The NEA Finds and Fights for a Home of its Own

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Vintage drawing of the Old Post Office Building

An antique postal card (circa 1910) depicts the Post Office building from the vantage point of 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. Postcard used courtesy of Paulette Beete.

1974"I was looking out [Nancy Hanks's] window, and I saw two old buildings. One was the Pinkham building, which is now the American Museum of Architecture; the other was the Old Post Office. I said, 'You know, Nancy, the Arts Endowment really should be in one of these two buildings.' She said, 'Check it out,' so I did. I sent her a memorandum a few days later. It said, 'The Old Post Office looks like it is available. They're going to tear it down. Why don't we try to save it?' Back came my memorandum with one of those smiling faces of hers scrawled on the margin. It meant: fine, let's see what we can do." - William Lacy, former NEA Architecture and Environmental Arts Program Director By the late 19th century, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol was so derelict that the area's south side, a notorious slum, was nicknamed Murderer's Row. The Supervising Architect of the Treasury, then responsible for all federal architecture, conceived a new home for the United States Postal Department and the District Post Office, to serve as an anchor for the area's revitalization. When the new building was completed in 1899, however, it was an architectural anachronism. The new vocabulary for the district's architecture was classical revival, against the marble elegance of which the dark, rough stone of the Post Office building's facade appeared dull and stodgy. The building, sited midway between the White House and the Capitol, was a model example of Richardsonian Romanesque Revival style. This Americanized version of neo-Romanesque architecture, popularized by architect H.H.Richardson, featured round arches, horizontal silhouettes, heavy rough-cut stone walls, and towers. The new Post Office Building was the first steel-frame building in D.C. and the first to have its own power plant. It was also the city's tallest building, next to the Washington Monument, thanks to its 315 foot high clock tower. These attributes, however, didn't preclude the New York Times assessment of the edifice as "a cross between a cathedral and a cotton mill" nor did they stop calls for the structure's permanent removal from the Pennsylvania Avenue landscape. By the 1970s, Congress had secured funding to demolish the old building - with the exception of its clock tower - as part of a redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue. The structure, called the Old Post Office Building after the Post Office administration decamped to Northeast DC, had been slated for demolition since the 1930s. The Great Depression, however, meant that no funds were available for the demolition. "Don't Tear It Down" - a citizens action group that is now the D.C. Preservation League - battled to save the building, along with other historic buildings such as the venerable Willard Hotel. One of the group's informational pamphlets noted, "The Post Office is not unsafe, or unsanitary, or structurally unsound, or even unusable as office space. Its only fault is that it is different, not conforming to the architectural style of the Federal Triangle."

Interior shot of Old Post Office Building

 

The building's enormous skylight was uncovered during the 1977-1983 rehabilitation by the General Services Administration. Visitors reach the tower via a glass elevator.

Interior shot of the Old Post Office Building

 

The interior arches framing the upper floors of the Old Post Office's interior mimic the facade's arched fenestration; rounded arches are an identifying characteristic of Romanesque Revival architecture.

Nancy Hanks, then Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, joined the fight to save the Old Post Office building. In the early 1970s the Arts Endowment embraced historic preservation and the adaptive reuse of historic structures. "We spearheaded the movement to save old buildings," says William Lacy, a former NEA Director. "For example, we organized a conference on old and abandoned railroad stations. We made a film illustrating the cultural uses to which they could be put." Chairman Hanks lobbied extensively on the building's behalf, persuading Congress to authorize another feasibility study on the building's usage in 1974. Her persistence ultimately led to the Cooperative Use Act of 1976, which allows for joint use of federal buildings by government and private businesses. On January 26, 1983, three weeks after Hanks's death from cancer, President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 98-1, which renamed the building the Nancy Hanks Center. The bill reads, "This designation is particularly apt since the renovation of the Old Post Office, its occupancy this year by Federal cultural agencies and commercial enterprises and its exhibits are due in large measure to the foresightedness, persuasiveness, intellect and vigor of Nancy Hanks." Today, the Old Post Office is a national historic landmark, housing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Visitors can take in one of the city's best views from the tower's observation deck, reached via a glass-walled elevator that seems to soar into the sky as it approaches the glass-ceilinged atrium. The National Park Service manages an exhibit on the building's history, including a scale model of the building -- on loan from the Smithsonian Institution -- built over eight months in 1909 by Nathan Rubinton, a young Russian émigré. The tower is also home to the Congress Bells, a set of English change ringing bells presented to Congress in 1976 by the Ditchley Foundation of Great Britain in honor of the U.S. Bicentennial. Made at Whitechapel Foundry, the 10 bells are replicas of the ones in London's Westminster Abbey. The massive bells ring each year at the opening and closing of Congress and on state occasions, including all national holidays.