The Legacy of the Treasury Department’s Office of the Supervising Architect: Three Federal Courthouse and Post Office Buildings

Over the past few years, Vertical Access has been part of project teams investigating and restoring three federal courthouse and post office complexes designed in the early 1890s.  These structures, in Milwaukee, Buffalo and Brooklyn, exemplify the federal government’s role in shaping the architectural character of our cities through the design and construction of monumental, ornately decorated buildings.  Each of the three buildings was designed by a different supervising architect employing differing historicizing styles, but they have in common several notable features including a load-bearing masonry structure clad in granite, a prominent tower over a five-story base and a large central atrium.

Federal courthouses and post offices are one of the most ubiquitous building types from the late 19th century to have survived through the 20th century and become a significant part of our cultural heritage of the 21st century.  These federal buildings are found throughout the country, in cities of all sizes.

Designed by The Department of the Treasury’s Office of the Supervising Architect, which was established in 1852, the courthouses and post offices built by the federal government were intended to be symbolic of the prosperity of the cities in which they are located and representative of the strength of the federal government.  To this day they often maintain a prominent position in the urban fabric of our cities.  Although constructed to last for many generations and built of durable materials such as granite masonry, time has taken its toll on these landmark buildings, pointing to the need for their maintenance and preservation.

The Milwaukee Federal Building was designed as the United States Courthouse and Post Office by Willoughby Edbrooke, who was Supervising Architect for the United States Treasury Department from 1891 to 1892.  The original portion of the building was constructed between 1892 and 1899, with an addition added to the south in the 1930s.  The lower portion of the original building is five stories tall, with gabled roofs and dormers and large arched openings at the entrance below the tower.  The granite at the tower and other portions of the building is purportedly from quarries near Mount Waldo in Frankfort County, Maine.  These quarries produce a coarse-grained, medium gray granite and also furnished stone used in the construction of the main post office in Cleveland, Ohio and the United States Mint in Philadelphia.  A 210-foot tall tower rises from the center of the north façade.  Like the rest of the building, the ornament of the tower reflects the Richardson Romanesque style of the original design.   Each side of the tower has a shallow balcony accessed from three arched openings at a belfry level and a gabled dormer with paired grotesques above this.  The rounded corners of the tower terminate in turrets with sheet metal conical roofs.

Although an extensive restoration project of the Milwaukee Federal Building was undertaken between 1989 and 1996, by early 2010, fragments of granite at the exterior masonry had become loose.  Working with Quinn Evans Architects, Vertical Access was retained to perform a hands-on investigation and identify any potentially unsafe conditions at the tower.  While Quinn Evans performed the inspection of the lower portion of the building, VA documented the existing conditions of the granite masonry, slate roof sheet metal roofs and flashing at the tower.  The information collected by VA will be used by Quinn Evans to help the General Services Administration plan future maintenance and repair work at the exterior of the Milwaukee Federal Building.

The Erie Community College building was originally designed as the main post office for Buffalo, NY by Treasury Department Supervising Architect Jeremiah O’Rourke with William Aiken and James Knox Taylor.  Constructed between 1894 and 1901, the five-story building’s use as a post office ceased in 1963, when a new postal facility was constructed at a different location.  In 1981 the building was converted to the city campus of Erie Community College.  The granite at the tower and other portions of the building is from the Bodwell-Jonesboro quarries in Washington County, Maine.  These quarries produce a grayish pink colored granite and also furnished stone used in the construction of the Custom House in Buffalo and the Bourse in Philadelphia.  A 244-foot tall tower rises from the center of the west façade.  The ornament of the exterior masonry reflects a Flemish Gothic style.   At the tower, the ornament is even more exuberant than the lower portion of the building and includes turrets and projecting grotesques at the corners, foliated crockets at each course of the tower roof and a massive stone finial capping the structure.

