Life Span: 1904-1965
Location: Dearborn, Adams and Clark Streets and Jackson Boulevard
Architect: Henry Ives Cobb
Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1896
COBB’S PLANS WON’T DO.
SO SAYS HESING REGARDING THE NEW POSTOFFICE DRAWINGS.
In a Letter to the Architect He Declares the Proposed Building Would Look Well, but Would Not Meet Its Purpose-Points Out Changes to Remedy the Alleged Defects-Inspector Stuart Heartily Indorses the Communication.
Postmaster Washington Hesing refuses to indorse the plans submitted by Architect Henry Ives Cobb for that part of the new $4,000,0OO government building which Is to be used for postoffice purposes, and in a friendly but emphatic letter states his objections to them. And Mr. Hesing’s refusal is thought likely to result In modifications which will leave the arrangement of the portion of the building to be devoted to postal service to the local postoffice authorities.
In his letter to the architect, Mr. Hesing renews his old objections to the site of the new structure, but only as a matter of principle, for that question is considered fully settled. The plans for the building so far as they concern its exterior and the arrangements for all Federal offices, excepting the postoffice, have been accepted and approved by the Treasury Department. When Architect Cobb carried the plans for the postoffice to the Postmaster-General the latter declined to accept or indorse them until they had been submitted to and approved by Postmaster Hesing and Inspector J. E. Stuart, who is in charge of all rents and leases relating to the postal service. Mr. Cobb came to Chicago last week and was in conference with the two officials several days, going over the plans as he had prepared them.
View of dome under construction.
Letter of the Postniister.
Their objections were stated In a letter written by Mr. Hesing to Mr. Cobb and heartily seconded by the Inspector. The letter bears date of Dec. 5.
Referring to Mr. Cobb’s request that the Postmaster look over the architect’s plans and express his opinion of them Mr. Hesing says:
I am compelled to state from the standpoint of a practical postoffice official that, while you have perfectly solved the question of light and ventilation, and have drawn plans for a building that are beautiful and that will be a monument to your genius as an architect from the esthetic point of view, the interior arrangement as laid out will not at all suffice.
I realize well the great difficulties to be surmounted when you are asked to construct a building that will do, as it were, for a factory and for a residence. As I have always contended, the postoffice should be in a building devoted solely to postoffice purposes, where the entire business could be done on two floors.
The difficulty always has been in this country that the needs of the Postoffice Department have been secondary to other departments. I do not believe that any building in which other departments are located can ever be constructed that would be perfectly satisfactory for postoffice purposes. But we must deal with the facts as they are and not as we would like to have them and must make what I consider the best of a bad bargain.
Postoffice’s Space Needls.
It has always been my hope that the new Federal building should be built primarily to accommodate in every respect the postoffice, which requires twice as much floor space as all the other government offices in the building combined, and which must be universally admitted to be of greater importance than even the collection of internal revenue, the paying out of money by the Subtreasury, or the disposing of justice by the Federal courts.
The wretched accommodation afforded the postoffice was the strongest factor in securing the appropriation for the new building. I contend now, as I always have, that a model cannot be constructed upon the old site, because of its small area.
An ideal postoffice should have all the departments which handle mail arranged on a single floor, with ample space, abundant light, and good ventilation. Hence it is that our present temporary building, while not handsome to look at from the outside, is, for practical purposes, as a great workshop, where during the twenty-four hours of the day there are employed fully 1,500 men, absolutely perfect, and affords today the best opportunities for good service of any building in the United States,
Every sacrifice should be made to accommodate the postoffice which will require over two-thirds of the working area of the new building.
Points Which Are Essential.
After a thorough study of the situation I am convinced that to make the best use of the plans submitted by you the following points must be conceded and if any one of these points is not conceded the building, as far as the arrangements of the Postoffice Department are concerned, will be a total failure.
The points upon which I must insist are:
First—The entire flrst and second floors and a portion of the basement must be given to the postoffIce, to be arranged to suit its necessities. I mean to say by that that this space must be kept absolutely clear of all partitions and obstructions not required for postal business.
These two floors and basement should be left by you for the time being simply as a great space surrounded by four walls, to be turned over to the practical postoffice officials when the time comes for the inner arrangement and disposal of space.
You cannot, as an architect, be expected to know what the needs are nor how it desires to lay out the floor space. Give that department the space and it will cheerfully assist in laying it out.
Opposes Basement Work.
Second—All mail must be received and dispatched from the street level, and no mail shall be received or handled in the basement. The very idea of asking any man to work in the basement is itself enough to condemn the plans as submitted. It was this fact more than any other that prompted me to take the interest I did in agitating the erection of a new building.
