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Government Building & Post Office
Life Span: 1878-1896
Location: Adams, Clark, Jackson, and Dearborn streets
Architect: Alfred B. Mullett, Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department
The Land Owner, August, 1872
The New Government Building in Chicago.
We present our readers this month with a magnificent illustration of the new Government building to be erected on the Bigelow block in this city, drawn by our artist, J. B. Beale, from the designs of Mr. A. B. Mullett, Supervising Architect of the U. S. Treasury, at Washington. We have no hesitation in saying that this is the largest wood engraving ever made for an illustrated journal in the world. It is scarcely two weeks since the plans were completed and approved by the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of the Interior, and the Postmaster General, yet in that incredible short space of time we have produced an engraving that does credit both of the proverbial excellence of The Land Owner, and the plans of the architect.
Rebuilt Chicago.—The New Government Building, To Be Erected On The Bigelow Block.
Engraved by Baker & Co., expressly for The Land Owner.
Scanned by Chicagology from a very fragile copy of The Land Owner, August, 1872, held at the Newberry Library.
Accompanying this engraving will also be found a map, showing the location of the Bigelow block (new Post Office), relatively with other prominent buildings and landmarks. This will enable our foreign subscribers to accurately locate the new building.
Mr. Mullett correctly terms this his greatest and most perfect work. He has given his time and personal attention to these designs from the first, and has produced a building that, while some may criticize, the majority of our citizens will be pleased with. It is entirely different from any structure on this continent, Mr. Mullett believing that Chicago, with its intensive individuality, demanded something out of the usual line of architecture. We think that more this edifice is examined, the better it will be liked. It will at least vary the monotony of our street architecture that has so long prevailed.
This structure will occupy the square bounded on the north and south by Adams and Jackson streets, and on the east and west by Dearborn and Clark streets, known as the Bigelow block. The plan of the building measures 342 feet 6 inches by 210 feet 6 inches, and is placed in the centre of the square. To avoid monotony, the plan is boldly treated with projections, and in the elevations, there are important central features on each facade carried above the main cornice as towers, each surmounted with a dome and tholus in stone. The architecture may be described as a Florentine Romanesque, treated freely. The corners are heavily quoined, and the wall surface is relieved by ornamental piers, with richly carved capitals.
Map, showing the location of the Bigelow block, relatively with other prominent buildings and landmarks.
The Land Owner
The first story is treated with the segmental arch. The bold, rich transom carried throughout continuously, adds to the solidity of this story, and prevents aby appearance of attenuation, which the piers otherwise would have. The post office requirements for light are such as to make it a very difficult problem to solve, in giving up all wall space to glass, not to destroy the architectural effect by an unpleasant feeling of the slightest support of the superstructure. On each of the shorter sides is a handsome and capacious portico, a pleasing as well as thoughtful feature. On the long sides will be a sufficient number of exits and entrances.
The second and third story roof; and the outlines es are similarly treated: the second story slightly the richer, having an ornamented pedestal course, through which will be admitted air for ventilation. The windows have semi-circular heads, with pointed Italian arch mouldings, the transom to be of stone. These stories are otherwise well defined by broad belt courses, simply and carefully decorated. The main cornice, a remarkably ingenious feature in itself, carries a balustrade at its outer edge, and its great projections is well sustained in finely modelled brackets.
The story above the maid cornice is elegantly treated, in an entirely original manner, whereby a good story is obtained without the hackneyed Mansard roof; and the outlines of its windows with a rich frieze, gives a fine treatment of a difficult problem. The sky hue of so large a building is most pleasingly relieved by its ornamented chimneys and towers. The gable ends on long sides, flanked by ventilating shafts, boldly mark the roof and offer legitimate features of decoration, a fact the architect has made the most of in its pleasing design.
