Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Lost 1880 City Hall Post Office

The Post Office in 1910 -- photo NYPL Collection

As New York City rapidly grew so did its postal needs. In 1845 the post office was working out of the defunct Middle Dutch Church – a bleak structure already 200 years old at the time.

By the time of the Civil War, the old church building could no longer handle the increased mass of mail and the need for a new facility was obvious. A congressional investigation reported that “the present post office building was totally unfitted for an inadequate to the present wants of the postal business.”
The Middle Dutch Church building on Nassau Street was home to the post office in the early 19th Century -- NYPL Collection

In 1857 the President of the United States authorized Congress to purchase a site for a new post office in New York “at a cost not to exceed $500,000.”

The wheels of government turned slowly and eleven years later, on May 16, 1866 Congress resolved to appoint a commission to select a proper site for a multi-purpose structure. In the time between the President’s authorization and the formation of the congressional committee the average amount of mail processed in the old church had grown from 10 to 100 tons per day.

Congress envisioned a structure that would house the postal business of New York City as well as the United States Courts and would require “a space of land equal to from twenty-five to thirty city lots.” The spot selected was the tip of City Hall Park, directly in front of the elegant Federal-style City Hall.

The price tag place on the plot by the city was $500,000; perhaps not coincidentally exactly the maximum amount allowable. The New York Times offered its opinion, “We believe that, as the Government has got the ground so cheap, it will be inclined to act liberally as regards the structure.”

A contest among architects was held for a winning design. Sadly, there was no winner. So a committee of architectural firms was appointed to review all the plans and perfect a design from among them. Included in the committee were some of the most influential architects of the time including Richard Hunt and James Renwick, Jr. The result was a monumental French Second Empire pile that The Times called “pure French Renaissance style, and represents a chaste and harmonious combination and grouping of parts.”

Architect Alfred B. Mullett, who had submitted his own design in the competition, didn’t think so.

After he aggressively lobbied against the extravagant expense of the group design, he was handed the project to complete.

By early 1869 still little seemed to have been accomplished, other than plans for a “grand plaza” in the remainder of the park between City Hall and the proposed post office building. The editor of The Times recommended that the plaza “should be made as nearly like the Place de la Concorde in Paris as possible.”

Finally in August of that year ground was broken – while squabbling still continued over the intended site by groups opposed to the location. As excavation progressed, five human skeletons were discovered, remnants of a potter’s field, as well as several gold coins. The laborer who found the coins did not report back to work the following day.

As the Post Office rose, it was praised by the press. Readers were told it would be “renaissance, of the French school,” according to The Times in January 1870 and “The exterior will be treated in the Doric style, each story embracing an order which will be increased in richness from the ground to the cornice.”
By 1870 exterior construction was essentially completed -- NYPL Collection

Finally in 1880 the City Hall Post Office was completed. Conforming to the oddly-shaped plot, it faced down Broadway with, necessarily, its loading docks on the widest side fronting City Hall.
 1903 postcard from author's collection

Four stories of granite rose like a grey stone wedding cake to a bulbous mansard roof. The colossal edifice cost a staggering $8.5 million -- $5 million over the proposed cost and approximately $156 million in 2011 dollars.

The state-of-the-art sorting room -- NYPL collection
Up-to-the-minute innovations, like a system of pneumatic tubes that whisked mail to sub-stations and distribution points, improved delivery. The Federal Government rented the upper offices for judges and lawyers as well as for hearing rooms and court rooms. And it immediately became a must-see spot for tourists.

Looking back with a 21st Century viewpoint, we see Mullett’s grand edifice as a wonderful and splashy example of Victoriana at its best – a lush pile of ornament and shapes. The AIA Guide to New York City says it was “a rich building inspired by Napoleon III’s Paris.”
The rarely-photographed rear facade facing City Hall Park -- author's collection

Contemporary opinion was not so kind. By the time the eleven-year construction project was completed the style was already out of date. Almost immediately it was dubbed Mullett’s Monstrosity” and, in comparison to the tall buildings rising around it, was likened to a portly dowager squatting in the park. The Century Magazine called it “a showy granite building.”

Horse-drawn drays line up at the loading docks (far left) in 1909 -- photograph from author's collection

The New York Sun derided Mullett as “the most arrogant, pretentious, and preposterous little humbug in the United States.” In 1890 the architect ended his life in Washington DC.

By 1912 there were calls for the demolition of the giant building. The Times wrote “The Mullett Post Office has always been an architectural eyesore, and has, from the first, been unsatisfactory to the Postal Service and the Federal Courts beneath its roof.”

Trolley cars snarl in front of the post office building in 1905 -- NYPL Collection
Dissatisfaction grew and in 1921, only four decades after its opening, the reviled post office was deemed obsolete. Postmaster Edward M. Morgan stated that the facility was “totally inadequate” and noted that the Government spent about $900,000 in rent in the building; while Postmaster General Will H. Hays admitted “almost universal sentiment on the part of the people of this city is to have their old park restored to its original colonial form and beauty.”

The New York Times added its own brutal criticism. “The city spoiled the park for a mess of pottage,” it said, “Except for cheapness there is no merit in the present building.” Calling the Post Office “an architectural abomination,” the editorial quoted Postmasters Willcox, Patten and Morgan as deeming it “inconvenient, inadequate, unhealthful.”

That year, in what now seems the pinnacle of irony, the New York Historical Society and the Sons of the Revolution garnered the assistance of “many persons and associations active in the conservation of historical landmarks and beauties of the city” to attack the problem of “ridding the park of what everybody regards as a nuisance.”

Although the dispute between the Federal government and the city over ownership of the land provided a temporary stay of execution for the post office; New York’s attempts to beautify the city for the upcoming 1939 World’s Fair hastened the end. In 1938 Mullett’s elaborate granite masterpiece with its columns and porches, mansards and iron cresting, was bulldozed to rubble.

Today the old City Hall Post Office is remembered as one of the best examples of monumental French Second Empire architecture in the United States – along with Mullett’s Old Executive Office Building in Washington DC.  However there are few who remember it at all.

2 comments:

  1. This building was an essential location in Jack Finny's classic novel "Time and Again". The hero goes there to see who mailed a letter vital to the plot.

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  2. Yes - that is how I learned about the PO. Love that book and have reread it many times. It got me interested in time travel and the history of NYC.

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