Arago: Post Office Buildings

Post Office Buildings

Washington City Old Post Office architectural model


In 1880 Congress attempted to revitalize the Murder Bay area of Washington, D.C., by authorizing the construction of a combined United States Postal Department and District Post Office building at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. The Federal Post Office building was the first steel-frame building constructed in Washington. The frame was covered with a massive granite exterior designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture. When completed, it was the largest federal office building in the city, and its great glass-covered atrium of 99' x 184' is still one of the largest unobstructed open spaces in any federal building. It was the first building in Washington to have its own power plant, which generated enough electricity to light 3,900 light bulbs. The immense 315' clock tower was second in height only to the Washington Monument.

Unfortunately, the Post Office Building did not stimulate growth in the area, and the building was less than ten years old when cries were first heard that it should be torn down. As a response, Nathan Rubinton (1882-1958) hand-carved a model of the building. Rubinton, a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1904 and had moved to Washington, D.C., by 1908, worked as a cabinet maker and carved small wooden objects in his spare time. Apparently moved by the building's style and appreciative of the country that had given him freedom from an oppressive society, he began his task in 1909, working in the evenings for eight months. When assembled, the 26" W x 32"L x 42" model was an exact replica of the much larger structure, even down to its 1,130 windows.

The model so impressed one of Rubinton's friends that he convinced the creator to display it in the lobby of the post office for six weeks. The work received such acclaim that it was invited to be presented at an architectural fair in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1915, and at the San Francisco World's Fair in 1916. Architects, engineers, and the public were astounded at the model's detail and workmanship. In 1962 Rubinton's children donated the model to the Smithsonian Institution. The model is currently on loan to the National Parks Service and can be viewed in an exhibition at the Old Post Office building.

In 1914 the District of Columbia mail depot was moved to a larger building, constructed near Union Station. This new site is the current home of the National Postal Museum. Although only fifteen years old, the building at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue was dubbed the "old" post office. The postmaster general moved to a newly-constructed office building directly across 12th Street in 1934. Shortage of funds during the Great Depression halted a move to raze the old building. For the next forty years the building served as overflow space for several government agencies. In the 1970s Congress finally appropriated the money to remove the Old Post Office. Local citizens successfully banded together to save it. After years of renovation, the Old Post Office reopened. Today, both government and privately-owned businesses share its generous spaces. In 1983 the Old Post Office was officially renamed the 'Nancy Hanks Center' in recognition of Hanks's devotion to the arts and the preservation of architecturally significant buildings.

Reference: (Accessed March 17, 2006)

U.S. / P.O.
wood; glass; brass; cotton
Height x Width x Depth (Crate): 56 x 43 x 47 in. (142.24 x 109.22 x 119.38 cm) Height x Width x Depth: 43 x 25 x 32 in. (109.22 x 63.5 x 81.28 cm)
Museum ID:

  • Washington City Old Post Office architectural model
  • Washington City Old Post Office architectural model
  • Washington City Old Post Office architectural model
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