Great credit is due as well for the careful study of its details, which are strikingly original and refined, and earned throughout the building with wonderful success, as for the proportion of its masses, so well defined by bold projection. The first story and basement are for the Post Office business entirely. The second story will be used by the Sub-Treasury and Customs, and the third story wil be devoted to the law courts.
The general plan of the building is an interior court 83 feet by 198 feet, open to the ceiling of the first story, which will be glass skylight, lighting the working part of the post office. In the upper stories a continuous corridor making the circuit of this court, and all the rooms are amply lighted from the outside walls of the building. The vaults will be carried through each story in solid mahogany from the foundation. At each end of the building will be two passenger lifts, besides a fine airy staircase. The ventilation of every part is well cared for.
This grand and massive structure will be erected under the immediate supervision of Mr. James C. Rankin, an accomplished and experienced architect, who practiced his profession for a time in this city, and who resigns the position of Assistant Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department to again locate here and superintend this important work.
In thus giving to our citizens this grand building, The Land Owner must claim some credit. The engraving has been made at a very large cost, and after repeated trips of our draughtsman to the Capital. Mr. Mullett has shown us great courtesy, and given us all assistance in his power in our endeavors to bring out this superb plate. A gentleman of integrity and high professional character, we hope to have him frequently among us during the progress of his work here, and as he has labored hard for us he should be received with open arms, and every courtesy extended him.
Post Office and Government Building
Etching from Unknown Source.
Chicago Tribune, October 9, 1872
The New Government Building.
The following description of the new Government Building was penned by Mr. Mullett, the architect of the edifice, for The Tribune:
Early in the last session of Congress provision was made for the purchase and sale of a site and the erection of a building suitable for the accommodation of the Custom House, Sub-Treasury, Post Office, United States Courts, Pension, and Internal Revenue offices in the City of Chicago.
This building is intended to not only replace the Custom House and Post Office Building which was destroyed in the great fire, but is also designed, by its greater capacity and improved facilities, to provide for the prospective wants of the Government business in the city for many years to come.
After considerable difficulty, by way of negotiation, the entire block bounded by Adams, Jackson, Clark, and Dearborn streets have been procured by the Government, by process of condemnation, under the laws of the State, the proceedings of which have been affirmed by the decree of the United States Circuit Court. Meantime Mr. Mullett, Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department, has been busily engaged in preparing a design commensurate with the magnitude and importance of the structure, which is now completed and on exhibition in his office, bearing the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, Postmaster General, and the Attorney General, as provided in the act of Congress.
The style of architecture is the Florentine-Romanesque, and is very harmoniously and elaborately treated.
According to the plan, the whole height of the building to the main cornice will be 82 feet, to the attic cornice 90 feet, and to the top of the grand towers on the flanks, 177 feet. The first story will be 31 feet in height, the second 23, and the third 25.
The entire structure will be fire-proof,—stone, iron, and brick entering largely into the construction, The floors will be of iron and brick, and the vaults for the use of the various offices will be carried from the ground upwards. Great care has been taken in the preparations of the plans to insure thorough and complete heating and ventilation, and the lighting of the plan, and the presence of an interior court, will be perfect. The windows will beglazed with plate-glass, and the roof covered with slate.
The interior of the building will be accessible from all sides, the mail delivery being in Clark street, the Postmaster’s offices on Dearborn, while the corridors, which open on the interior of the court-yard and furnish access to all the offices in the building, may be approached from either street. The entrances on Adams and Hackson streets will be through spacious porticos, connected by broad flights of stairs with the upper stories, and in addition there will be elevators intended for constant use, running from the ground floor to the upper stories.
The building will measure 243 by 211 feet, having in its centre a court-yard 83 by 198 feet, which will be roofed over with glass at a level with the second story. As that portion of the first story underlying this glass roof will be laid with illuminating tile, and as the building will be surrounds by an area 8 feet wide, the basement will be nearly as well lighted from the windows and the illuminated floor as the upper stories. Tis basement story and the first floor will be devoted exclusively to Post Office purposes, and the space thus allotted to the Post Office is about eight times the amount which the old Post Office building afforded. The second story will be assigned to the Customs Department, Sub-Treasury, Internal Revenue, Pension, and other offices, and the third story to the United States Circuit and District Courts. There will also be a spacious attic, which has not yet been assigned for any special purposes.
