[graphic] National Park Service Arrowhead and link to NPS  [graphic] National Park Service Arrowhead and link to NPS
[graphic] National Park Service Black Bar
[graphic] Link to National Register Publications Home Page
 [graphic] Link to National Register Home Page  [graphic] Link to National Register Research Home Page  [graphic] Link to National Register Travel Home Page  [graphic] Link to National Register Education Home Page  [graphic] National Park Service arrowhead and link to NPS.gov
 [graphic] National Register Bulletin How to Apply the National Register Criteria to Post Offices

[graphic] Link to Next Page [graphic] Link to Table of Contents [graphic] Link to Previous Page

U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service

II. Historical and Architectural Development of Postal Services and Post Office Construction

Historically, governments have maintained control over postal systems, since the effective organization and control of society depend upon the ability to communicate. In America, the new United States Government also assumed control over mail service, but incorporated democratic principles by constitutionally placing the power to establish post offices and post roads in the hands of Congress. The establishment of postal service throughout the country provided an example of democracy at work: citizens petitioned Congress, which established post roads and instructed the Postmaster General to provide postal service along the routes. By 1820, the number of post offices and miles of post roads were approximately quadruple that of 1800. In addition to providing tangible reminders to otherwise isolated communities of the role and ideals of the central government, post offices, through their number, distribution, and types of service, represented many politically advantageous opportunities to Members of Congress. Using their franking privileges, Congressmen could widely and inexpensively distribute speeches and campaign materials, and they also could gain political support from the press by purchasing space for notices concerning postal business. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Congressmen sought favor from constituents through the establishment or improvement of postal services and facilities in their districts.

With the development of political parties in the early 19th century the operation of the Post Office Department became subject to political manipulation. After gaining cabinet level status in 1829 under Andrew Jackson, the Postmaster General served as a major distributor of rewards to party supporters through appointments to thousands of postmaster positions. Postmasters were often, therefore, important political activists and local organizers for the party in power. The political vulnerability of the postmaster positions, as well as their large numbers, made them major targets in the history of civil service reform in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Throughout the 19th century, the postal system served as the principal, and for a long time the only, means of long distance communication. It provided both a physical and intellectual link between great distances as the nation expanded across the continent. In the process of providing and increasing its services, the Post Office Department also influenced the development of aspects of the nation's history other than communications, including transportation, publishing, and commerce. Efforts to increase the speed and efficiency of mail delivery and competition for government contracts to carry mail encouraged the growth of roads, railroads, shipping lines, and eventually airlines. Congressional franking, special newspaper rates, the acceptance of books for delivery, and free delivery for cities and eventually rural areas spurred a boom in the publishing business by offering inexpensive rates and wide distribution of newspapers, journals, magazines, catalogs, and paperback books. Mail order businesses benefited from reduced rates catalogs, rural free delivery, and parcel post service.

Through the use of flat rates, stamps and envelopes, registered mail and money orders, and free delivery for larger cities, the basic form of modern postal service had taken shape by the Civil War. Important services instituted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries included rural free delivery, parcel post, and Postal Savings. Long advocated by farmers, rural free delivery, which began experimentally in 1896 and permanently a few years later, greatly reduced the isolation of rural areas. Between 1897 and 1908, local governments spent millions to improve roads in order to qualify for rural delivery service. This service also resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of post offices in small communities, in which commercial establishments had sometimes been supported by necessary periodic visits of rural citizens to pick up mail. Parcel post, inaugurated in 1913, provided another great convenience to rural areas, which were often unprofitable for private express companies. Postal savings banks were authorized in 1910 in order to encourage thrift, increase the amount of money in circulation, and provide security, especially for those without access to banks. They became particularly popular during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the government inspired greater confidence than private financial institutions.

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." (1) 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.

The emphasis on economy and efficiency continued during the Depression, when the government rapidly expanded its public works program as a means of stimulating economic recovery and providing work for the unemployed, almost one third of whom were in the building trades. The number of public buildings constructed in the 1930's increased dramatically. Approximately three times the number of post offices were built in this period as had been built in the previous 50 years. The construction of these post offices was funded through a number of different programs and authorizations, but remained the responsibility of the Treasury Department until 1939.

