Essential Architecture- Washington D.C.

Old Post Office Building




the intersection of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC.




Richardsonian Romanesque




  View down Pennsylvania Avenue to the U.S. Capitol from the Old Post Office tower

The Old Post Office Pavilion is located at the intersection of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. Its strong arches, squat columns, and 315 ft-high tower make it the third tallest structure and the last major example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture in the District of Columbia. 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, entertainment space, and a food court.

National Park Service rangers from Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site provides tours of the Old Post Office Tower affording one of the most spectacular views of Washington from its 270 foot-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 to celebrate the 1976 U.S. bicentennial. 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 Treasury official Willoughby J. Edbrooke in the style of Henry Hobson Richardson, and construction commenced in 1892. Edbrooke later designed the Landmark Center to serve Minnesota.

When completed in 1899, the massive edifice was the largest office building and first steel frame construction building in Washington. It was also the first federal building on Pennsylvania Avenue. During opening ceremonies, the postmaster of Washington fell to his death down an elevator shaft.

During construction, however, Richardson's 1886 death and the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois had popularized neo-classical architecture at the expense of Victorian forms; the new structure was derided as "a cross between a cathedral and a cotton mill" by the New York Times. 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 by hand a model of the building 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. Because of the "Great Depression" of 1929, they did not have enough funding to demolish the "old tooth" in 1934.

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.

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.

An exhibit room in the renovated tower depicts the struggle for survival of the Old Post Office building and features the Rubinton model.

^ National Register Information System. National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service (2006-03-15).
Cooper, Thaddeus. "Old Post Office Building" at
Shultz, Scott G. "America's Watchtower: Saving the Old Post Office," Cultural Resource Management No. 2, 1998.
National Geographic magazine, feature article on the building in 1970s.