According to the plan, the openings of the first story will be finished with a segmental arch, having stone mullions in the centre, terminated with an elaborately ornamented transom. The introdos of the arch is also elaborately carved. The first story cornice is enriched with a carved bed mold and dentals, and the joints on the weathering are covered with the piping peculiar to this style of architecture. Above this the second story commences on a stylobate, the panelings underneath the windows being pierced in an effective manner. The openings on this story are flanked by bold square columns, parted in the centre by a stopped chamfer, and having stopped chamfers on the edges. The caps also are richly carved, and have fine proportions. Here the windows are semi-circular, and the architrave is slightly pointed. The cornice of this story is also enriched, and the piping feature on the weathering is is again introduced. The third story is similar to the second, the proportions and details only differing. The windows of these two stories are divided at the center and at the springing with stone mullions, and each angle of the various breaks of the entire building are heavily quoined with richly moulded and massive quoins. Above the third story the main cornice is carved upon bold and vigorously outlined brackets that spring from the corner quoins and the square columns. This cornice has an original feature, in the introduction of a highly ornamental parapet or balustrade at the outer edge. The pedestals are richly carved in bold relief, and the screen between is carried through solid. The molding of this cornice is highly enriched, as are also the brackets which support it. Above the main cornice the attic story arises, and is surmounted by a steep sloping roof, which gives all the effect produced by the Mansard treatment, without copying that somewhat hackneyed feature. From the centre projections on each of the four fronts of the building arise twin towers, which are to be constructed entirely of stone, those on Clark and Dearborn streets being 177 feet in height, and those on Adams and Jackson streets are gabled to conform to the shape of the roof, and the sky line is grandly and boldly broken by towers, attic windows, gables, and chimneys.
Mr. J. C. Rankin, an architect of much professional experience and accomplishment, and formerly a resident of our city, has resigned the position of Assistant Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department, which he has held for the last five years, for the purpose of resuming his residence here, and superintending the erection of this building.
The Inter Ocean, April 21, 1881
The Chicago correspondent of the Courier-Journal writes to his paper as follows:
The near approach to the date set aside for the dedication of the monument to the memory of George Buchanan Armstrong, founder of the railway mail service of this country, makes some reference to the matter timely and interesting. Mr. Armstrong was the oldest son of a wealthy Irish gentleman, and was born in county Armagh, Ireland, in 1822. His parents moving to Baltimore, he, in time, there became a merchant shipper of importance, as well as litterateur of considerable note. But meeting with business reverses in 1854 he was appointed by Postmaster General Dennison to the position of Assistant Postmaster at Chicago. While carrying out these duties he conceived and executed plans for the now famous postal service, then known as “Traveling Postoffice.” He conquered almost insurmountable obstacles in Congress, and in 1864 placed the first cars on the Chicago and Dubuque, a distance of 138 miles; and so little faith was had in the project, save with Second Assistant Postmaster General George H. McClellan and a few other, that only two cars were allowed him.
The Revolution of Mail Transportation.
The gigantic revolution caused in railway mail service is known to all. Mr. Armstrong was Western Superintendent of the service until 1868, when it was made, by act of Congress, a distinct bureau of the department, and was fittingly chosen its General Superintendent, with headquarters at Washington, which position he retained until the time of his death, in May, 1871, the latter wholly resulting from too arduous mental labors in behalf of his pet ideas.
Mr. Armstrong was certainly the ablest man in the postal service the country ever produced. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair offered him the position of Postal Commissioner for the United States to Foreign Powers; but being so engaged with what he had in hand, and which has left our commercial system one of its greatest allies and aids, he declined.