Men should not and must not be expected to do accurate and quick work In a basement.
The basement can be utilized for file rooms, lockers, s stock room, Eup- plies, , shops, and postal card sub- agency.
Third—I insist that the government should construct this building to suit its business; to satisfy its officials, and not to be mutilated to gratify the whims of adjoining property-owners.
I know that architects are great sticklers for symmetry, but symmetry must sometimes give way to utility.
Fourth—The railway mail service, Postoffice Inspectors, and Civil Service Board must have convenient quarters above the second floor, and some additional room may be required for the use of the postoffice proper.
Wonderful Growth of a Decade.
During the last ten years the annual receipts of the office have increased from $2,250,000 in 1887 to $5,250,000 in 1893—an increase of 133 per cent.
The amount of mail handled increased 100 per cent, and now aggregates 8,000,000,000 pieces per annum.
The money order business has increased from $1,500,000 transactions in 1887 $3,250,000 transactions in 1896, aggregating over $31,000,000.
The force employed In the main office is now 125 per cent greater than it was a decade ago. The per cent of increase is growing greater, which fully justifies these demands for space. This ratio of increase kept up will soon so congest these quarters that within twenty years the government will be compelled to erect auxiliary buildings on the North and West Sides.
Affixed to the Postmaster’s communica- tion and signed by Inspector Stuart is the following:
This matter has been thoroughly discussed by the Postmaster and myself and the foregoing letter expresses the result of our conference. I heartily concur with the same.
Mr. Hesing Talks.
Mr. Hesing said last night:
I have always contended that the government made a mistake in locating a new building on the old site. Rut It is too late to change that now, but the interior plans drawn by Mr. Cobb will have to be changed, as I refused to ‘O.K.’ them.
I insist that the basement and the first and second floors, which are designated for postoffice use, shall be turned to the practical officials in charge of the office, without any walls, rooms, partitions, elevators, or pillars. Then these practical men can divide the space allotted to the service to the best advantage.
The trouble with most of our public buildings is that they are turned over to the service cut up and divided just as the planners thought best, and without regard to the actual needs. So I objected to having one draw plans for the interior arrangements of the new Postofflce, except the practical men who may be In charge of the service when the new quarters are ready for occupancy.
Mr. Cobb Is in New York.
Chicago Tribune, September 28, 1905
THE POSTOFFICE BOTCH.
After ten years of vexatiously protracted construction Chicago has its postoffice and finds it a botch. It is architecturally more imposing than the unpretentious but useful structure on the lake front, which has answered its purpose so excellently. The new building has a handsome dome, likewise stately wings, and more or less elaborately decorated interior. In these respects it outdoes its one-story brick predecessor. In facilities for caring for the mails, loading and unloading them, receiving and distributing, and in general administering the great public utility for which it is intended the homely shack on the lake front is far and away superior to the new building in Dearborn street.
The original suggestions ot the postoffice department as to handling and for the mails were rejected by the architect, who was working not so much for the public convenience as for personal glory. In place of the methods suggested he devised the hideous chutes in Dearborn street, which are an inconvenience to pedestrians, a detriment to the interests of property-owners, a public nuisance, an obstruction to the busi- ness of the street, and a disfigurement of the architectural appearance of the east front of the building. One proposition was to build a shed over the sidewalk, but this was too audacious for consideration and was abandoned and the iron chutes substituted, which, in turn, will necessitate about two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of chutes and elevators within the building to get the mail from the basement to the second and third floors for handling. In carrying out the present arrangement the architect has made Dearborn street the back yard for the postoffice, erected eyesores, and arranged blocking tp an already congested and narrow street with long lines of mail wagons.
It was the duty of the United States government to provide a building capable of accommodating the huge postal business of this city, to keep its premises in good order, and to provide ample conveniences for loading and unloading the mails. All this could have been done if the structure had been, planned and constructed by a special architect, as other business buildings, theaters, and hotels are, and not by an architect whose principal object to exploit his own fame. It was possible to have built a structure combining beauty and business facilities. What has been accomplished is a structure combining beauty and botch.
Something must now be done to remedy the botch, and it should not take another ten years to do it. Apparently the only way out of its trouble for the government is to build large branch at the great railway stations on the south, north, and west sides, say near the Adams street Union station, the Northwestern, and the Polk street or Park row station, which relieve the heavy work of the general postoffice. These, with tube service and, perhaps, underground tunnels, may obviate, for instance, the existing necessity of sending a huge bulk of mail to the general postoffice from the-west side, sorting it over, and sending 50 per cent of it back to be taken out by the various roads leaving the Union station.
