When completed in 1899, the Old Post Office Building was criticized as looking like "a cross between a cathedral and a cotton mill" by the New York Times. The criticism sparked a seven-decade struggle to save the building. Rededicated in 1983, the Old Post Office is an example of the remarkable transformation old buildings can undergo and the rich possibilities they can offer.
Tours of the Old Post Office Tower provide visitors with the history of the building, a breathtaking vista from the 315-foot clock tower and a view of the Congress Bells. Tours begin at the glass-enclosed elevator on the stage level.
The Congress BellsIn honor of our nation's bicentennial in 1976, the private Ditchley Foundation of Great Britain presented a set of English change ringing bells to Congress. In April 1983, the bells found a permanent home in the Old Post Office clock tower. They were dedicated as an everlasting symbol of friendship between the two nations.
The 10 Congress Bells range from 581 to 2,953 pounds and are replicas of the bells in London's Westminster Abbey. They were made at Whitechapel Foundry which had cast the Abbey's bells four centuries earlier. The bells are in the key of D major.
The practice of change ringing combines the disciplines of art and science to produce a unique form of music. Change ringing involves continuously changing the order in which the bells strike. The method of producing these changes is precise and requires extensive training, practice and concentration.
A full peal, which is a continuous performance that takes up to three and a half hours to complete, is rung in honor of the opening and closing of Congress and on state occasions, including all national holidays. To achieve this feat, the tower hosts a weekly practice session for the bells' stewards, members of the Washington Ringing Society of the North American Guild of Change Ringers.
The Nancy Hanks CenterAs chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts (1969-77), the late Nancy Hanks led a diverse group of citizens, organizations and government agencies in preserving the Old Post Office Building. "Old buildings are like old friends...they assure us in times of change," Miss Hanks told a Senate subcommittee while testifying on behalf of saving the building. She saw the Old Post Office as an opportunity to promote the ideals of the National Endowment and "to encourage people to dream about their cities, to consider the alternatives before they tear them down."
Congress honored her by naming the Old Post Office and its adjacent plazas the "Nancy Hanks Center."
Story of SurvivalAt its completion, the Old Post Office stood out as a symbol of prestige for the U.S. Postal Service which boasted of the building's technological innovations. It was the largest government building in the District of Columbia at the turn of the century and the first with a clock tower. It was one of the city's first steel frame buildings with a granite skin covering the steel to fireproof it. The electric power plant, capable of driving 3,900 lights, was the first to be installed in a district building.
The edifice is a fine example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, and the tower remains a prominent point above the district's uniform skyline. The interior courtyard encompasses one of Washington's largest uniterrupted spaces (99 feet wide by 184 feet long by 160 feet high).
Despite all these features, the word "old" was attached to the building only 15 years after it was completed, and someone's description of the clock tower as an "old tooth" became the rallying cry to tear it down. Critics mocked the massive arches and turrets. Tastes in building styles changed, especially in the triangle formed by Pennsylvania Avenue, Constitution Avenue and 15th Street, where city planners wanted to incorporate a classical architectural style to introduce order and grandeur. This resulted in the construction of the Federal Triangle after World War I and made way for the extraction of the "old tooth" when the Postal Service moved out in 1934.
At first, lack of money in the federal budget, due to the Depression, saved the Old Post Office. Several agencies occupied the building for the next 44 years, but time took its toll. The deterioration was dramatized in 1956 when a 1,200-pound clock weight crashed through two floors.
When the building was slated for demolition, many concerned citizens asked why. Thanks to the diligence of the Washington preservationist group "Don't Tear It Down" and the National Endowment for the Arts, headed by Nancy Hanks, the Old Post Office, along with its public use areas, federal office space and National Parks Service tour, stands today as a fine example of adaptive use. The Old Post Office is a fixture on America's "Main Street," a symbol that the nation's older structures can be saved and given a new life.
Chronology of Events