In memory of the lasting benefits of his work the clerks in the railway mail service of the country, and many among his countless friends in other vocations, have provided for the erection of a heroic size bronze bust and monument, which will be dedicated here on May 5 next, the tenth anniversary of his death.
The Monument consists of a plinth four feet square, and one foot above the ground, surmounted by torns and scotia three feet square and two feet in height, upon which rests a solid shaft three and a half feet high and two feet square, capped by a colossal bust of Mr. Armstrong in bronze three and a half feet in height. The stone work is entirely composed of black granite, highly polished. The bronze bust is the work of Leonard W. Volk, the noted sculptor, who designed and executed the famous Douglas monument.
Permission was received here yesterday for the erection on government property occupied by the new Postoffice and Custom House, and it will be placed at the northwest corner of the public ground surrounding that building, facing both Clark and Adams streets. Interesting ceremonies will be held at the dedication on the 5th of May next which Schuyler Colfax will pronounce an eulogy and panegyric on the life and services of Mr. Armstrong, and large delegations of his old friends and associates in the railway service will be present from abroad.
As a work of art, the skill of Mr. Volk has enabled him to produce what is pronounced the most life-like pieces of bronze statuary work in the country. A specially interesting fact, from a local standpoint, in connection with the dedication of this monument to Mr. Armstrong, is that it is really among the first monuments ever erected in Chicago or in the West to commemorate the public service of any citizen not a politician, and it is, with the exception of the Douglas monument, the only one in this city. The journalistic fraternity will be interested to know that Mr. Armstrong was the father of George B. Armstrong, Jr., at present, and for many years, the city editor of The Inter Ocean.
A life size bust of Mr. George Buchanan Armstrong surmounts the pedestal of polished dark marble which rests on a base about three feet square. U.S. Government Building showing location of the bust.
From Marquis’ Hand-Book of Chicago, 1884
The United States Government Building (Postoffice and Custom House), completed in 1880 at a cost, including grounds and surrounding street improvements, of $6,000,000, is one of the handsomest government edifices in the country. Its base dimensions are 342 by 210 feet, which leaves spacious elevated lawns, surrounded by heavy coping. It occupies the square bounded by Dearborn, Clark, Adams and Jackson Streets, and is three stories in height, with basement and attic. The style of architecture is known as the Komanesque, with Venetian treatment. It is almost entirely of iron and stone, and is fire-proof throughout. The basement and first floor are occupied exclusively by the Postoffice Department. In the basement, reached by an inclined driveway on the west side, extending from Adams Street through to Jackson, all mail matter is received and dispatched. The first floor is devoted to the general delivery, carriers, money order, registry and stamp divisions, and executive purposes. The interior of the building above the basement forms a court, 83 by 198 feet. This court is covered by an immense skylight at the second story, being an open court above. The second floor is used by the Collector of Customs, Internal Kevenue Collector, Sub- Treasurer, Commissioner of Pensions and special mail agents. The third floor is occupied by the various United States Courts and offices connected with the Interior and Law Departments.
Post Office and Government Building
The interior of the building is exceedingly rich in finish. The floors are all in tiling of black and white marble. The grand staircases in the north and south halls are especially notable, being of solid iron, artistic in design, and painted to represent wood, with steps laid in small particolored tiles. The building is furnished with four elevators and every improved convenience of the age, and is heated throughout by steam from engines in the basement, the temperature being regulated to 60° the year round. The approaches are from each of the four streets ; they are exceedingly spacious, and are made uniform with the broad sidewalk surrounding the square, which is covered to the curb with massive stone flagging. Each of the four streets forming the square were also paved to the center by the government. The prominence of the building is made more imposing by the appearance of isolation given it by its surroundings, which throw it out in bold relief.
Left: U. S. Sub-Treasury Office
Right: Collector’s Office-U. S. Customs.