Something of this nature will have to be done to relieve the situation and carry on the mail transportation of this city. Evidently this use of the now building was not considered by the architect, lie has given the government an impressive dome, will not be so impressive after it has been exposed to Chicago’s soot a few years more, with a structure under it which is well adapted for most anything but the purpose it was intended to serve. And this is what the government gets from architectural amateurism.
Central portion of east facade seen from Quincy St.
Chicago Tribune November 7, 1905
Chicago’s $5,000,000 federal building is a poor makeshift as a postoffice.
That was the opinion expressed yesterday by Postmaster F. Coyne and his subordinates down to the “shift” that has to block the wheels of the small wagons drawn by four sad eyed mules and two horses up the steep incline of the driveway.
Mr. Coyne wasn’t complaining—he said he had done that three years ago. He said he was doing his best to get along in quarters that admittedly were inadequate and badly arranged.
Personally, Mr. Coyne has nothing to complain of. His office is spacious and luxurious. But the men who have to get the mail out on time—who are subjected to a thousand and one inconveniences and hardships—say, after a week in the new building:
Give us back our old temporary postoffice on the lakefront.
Inspector Janice E. Stuart is preparing a report to the government about the postoffice and will not anticipate what he is going to say, but officially he blames the people who a dozen years ago insisted on the employment of Henry Ives Cobb as architect.
Temporary Post Office
Washington and Lake Front
Objections to the Building.
Here are a few of the objections to the new postoffice:
Owing to the bad and inadequate arrangements, it is still necessary to use the old postoffice building on the lake front.
The platform space in the driveway is insufficient and it takes one-fourth longer to handle the mail than it did at the temporary building.
The runways are too steep, requiring extra teams and wagon blocks. Later it will be necessary to install hydraulic lifts at great expense.
The chute boxes in Dearborn street are inartistic and a great bother.
The arrangement of of the postoffice has necessitated the installation of $250,000 worth of machinery that takes up valuable space and doesn’t always run smoothly.
Extra men are needed and the old men have to work overtime, some of them twelve hours.
There are drafts all over the building. Stamps, money orders, and money is blown about at the windows to the annoyance of patrons and despair of the clerks.
So much noise is made by the machinery that it is impossible to hear anything except the complaints of patrons.
Dirt from the light shafts drops on the workers and mail in the city delivery and other departments.
There is not enough drinking water in the city department and the mailing division—but two fountains being supplied for each thousand men.
There is a vast amount of waste room that it is impossible to utilize.
Lobby space has not been provided in the city department.
Congestion at Mail Chutes.
The congestion at the postoffice is most noticeable in the late afternoon and evening, when long lines of wagons are standing in Dearborn street waiting their turn at the mail chutes. Some of the wagons are obliged to wait an hour. Postmaster Coyne’s remedy for this is to have business men mail their packages early in the morning.
“We are not complaining,” said Postmaster Coyne. “We made all our complaints three years ago, and we are doing as much as possible to remedy defects by the application of modern machinery. we hope before many weeks to have everything in running order.
“Every one knows =, of course, that this was not arranged by the postoffice. The ideal postoffice would be all on the first floor, and would have but one entrance. A general postoffice is nothing more than a factory for converting raw mail by registration, cancellation, routing, and tying up into the finished product, and this building never was intended as a factory. Our space is divided into three floors, and practically into three city blocks.
“It is remarkable what has been accomplished by the loyalty of the men. There was some congestion last Wednesday and Thursday nights, but last Saturday night everything was cleared up and there has been no more serious trouble. The increase in October business was $107,476, or 20.92 per cent over that of the corresponding month a year ago.”
Needs $75,000 for Improvements.
Mr. Coyne thought it would take at least $75,000 to make the postoffice what it ought to be. This would include tile shafts around the belt conveyors and elevators to lessen the noise and draft, and hydraulic elevators for the driveway. Station U, at the Union railway station, and Kinzie station on the north side, would relieve the congestion 75 per cent when they were in proper running order, and he believed that the temporary postoffice on the lake front could be abandoned as soon as the Illinois Tunnel Company is ready to take mail, which it promises to be in another month.
“Don’t blame the government for the makeshift postoffice,” commented Inspector Stuart. “Twelve years ago Chicago was clamoring for a local architect, and it got one, and the result is seen. A postoffice should be on one floor, and all the departments should extend around a court or rotunda with one main entrance. The building looks all right from the outside, but the old temporary postoffice was a great deal better arranged.”
Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1960
Center to Replace Courthouse
BY WALTER OLEKSY
Chicago’s granite octopus, the Federal building, survived a bombing, gun battles, and even a sinking foundation, but it will not survive redevelopment plans for the Loop.
By 1970, Chicago will have a 105 million dollar federal center in the heart of the Loop, with expansive landscaping and atomic fallout cellars if they are’ deemed necessary.
The first unit to be built will be a 52 million dollar United States courthouse on the western half of the block bounded by Dearborn, State, and Adams streets, and Jackson boulevard. This is just across the street from the existing courthouse.
After completion of the courthouse late in 1963, the present building will be razed to make way for 53 million dollar postoffice and federal building, which is expected to be completed in seven to 10 years.
There was much national fanfare when the courthouse was being built at the turn of the century. The gray granite building with its four wings and impressive dome was the first structure erected to house all of a city’s federal agencies.
Log Cabin Its “Ancestor”
A Washington delegation headed by President William McKinley took part in the cornerstone ceremony Oct. 9, 1899. The need of additional funds and an unsteady foundation, however, prevented the courthouse from being completed until 1905. The 120,000 ton building was supported by 50 foot wood pilings driven 72 feet into the soft ground.
The first federal building, was a 29 by 45 foot log cabin built in 1832 on the southwest corner of Franklin street and old South Water street (now Wacker drive).
A later federal courthouse was opened in 1860 at Clark and Monroe streets. President-elect Abraham Lincoln, who as a lawyer used to try cases in other early federal buildings here, visited the courthouse soon after its opening. On Oct. 9, 1Q71,. the building was burned to the ground 1n the Great Chicago fire.
Another early federal courthouse was doomed to a short life. A five story post- office and customs house, which included the courts, was erected on the site of the present building, in 1879. it was demolished in 1896 because of an inadequate foundation, and work on the present building was begun.
Corinthian in Style
The present 14, story courthouse is Corinthian in style, and contains elaborate water fountains, marble staircases, open grille elevators, and many other old world charms. The architect’s plans for the new building are not expected to be completed before January 1961, but it is certain that the old world will make way for the new, in design, anyway.
Inside the sixth floor courtrooms are murals which depict great moments in the history of law.
Thie courthouse has had some great moments of its own. One such event was a bomb explosion in the building on Sept. 9, 1918. The Adams street entrance was blown out, a mail carrier was killed, and a woman employe was seriously injured.
Set Off by “Wobblies”
The bomb was planted by members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, known as “Wobblies,” 100 of whom had just been sentenced to prison terms for espionage. Another bombing was prevented Oct. 31, 1921, when a time bomb was found and disarmed.
A gun battle occurred in the courthouse on Aug. 29, 1957. A crazed ex-postal employee, James B. Jennings, 32, of 4239 South Park way, opened fire on several building guards from a second floor railing. He was captured in a washroom and later committed to a mental hospital. –
The building also has provided an ideal place for suicides because of the rotunda and railings which ring the rotunda on each floor. More pleasant occasions in the rotunda are the Christmas programs, when a 35 foot tree is erected and building employees sing carols.
Al Capone Convicted There
A famous court case in the building was Al Capone’s conviction of income tax evasion in 1931, when he was sentenced to serve 11 years.
Another major event was a 1907 decision by District Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, later baseball’s first high commissioner. He fined the Standard Oil Company of Indiana 29 million dollars on a charge of accepting rebates in violation of federal law. The decision was reversed, however, on appeaL
Samuel Insull, once Chicago’s financial wizard, faced a federal jury after the stock market crash in 1929, on charges of using the mails to defraud, but was acquitted.
There will be no room for federal ghosts in the Loop after 1M7O.
The last stone in the wall of the new Postoffice building was hoisted into place yesterday afternoon. Government Inspector Leo Canman superintended the work, while William Frazer and Louis Larson, stonesetters, laid the last piece of granite—one of the round decorations on the Adams street parapet.
The last stone went into its place almost over the spot where the first stone was set. At 2:15 o clock, June 8, 1900, tho first block of Mount Waldo granite was put in place on the Adams street side. For ever two years the stone setters have. been putting granite into the great building. They have laid 450,000 cubic feet of stone.
The above photograph was taken from the north wing of the building, on the third floor, looking northwest towards the wall just being completed by the stonecutters.
September 1, 1902
Walt Disney worked at the post office in the building from July until September 1918