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Old Post Office and Clock Tower
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
Old Post Office Pavilion, located on Pennsylvania Avenue
Location: Washington, D.C.
Coordinates: 38°53′38.32″N 77°1′40.71″W / 38.8939778°N 77.027975°W / 38.8939778; -77.027975Coordinates: 38°53′38.32″N 77°1′40.71″W / 38.8939778°N 77.027975°W / 38.8939778; -77.027975
Built/Founded: between 1892 and 1899[2]
Architect: Edbrooke, Willoughby J.
Architectural style(s): Richardsonian Romanesque
Governing body: General Services Administration
Added to NRHP: April 11, 1973
NRHP Reference#: 73002105[1]

The Old Post Office Pavilion, also known as Old Post Office and Clock Tower, built in 1892-99, is located at the intersection of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in Washington, D.C. Its rustication, strong semi-circular arches, squat clustered columns united by a foliate Sullivanesque capital-frieze, make it the last major example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture to be constructed in the District of Columbia. Its 315 ft (96 m)-high clocktower makes the building the largest commercial building and the third tallest structure in Washington D.C. Scarcely used as a post office, it has been rehabilitated today into office and retail space shared by the federal government and private businesses. The expansive interior atrium is now home to shops, federal offices, entertainment space, and a food court.

National Park Service rangers from Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site provide tours of the Old Post Office Tower affording one of the most spectacular views of Washington from its 270-foot (82 m)-high observation deck. The tower includes an exhibit room depicting the building's long struggle for survival. Visitors can also view the Bells of Congress, replicas of those at Westminster Abbey and given by the Ditchley Foundation to the United States in 1983 to celebrate bicentennial of the end of the Revolutionary War. The official bells of the United States Congress, they are one of the largest sets of change ringing bells in North America.


In 1880, Congress approved the building of a new post office. By legend, the site was selected by Senator Leland Stanford of California; the new post office was hoped to revitalize the seedy neighborhood between the Capitol building and the White House. It was designed by Willoughby J. Edbrooke, Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department in the Romanesque Revival style that Henry Hobson Richardson (died 1886) had popularized in the 1880s; construction commenced in 1892. Edbrooke later designed the Federal Court House and Post office for the Upper Midwest, now called the "Landmark Center" (1902) in St Paul, Minnesota.

When completed in 1899, the massive edifice was the largest office building and first building incorporating a steel frame in Washington; the steel frame supports floors and interior constructions, but the outer walls, five feet thick at their base, are still self-supporting. It was also the first federal building on Pennsylvania Avenue. Opening ceremonies were marred when the postmaster of Washington fell to his death down an elevator shaft.

Old Post Office Pavilion in 1911

During construction, however, the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago had popularized the classicizing formulas of Beaux-Arts architecture at the expense of Victorian forms. The Romanesque Revival arches on low clustered columns, rustication, and Sullivanesque foliate ornament made the building old-fashioned at its opening in 1899. The new structure was derided in the New York Times as "a cross between a cathedral and a cotton mill". The Old Post Office Building was less than ten years old when cries were heard that it should be torn down. One local man, Nathan Rubinton, carved a model of the building by hand so that when it was torn down, people would remember how it looked.

In 1914, the District of Columbia Mail Depot was moved to a larger building constructed next to Union Station. Although only 15 years old, the building at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue was dubbed the "old" post office. In the 1920s, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon's building commission developed the surrounding Federal Triangle complex and actively sought the building's demolition.

The Postmaster General moved to a newly constructed office building directly across 12th Street in 1934, and the fate of the building appeared to be sealed. The only reason that the Old Post Office was not then razed then was a lack of money due to the Great Depression. For the next 40 years the building served as overflow space for several government agencies. As no particular agency was made responsible for it, the building fell into decay.

Looking southeast down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Old Post Office Pavilion and United States Capitol.

By 1962, the neighborhood around the building had also declined. President John F. Kennedy appointed a Pennsylvania Avenue Commission to study ways to improve the area; in 1964 it returned several recommendations, including demolition of the Old Post Office Building to allow completion of the Federal Triangle. In 1970 and 1971, demolition permits were issued and Congress appropriated the money for the building's removal.

But local citizens who had grown to admire the building's architecture banded together to save it. Nancy Hanks, the politically influential chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, joined the effort and prevailed in convincing Congress to reverse its decision. In 1973 the Old Post Office was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and starting in 1976 it was extensively renovated, including scrubbing its blackened exterior.

On February 15, 1983, the Old Post Office was officially renamed the Nancy Hanks Center in recognition of her devotion to the arts and the preservation of architecturally significant buildings. The building houses the offices of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation as well as the National Endowment for the Arts.

An exhibit room in the renovated tower depicts the struggle for survival of the Old Post Office building. The same exhibit room used to house the Rubinton Model, but it was returned to the Smithsonian Institution, which had loaned the model.


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2006-03-15.  
  2. ^ U.S. National Park Service: Old Post Office Tower

External links

Preceded by
United States Capitol
Tallest Building in Washington, D.C.
Succeeded by
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception


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