Travis Dewitz | Midwest Editorial & Commercial Photographer » Photography Projects, Works of Art, and Environmental Portraits

United States Post Offices

UNITED STATES POST OFFICES

The U.S. Postal Service operates over 35,000 facilities that range from the most remote in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska to the largest one in New York City. The USPS only owns about 8,800 of these 35,000 facilities and lease the rest. In my travels crisscrossing the United States I have come across many post offices that range greatly in size and appearance but all have a connection to one another. I find that I am most intrigued by three common architectural styles. There are the small and unique structures located throughout the most rural communities that sit squarely in center of the towns in which they serve. They come in many forms, some even have been transplanted into old homes and others sport gaudy but colorful exterior paint choices. It is not uncommon to find a magnificent mural on the side of some that was inspired by the communities history. A few of these rural post office are even rogue and do not adhere to the USPS’ style guide using whichever typeface is handy. Others have their own hand painted and lettered wooden signs, one in Jim Falls, Wisconsin even including a pair of handpainted eagle heads. Then there are the small to medium sized one story brick constructed buildings with sharp squared off corners and clean lines that emote security and strength and appear firmly anchored into the earth. Metal letters are prominently affixed to the brick facade all in caps spell out “UNITED STATES POST OFFICE”, usually along with the city and ZIP code in which it serves. These were built after World War II with a utilitarian style led by Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield who believed in a form follows function approach. Last but not least are the large impressive structures built around the turn of the twentieth century, I believe these post offices captivates not only myself but a majority of us. These buildings built with large white marble blocks towering over the streets are usually very ornate inside and out.

Building appearance plays an important role in representing our organization, our employees, and our products and services. Our buildings must be friendly and easily identifiable, and portray an efficient, businesslike and professional image. – USPS Standard Design Criteria Contents Handbook AS-503

The buildings constructed for use as post offices have reflected various government and architectural philosophies. From the establishment of the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury in the 1850’s until the 1890’s, the style of Federal buildings’ tended to follow the favorite style of the incumbent Supervising Architect. During the tenure of James Knox Taylor (1897-1912) as Supervising Architect of the Treasury, the Federal government promoted the concept that government buildings should be monumental and beautiful, and should represent the ideals of democracy and high standards of architectural sophistication in their communities. Taylor preferred styles derived from classical or early American traditions. Believing that Federal buildings should be built to last, he also emphasized the use of high quality construction materials. Private architects worked on many of the larger projects, but the Office of the Supervising Architect produced most smaller buildings, including many of the post offices. In either case, the buildings were individually designed; Taylor firmly resisted suggestions that designs be standardized.

After 1913, Federal construction policy changed in response to concerns over the cost of public buildings projects and controversy over whether all the buildings authorized by Congress were truly needed. The 1913 Public Buildings Act, which authorized the construction of a large number of public buildings, also prohibited the construction of new post office buildings in communities whose postal receipts totaled less than $10,000. In the interest of economy and efficiency, the Department of the Treasury instituted a classification system under which a post office’s structural and ornamental qualities were functions of the value of real estate and postal receipts in the city where it was to be located. First class post offices in large cities would still be monumental and elaborate, but for a small town, the standards specified an “ordinary class of building, such as any businessman would consider a reasonable investment.” In contrast to the earlier policy of designing post offices individually, the Supervising Architect’s Office used the same design and floor plan whenever possible, and rarely employed private architects during this period, which continued through the 1920’s.

Many of the post offices constructed during the 1930’s were adorned with murals or other forms of artwork commissioned by the Federal government. Of the four government programs supporting graphic arts during the Depression, the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (later the Section of Fine Arts) was the principal sponsor of art for Federal buildings, primarily post offices.

Another significant difference between pre- and post-war post offices was site design relative to automobile accessibility. After World War II, post offices were located near major roadways or automobile traffic intersections, rather than along railroads or in town centers. The new pattern emerged as post-war development spread out from central cities.

With private architects or architectural firms designing most post offices after the war, the General Services Administration encouraged standardized designs not only by providing prescriptive drawings and specifications, but also through an ambitious lease-purchase program. This program provided for private investors to finance and construct public buildings according to Federal government requirements. The government would lease the buildings for a specified number of years and then, according to a prearranged purchase contract, become owner of the building. The architectural treatment of the exterior was left to the decision of the building owner and the architect, but interior spaces had to conform to accommodate specific postal functions. – U.S. Department of the Interior