Large as the building is, the postoffice department is already crowded, such has been the growth of the business since it was occupied. Eight branch offices, located in different parts of the city, each with its corps of clerks and carriers, help to relieve the pressure ; but by far the largest portion of the work is done from the main office, among the largo business houses situated within its immediate delivery district. The total number of carriers employed is 317 ; number of clerks, 480 ; total number of pieces delivered in 1883. 78,754,271 ; total receipts for the year ending June 30. 1884, $1,892,241. The amount of duties collected in the customs department in 1883 was $4,075,166.85. on merchandise valued at $10,453,701. The internal revenue collections for the fiscal year ending June 30,1883, were $9,118,191. On the lawn plat formed by Clark and Adams Streets, and facing their intersection, stands a monument seven feet in height, bearing this inscription:
Chicago Tribune, December 27, 1890
The deplorable condition of Chicago’s Government Building increases each day. Broken water pipes all through the structure, huge cracks in the walls, and a thousand other evidences of the unfitness of the building for occupancy are apparent to any one who cares to investigate.
To none, however, are the defects as apparent as to those whom duty forces to occupy the ramshackle structure. Foul air and gases pervade the building to so great an extent as to bring illness to many of the occupants, while aside from all this the accommodations for the transaction of public business is inadequate. The story of the wreck of the Government Building is told in the following interviews:
Judge Gresham—The defects are patent. Besides the breaks that have appeared in the walls some of the pipes have parted and the sewage has escaped to an extent that it has contaminated the walls. This can be observed by a visit to my court-room. In addition to this the building is badly ventilated, and, for some reason, not properly cared for. Whether a new building could be erected without demolishing this one I am not enough of an architect to answer. It is plain, however, the Government will have to enlarge this structure or erect a new building on the present site or some other place. I hardly think that the defects of the building can be remedied. I do not feel that it is unsafe now, but it is only a question of time when the consequences may be serious. The new building should be large enough for all the wants of the Government at this place and in keeping with the importance of this great and growing city.
Collector John M. Clark—The defects of this building are chiefly in the foundations. They are so defective that another story could not be added to get more room. The heating and plumbing is badly out of order. This is caused by the settling of the foundations. The foundations were not strong enough and settled. Then this building is not nearly large enough for the necessities of the Government. The Post-Office department needs twice as much room as it has now. If the building belonged to any private concern and more room was needed it would be torn down. It is my opinion it would cost more to reinforce the foundations and repair the structure than it would to build a new one, and it would be a bad job at that. It is stated that the strengthening the foundations of the old First National Bank Building on the corner of State and Washington streets cost a little over $100,000. That building is about 80×50 feet. This building is many times larger.
Postmaster Sexton—The first defect, so far as the Post-Office is concerned, is that we want about twice as much room. The next trouble is the foul atmosphere of the basement. Assistant Postmaster Hubbard puts it about right when he says the employés down there are about on a line with the sewers and a man can shake hands with them without turning around. There are about 250 men employed in the basement, and there is absolutely no way of ventilating the place. These men are compelled to work by electric and gas light and handle about sixty tons of mail matter a day. The artificial light and noxious air naturally make their conditions unhealthy, and the wonder is that they do not make more mistakes than they do. Ex-Postmaster Judd is being wheeled around in a chair today on account of a disease contracted by breathing the foul air of this office. There is John Hubbard, a big, stout man, and myself, too—I never was sick a day in my life until I came in here—both of us have more or less headache. There are on an average of twenty-five men a year come to me with certificates from their physicians stating that if they are kept in the basement they cannot live. I have men come to me and offer to take positions lower down in the service just to get out of the basement. I do not think a new building could be put up without completely tearing down this one.
