West facade pediment, Clinton Federal Building - Washington DC
The William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building was originally built as the headquarters of the Post Office Department. It was then known as the New Post Office because an older Post Office headquarters stood across 12th Street (now a private hotel). The foundation of the new Post Office building was poured in 1931, President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone in 1932, and construction was completed in 1934 (the exact dates are uncertain). Hence, it is only partly a New Deal building.
The Clinton complex is part of the Federal Triangle development north of the Mall, between Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenue, first envisaged by the McMillan Commission of 1901-02. The area was finally redeveloped from residential/commercial to massive federal offices after the Public Buildings Act of 1926. Planning and clearance took place in the late 1920s, construction began in the early 1930s and the scheme was completed under the New Deal.
The Neoclassical or Beaux Arts design is by William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich and is based on Place Vendôme in Paris and London County Hall. The Post Office Department building layout is unusual; it consists of back to back, semicircular centers with large wings to the north and south, each with a courtyard. The exterior is decorated with bas relief panels by Adolph Alexander Weinman depicting postal themes. Those on the west facade illustrate the delivery of messages by carrier pigeon, drum signals, mirrors, and smoke signals.
The second half of the grand plaza originally envisioned was never finished, save for a curve in the northwest corner of the headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service east of 12th Street. To the west, the Ronald Reagan Building, completed in 1998, picks up the semicircle theme of the Clinton Building.
The Clinton building contains a rich endowment of New Deal artworks commissioned and installed by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts. There are 25 murals, 12 bas-reliefs, two statues, and carved wood medallions, most featuring postal themes. (These are treated on separate project pages).
Sarah Gordon says this of the artwork: “[The] murals embody many admirable qualities of American art and culture in the 1930s: a range of visual styles, inventive approaches to subject matter, commitment to bringing creativity and artistic beauty to public spaces, and devotion to the development of American art as a part of national identity. At the same time, engrained cultural attitudes of the 1930s are inevitably present, including stereotypes about women, Native Americans, African Americans, and rural Americans…. Today, the presence of the murals in this building offers a rare opportunity to experience a full cycle of New Deal artwork in its original context, and serves as a valuable reminder of how American society has changed over time.
When the Post Office Department was replaced by the United States Postal Service in 1971, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives moved into the former Post Office Department Building, which was renamed the Ariel Rios Federal Building. In the 1990s, the General Services Administration (GSA) refurbished the building, restoring the architectural details of the interior.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has occupied the Clinton building since the 1990s. It has also taken over the former Labor Department and Interstate Commerce Commission Building along Constitution Avenue, designed by San Francisco architect Arthur Brown. The whole complex was named after former President William Jefferson Clinton by Congress in 2012. The New Deal artworks are only in the former Post Office Building.
The Clinton Building is not freely open to the public. To arrange for a tour of the Post Office Murals, email [email protected].
On the Pennsylvania side of the building, there is a local branch post office, Benjamin Franklin Station, that is open to the public and murals by Alexander Brook and an impressive floor mosaic map of the world.
"The New Deal: A 75th Anniversary Celebration." Kathryn Flynn with Richard Polese.
Project originally submitted by Brent McKee on December 5, 2011.
Additional contributions by Richard Walker.
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