One of Vertical Access’ first projects, in September 1994, was the inspection of the tower of the Erie Community College building for Flynn Battaglia Architects.  Over fifteen years later, in November 2009, Vertical Access re-inspected the tower for Flynn Battaglia.  In the intervening period, no repair or restoration work had been undertaken at the tower.  Although most of the notable conditions of deterioration, such as loss of stone crockets at the tower roof and displacement, did not appear to have changed significantly in that time, conditions related to deferred maintenance, such as failed mortar joints, plant growth and soiling, have continued to worsen.  However, the stabilization of the stone finial at the top of the tower, installed prior to VA’s 1995 inspection to address cracks at the finial, did appear to show signs of deterioration.  In a follow-up site visit in December 2009, VA installed crack gauges and additional strapping as a temporary stabilization measure until a full restoration of the tower can be undertaken.

The United States General Post Office and Courthouse in Brooklyn, NY consists of two buildings.  The main facade of the original 1892 portion of the building was designed in the Romanesque Revival style by Mifflin Bell, Treasury Department Supervising Architect from 1883 to 1886, and is clad entirely in Bodwell Blue granite from the Sands Quarry in Vinalhaven, Maine.  The medium gray stone from the same quarry was used in the construction of the Custom House in Brooklyn and the Post Office in Washington, DC.  The original 1892 building is five stories tall and is topped by a mansard roof punctuated with gabled dormer windows.  A square-plan tower rises to 200 feet at the southwest corner of the building.  Two semi-circular turrets frame the central entrance on the south façade.  The east and west façades of the original 1892 building transition to the taller 1933 addition, designed by James Wetmore in a similar Romanesque Revival style but clad predominantly in terra cotta.

Led by project architect Goody Clancy, Vertical Access worked with a design team that also included Robert Silman Associates, James Rhodes of Preservation Design, Jablonski Building Conservation and other consultants to perform a comprehensive investigation of the Brooklyn Post Office and Courthouse complex.  VA’s role included hands-on investigation of the façade materials and documentation of the gutter and flashing conditions.  Initial survey work commenced in July 2007 and focused on understanding the types of conditions present at the granite on the 1892 Building, terra cotta of the 1933 Building and slate roofs of both buildings.  Iterative inspections allowed for refinement of the treatment strategies during the design phase.  The contract for the Façade repair and Slate Roof Replacement project was awarded in July 2009 to Nicholson & Galloway, and construction is now underway.

These three federal buildings, all designed in the early 1890s, demonstrate the role of the Treasury Department’s Office of the Supervising Architect.  On one hand, the Supervising Architect was responsible for the completion of monumental buildings that are a significant part of our urban landscapes and are often still being used for their intended purposes.  On the other hand, an almost pattern-book approach to designing federal buildings had set in by the 1890s, prompting the American Institute of Architects to point to the inferior design of these buildings.  In 1893, an act of Congress introduced by Charles Tarsney allowed competitions among private architects for the design of federal buildings.

The Supervising Architect continued to play a prominent role in the design and construction of federal buildings, however, and the Tarsney Act was repealed in 1912.  In the 1930s the Supervising Architect’s Office became the Public Works Branch within the Federal Works Agency, which focused as much on job creation as design work.  Eventually, in 1949, the United States General Services Administration (GSA) was established and the responsibility for design, preservation and construction of federal buildings including courthouses and post offices was given to the Public Buildings Service division of the GSA.

Sources used and further reading:

Lois Craig, The Federal Presence: Architecture, Politics, and Symbols in United States Government Building. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1978.

Antoinette J. Lee, Architects to the Nation: The Rise and Decline of the Supervising Architect’s Office.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Peggy Perazzo, “Stone Quarries and Beyond,” (accessed December 15, 2010).

“Federal Courthouses and Post Offices: Symbols of Pride and Permanence in American Communities,” (accessed December 15, 2010).

“Wikipedia: Office of the Supervising Architect,” (accessed December 15, 2010).