Sunday, February 2, 2014

San Antonio Post Office and Federal Courthouse

Construction of the United States Post Office and Court House in San Antonio began in 1935 and was funded through the Public Works Administration of the New Deal. It was finished in 1936 and opened in 1937. Local architect Ralph Haywood Cameron designed the building in association with renowned Philadelphia architect Paul Philippe Cret under the direction of the Office of the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department.
When it opened the basement and first floor were air-conditioned, making it the first post office in the nation to have air-conditioning. Today this building is known as the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and serves as the courthouse for The United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, but a small post office branch still operates in the lobby. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
 "Its construction accomplished several goals--generating employment, housing all federal agencies in a single building, and streamlining San Antonio's quickly expanding postal needs.
A skillful example of Beaux-Arts classicism, the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is indicative of the federal government's goal of expressing democratic ideals through classically derived architecture featuring grand scale, symmetry, and refined details.  The six-story building encompasses an entire city block and is constructed of steel and concrete clad in rich local materials--Texas Pink granite and Texas Cream limestone.  The building is polygonal in plan, centered on a central light court.  Its façade (south elevation) emphasizes a centrally recessed porch behind a screen of six monumental Ionic columns, rising to support an entablature that continues all around the building." (Source: U.S. General Services Administration )

East side of building
The building is at the north end of the Alamo Plaza Historic District.  The grounds of the Alamo are just across the street and to the right of the main entrance.  The building gives the appearance of confidently watching over the grounds of the Alamo and at the same time gives a sense of guarding all that our Federal government represents.  
"The grand Beaux Arts federal building was a beachhead of centralized, federal power. Through its front south façade, which faces Alamo Square, it linked Texas’s independent frontier spirit with the order and reason represented by the federal government. 
But, years of deferred maintenance and rapidly changing security concerns began to weaken this link, shunting this General Services Administration property off from the public life of Alamo Square and downtown San Antonio. Post-9/11 security regulations meant that building’s south front entrance couldn’t control circulation of visitors, and these doors were roped off and locked, forcing federal workers and visitors to use side entrances. These actions made what was meant to been a grand and welcoming public space into another foreboding wall of the Alamo fort." (Source: American Institute of Architects )
One of the side entrances

In 1937, New Mexican artist Howard Cook won a national mural competition sponsored by the Treasury Department's Fine Arts Section to paint a 750 square foot fresco in the lobby of the Federal Building. "San Antonio's Importance in Texas History" was completed in May 1939 at a cost of $12,000. The 16 frieze panels depict the history of San Antonio. The mural was painted using the fresco technique of paint applied over wet plaster.  The murals were restored in 1999. These murals and the lobby are stunning; I was totally unprepared for their impact when I first visited the building!


The building has undergone a $50,000,000 renovation funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act economic stimulus package.  Trivers Associates of St. Louis provided a sensitive renovation that maintained the historical integrity of the building while adding the required modern updates.  The front entrances are now open again and visitors don't really notice the glass partition that guides them into the security check point to enter the building. Light fixtures like the ones shown with the murals were restored, but re-worked to be energy compliant.  Click on the Trivers link to see beautiful pictures of the inside of the building as well as an aerial picture that shows the open interior space of the building.

This building is remarkable, not only in its design and in its history, but also in the fact that it represents preservation and continuation merged together.





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