Internal-Revenue Collector Mamer—The main defect is the settling of the building. The foundations have gone down on the west side, for instance. The joist holding up the floor rest on the side walls, and there is no telling how soon they may be pulled out. When they do these floors will go down, and it will be without the least warning. The foundations have gone down and gone down unevenly. The only way this defect can be remedied is to jack up the whole building and put in a new foundation. That would cost as much as a new building. I think a new building could be put up here without completely demolishing this one, but I don’t think it would be practicable. The best way to utilize this lot is to tear down the building and sell the lot and build a post-office on the West Side.
United States Marshall Hitchcock—The main defects are that th building is settling and cutting off the water-pipes and causing damage in various ways. These accidents occur about once a week. I do not imagine there is any immediate danger of the building falling down. It is in bad sanitary condition, and this is one of the worst features. I do not think it would be practicable to attempt to put up a new building without tearing this one down, and I do not think there is any practical way of remedying the present defects except with a new building. If it is decided to erect a new building I think it should be put on this lot.
Custodian Shanahan—The main defect is in the construction of the foundations. The foundation of the outer walls is constructed differently from the inner foundation supporting the center of the building. It is estimated the building has settled on the north end in the neighborhood of eleven inches, while on the south end about seven. The main walls on Adams and Jackson streets have settled, but the wings have remained permanent. This is what has pulled apart the pipes running into those wings. This building is situated on peculiar ground. They dug down too deep, going away from the blue clay and got in the soft earth. I don’t think a new building cam be put up without completely tearing down this one. A new ten-story building could be erected on this site that would accommodate all the Government business. Such a building would cost completed less than $5,000,000.
Among the buildings mentioned that would be adapted to the accommodation of the Post-Office during the erection of a new building are the Leiter and Monadnock buildings. Mr. Owen F. Aldis, agent of the Monadnock building, said the structure was not available. “It takes three years to fill an office-building, and it would take that long to fill ours after the Government vacated it.” Mr. Grimes, ine of Mr. Leiter’s assistants, said that the Leiter building would not be completed before next fall, but he thought the Government could secure it if it so desired.
Architect William Le Baron Jenney—All the repairing known to good workmanship can’t make the Government Building for for the uses of Chicago. The old Government idea of a good-looking exterior to the sacrifice of utility found full swing when that building was put up. Light was a matter of secondary concern and convenience was lost to view. Then again those Washington fellows worked away here in total ignorance of the character of our soil. They though they were building on a rock instead of on a prairie. I examined the building about three years ago, and having learned from the Supervising Architect that the level showed no settlement of the walls for a year, I made a design for tying the structure together from north to south and east to west in each story. The work was done and all went well until recently, when the shifting around of departments in the Post-Office produced another inequality of weight and the settling was on once more. There is no use tying a building unless the foundations have ceased giving.
It is utter folly to talk about repairs. If $100,000 was spent it would be a waste of money. When Chicago business-men are tearing down buildings more solid than the one in question to put up others in accordance with the ideas of the times surely the Government ought not to go on patching forever.
A steel fireproof terra-cotta affair known all over the world as the Chicago construction is what we want. If you should tell architects and builders the plain facts about the foundation of the Government Building they would discredit the statement, for no man until he has seen for himself would believe that there is dense ignorance enough extant to warrant the approval of such flimsy supports for a heavy structure. Lool at the foundations and the stupidity that allowed them to be laid appears criminal.
Architect Burling, Superintendent of Construction of the Government Building after the first story has been run up—There certainly was no great amount of skill shown in laying those foundations. A weight of ten pounds comes where but one pound should bear down. The building itself is all well enough, but the supports are fundamentally wrong.
Yes, the settling of the walls might be stopped by shoring up the columns in the basement, but it would be a work attended by great expense.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to get rid of the building and put up one with sonething to stand on, I don’t think, however, there is any possible danger of the collapse of the structure. We will be in our graves before such a thing happens.
The whole truth is that the Easterners did not know the nature of our soil, and built as though they had Gibraltar to rest their work on.
Post Office & Custom House
Robinson Fire Map