old chicago skyscraper of the week–Chicago Postoffice

August 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

post office 1912Yes, that’s all one word.  What do you get when you try to build a gigantic public structure in Chicago with federal funds?  Rampant corruption (I know, huge surprise) and some of the most spectacular architectural failures the city has ever seen.

The city has had a postoffice on the block between Dearborn, Clark, Adams, and Jackson streets since 1879, when John Van Osdel designed a four story structure that was initially hailed as a sign that the city had recovered fully from the Great Fire.  But those sentiments faded just a bit when the building began sinking.  Van Osdel had designed a foundation for the building that consisted of nothing more than a thick concrete mat.  Concrete was, at best, an iffy technology, and without any reinforcing the mat quickly began cracking and breaking up under the building’s loads.  Thick masonry walls were supported by the same mat as simple basement floors, and the difference in loading began bending the slab well past its capacity.

Faced with a crumbling structure, the Postoffice hired Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb to design and superintend the construction of a new building in 1896.  Cobb had proved his abilities with the Opera House and the Owings Building, and his relocation to Washington in the early 1890s hinted that he could work effectively in both realms.  In fact, he performed abominably.  After feuding with Chicago’s postmaster over the location and internal arrangements, he proposed a bombastic neo-classical design that included an enormous, function-free dome atop a cruciform office block, and a square base.  The structural gymnastics required to make this work were formidable, but Cobb’s abrasive personality also angered nearly every one involved with the project.  When a set of massive granite columns showed up on site in pieces instead of whole, one of the great building scandals in the city’s history began.  These columns were clearly inferior, and much less expensive than monolithic ones would have been, yet the contractor essentially pocketed the savings, with Cobb’s approval.  Further cost overruns were not fully documented, and Cobb was accused of conspiring with the builders to skim considerable sums from the project.  In 1903, after seven years of design and construction and with no end in sight, Cobb was fired after a Congressional investigation.

The Postoffice was completed two years later under supervision of government architects, and it instantly proved to be too small and too inefficient.  Letter handling chutes had to be placed over the sidewalk, lighting and ventilation were inadequate, and mail handling had to take place over two floors, leading to whole troops of workers whose sole job was to move carts of mail up and down elevators.  The Postoffice instantly began planning for a replacement, though this took another twenty-seven years to design, place, and build.

Cobb went on to a career as an expert on arbitration in construction disputes.  His Postoffice served as a federal office building after the departure of the mail service, but it was demolished in 1966 to make way for Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Center.  Which includes, on the site of two significant failures, a large branch Post Office. Two words.

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