Ever wonder why your typical commute to the Western Suburbs involves a drive through the middle of the old Post Office Building? Me too.
Chicago had an awful track record of main post offices–the first one began sinking into the clay soil immediately after it opened, and the second one (see below) took ten years to design and build, at which point it was already obsolete.
That was nothing, however, compared to the wait for the next one. The U.S. Government almost immediately planned to replace Henry Ives Cobb’s Postoffice on Dearborn and Adams Street after its disastrous opening in 1905. But funding, understandably, was slow in coming, a World War intervened, and it wasn’t until 1926 that money was appropriated for a new facility. In the meantime, the Postoffice built a temporary Parcel Post Building between Harrison and Van Buren Streets on the west side of the Chicago River, parallel to rail tracks and freight yards. The city was unhappy with this location, since it blocked a planned extension of Congress Street, but acquiesced given the problems with mail handling in the existing building and promises that this was simply a stopgap measure.
The Loop was, by that point, too crowded and the real estate market to overheated to contemplate building a new Postoffice in the middle of downtown. So in 1928, a site was chosen on land owned by the Marshall Field Estate south of the Parcel Post Building between Harrison, Polk, Canal, and the River. Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White began to prepare drawings for a 2 million square foot building that would tie in to the temporary parcel post building and allow it to gradually give up its handling duties to the new structure.
Unfortunately, indecision, changing specifications, and the complexity of the task at hand meant that design work dragged out for more than a year. By 1930, a new Postmaster General had taken over, and in reviewing the plans noted that rail and pedestrian access became greater south of Harrison. Instead, the Post Office decided to expand the Parcel Post site, much to the City’s dismay. Given the onset of the Depression, neither the City nor the Hoover administration wanted to delay the project any further, however, as the promise of 12,000 construction and manufacturing jobs lay at stake. Instead, GAPW’s design was simply moved one block north, the Postoffice negotiated with railroads to build on top of their tracks, and as a sop to the City they agreed to build an ‘arcade’ through both the old and new buildings to allow “Congress Street” to flow through it if and when a bridge was ever built over the River that connected with the existing Congress street on the east side.
The Postoffice was built around the Parcel Post Building, and opened in 1934. By 1929, plans for Congress “Street” had become plans for Congress Expressway, and the arcade–twin 40′ tunnels with 20′ pedestrian tunnels on either side, were being used by the Postoffice as entrances for trucks. As the Expressway plans moved toward reality in the 1950s, the City agreed to give the pedestrian tunnels to the Postal Service, and jammed four lanes of traffic through the–slightly widened–auto tunnels. Today, when you drive west from the Loop. you drive through the 1921 Parcel Post building first, and then under the 1934 Postoffice.
The Postal Service held on to the site south of Harrison, however, and in 1997 finished a new facility on this site that replaced the 1934 structure. Those 2.2 million square feet of space were recently auctioned off, though it remains unclear what will happen to the GAPW building. Meanwhile, over 100,000 commuters per day drive over the River and under the old Post Office, a monument to a design for a different site and the urgency with which governments acted in the early days of the Depression.