contents was only prevented by the strenuous efforts of some persons who were overtaken by the fire, and were unable to leave the building, where they barely escaped with their lives. The experience in this case has proved conclusively that stone and iron structures, however carefully constructed, offer no successful resistance to a large conflagration, and that all government buildings should be isolated by wide streets or open spaces, have been fully sustained by the results of the late disastrous fire in Chicago. The Custom House in that city was situated on the northwest corner of Dearborn and Monroe streets, the former of which is eighty and the latter sixty-six feet in width. Its west facade, however, faced Lombard block, which was a fine structure, five stories in height, rising from fifteen to twenty feet above the Custom House, from which it was separated ny a narrow street, only twenty-seven feet wide.
The Immediate Cause Of The Destruction of the Custom House was the burning of this block, the flames from which, driven by the fierce southwest gale prevailing at the time, against the walls of the building, soon destroyed the stone-work, warped the iron-work and shutters of the windows from their fastenings, and gave the flames free access to the interior.
The requirements of the Postoffice Department, for whose the first story of the building was designed, made it necessary to carry the entire interior on cast-iron columns, which, of course, soon yielded to the heat, and precipitated the upper floors into the cellar. It has been supposed that the destruction of the columns was caused by the heat evolved from the burning furniture in the postoffice. This, I am satisfied, from a personal examination, was not the case. The columns at the south end of the building, which were not exposed to the fiery blast from the Lombard block, though in immediate contact with the wood partitions forming the office of the postmaster, assistant postmaster, and cashier, remain intact, while those at other points no directly in contact with any wood work were entirely destroyed. The destruction of the building was, in my opinion, attributable.
Exterior Ruins of the Custom House and Post Office.
Entirely To The Intense Heat which was forced through the open windows like hot blasts from a smelting-furnace, and which thoroughly fused metal and glass, I feel confident that had the interior iron columns had been rendered fire-proof, which could readily have been done, the interior of the building, as well as the contents of the rooms of the east front, including the vaults of the depository, would have been saved, and had the exterior of the building been protected by fire-proof shutters, its contents would have been preserved. Indeed, the contents of one room at the south end of the building, which was the only one in the second story supported by brick walls instead of iron columns, were uninjured.
Had The Custom House Been Isolated on all sides by streets of equal width with those first mentioned, I do not believe that it would not have been seriously damaged. The property on which the building was erected was purchased in 1855 and 1857 for $60,200, and the building erected within 15 feet of the line of the government property. In 1865 an arrangement was made with Mr. Lombard, at a cost of $8,400, by which this space was increased, as above stated, to 27 feet. At the time the building was erected there was no difficulty in obtaining all the land that was desired at a low price, and I believe that for an additional sum, not to exceed $30,000, an ample lot could have been secured and the destruction of the building in all probability averted. If this was an exceptional case.
Some Excuse Might Be Offered for the selection of so small a lot; but it has been the rule instead of the exception. One entire side of many of the most important buildings erected prior to 1869 is practically worthless, from the absence of light, due to the smallness of the lot and their proximity of lofty buildings, which entirely overshadow and cut off the light; and under the same circumstances as at Chicago they will share a similar fate.
In this connection I would call the attention of the department to the necessity for such legislation as will enable the government, or for the acquisition of suitable lots for those hereafter to be erected. The experience of Boston has shown that the department is at present.
At The Mercy Of Any Property-Owner, should he desire to use the necessities of the government for speculative purposes, and the condemnation is then only remedy. In my last report I called attention to the fact, that although the entire space within the Custom House building at Chicago, including the cellar, had been occupied, it was still entirely inadequate for the transaction of the public business, the postal business alone in that city having increased over 80 per cent during the past three years. The fire has been productive of a further increase, and it would now be
Impossible To Accommodate That Department in the building, even were it desirable to attempt its reconstruction. The increase of the customs business, by reason of direct importations of dutiable merchandise from foreign countries under the provisions of the act of July 14, 1870, has been even greater, with every prospect that it will continue to augment for years to come. Inder all the circumstance I believe that the necessities of the government require the purchase of the remainder of the block on which the Custom House building is located, and the erection hereon without delay of a building of sufficient capacity to accomodate all the branches of the government service in that city.
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