Nearly a quarter of the post offices built during this period were authorized by the Public Works Administration (PWA), established in 1933 to oversee the planning and construction of Federal and non-Federal public works projects. The planning required by the 1926 Public Buildings Act and the 1931 Federal Employment Stabilization Act enabled the PWA to begin its program with a minimum of delay by starting with Federal projects such as post offices. The Bureau of Labor Statistics maintained statistics on employment, wages, cost of materials, and other data on PWA projects. Although the 406 post offices built under this program composed only a small portion of the approximately 34,000 PWA construction projects completed or in progress in virtually every county in the nation by 1939, they were among the most familiar to the general public. Despite the desire to complete projects rapidly, the PWA also stressed the importance of high quality in order to ensure "public works of an ensuring character and lasting benefits," according to its 1939 report.(2)

The government once again employed private architects after 1930, but this practice was ended with an order of June 29, 1934, that all remaining Federal buildings be designed by the Office of the Supervising Architect. The Treasury Department determined that it was not economical for private architects to handle small architectural projects. It was felt that the expeditious placement of buildings under contract and the putting of men to work in the shortest time possible facilitated employment in the construction field, and outweighed the benefits of procuring designs from a comparatively small number of architectural firms. A limited number of private architects were associated with the Treasury Department's building program on a consulting basis. In March of 1939, however, in likely response to the improved employment picture, the Treasury Department reversed its policy and decided to select private architects by means of regional competitions. This new policy was barely announced when the public buildings program was removed from the Treasury Department in July of 1939 and merged into the Federal Works Agency. Although some variations to facades were allowed, standardized interior plans were well established by this time, and outlined in a publication entitled "Instructions to Private Architects Engaged on Public Building work under the Jurisdictions of the Treasury Department." (3)The most commonly used styles were the Colonial Revival style or a simplified classical style blending modern and classical elements, characterized by symmetrical massing and plain surfaces.

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. Funds for artwork were based on 1% of the total appropriation for the building's construction. Unlike another major program, the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, the Section's program was one of patronage rather than relief and stressed quality over mass production. Artists were selected through blind competitions, whose standards encouraged realism as the most appropriate style and scenes of everyday American life as suitable subjects. Placement of the commissioned murals and sculptures in public buildings resulted from the desire of leaders in the Administration to make original, quality art accessible to those who otherwise had little or no opportunity to see it. Local reactions to the newly installed works ranged from enthusiasm and pride to indifference or criticism over the choice or interpretation of subject matter. Sometimes works sparked sharp controversy.

When the public buildings design function was transferred from the Treasury Department to the Federal Works Agency in 1939, its vision was altered as well. In its 1940 annual report, the Federal Works Agency described itself as "primarily an organization for building" concerned with providing facilities for persons engaged in military readiness. (4)By 1943, temporary war-related construction was completed and the Supervising Architect's staff reduced by nearly one-half. Construction of non-military buildings, especially post offices, was virtually at a standstill. However, the Federal Works Agency planned for a post-war public building program. The agency studied the character of building materials, designs, and construction methods used during the war years, and gauged the adaptability of the new materials and methods to post-war Federal construction.

After the war, Federal architectural activities were well diffused throughout military and civilian agencies. The Federal Works Agency--with its public buildings design function--was subsumed into the new General Services Administration in 1949. With the Public Buildings Act of 1949, the Office of the Supervising Architect increasingly relied on private architectural firms to carry out public building designs. The Office continued, however, to provide standard designs and guidelines for post office buildings, although the nature of those buildings changed remarkably after World War II. Post offices became prominent examples of the architectural tenet "form follows function." Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield desired utilitarian post office designs with no extraneous frills, such as exterior entrance steps. New post offices had clean lines and standardized designs for lobby windows, counters, lock boxes, and letter drops.

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. Site plan concerns included adequate parking, tail-gate space, rail sidings, and drive-through service.(5)

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.(6) 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. In 1954, all exclusively post office projects were removed from the General Services Administration and transferred to the U.S. Post Office Department. The General Services Administration was left with most of the remaining civilian Federal buildings, including those that combined post offices with other Federal functions. (7)


[graphic] Link to Next Page [graphic] Link to Top of Page [graphic] Link to Previous Page

National Register Home | Publications Home | Previous Page | Next Page
Comments or Questions