Boston’s Dazzling Cliff: John W. McCormack U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, Boston, Massachusetts


Narrator: It’s one of the nation’s most impressive federal buildings, an intriguing exception to the simplified classicism often found in 1930s federal architecture and called by one architectural critic of the time, a dazzling cliff, glimpsed unexpectedly across narrow streets. It’s the John W. McCormack U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts. >>In the late 18th century, Boston was at the forefront of the American Revolution. With incidents such as the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre helping to ignite the spark of independence. In the decades after the Revolutionary War, Boston developed into an international trading port and a financial and cultural center. The U.S. Custom House, a Greek revival structure, designed by Ammi B. Young, and built between 1837 and 1847, was Boston’s first major federal building. >>It was right next to State Street, which is sort of the Wall Street of Boston if you will, the key financial center, and any ship that came into Boston had to stop first at the custom house so that custom officials could go on board and see what was being brought into the city and then taxed accordingly. Narrator: Boston’s population soared and in 1868, the federal government purchased a site for a new post office and sub treasury building. Designed by supervising architect of the Treasury, Alfred B. Mullet, this imposing, French, second empire style building was still under construction when Boston’s great fire of 1872 struck. While the fire leveled much of Boston’s commercial district, the post office was spared, and in fact, it acted as a fire defense, helping to halt the fire’s northward progress. During the following reconstruction period, an area remained cleared off in front of the building and in 1873 it was dedicated as post office square. New buildings sprang up in the area around the post office and throughout Boston in a variety of architectural styles. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw Boston grow, both as an industrial and cultural center. The population swelled and Boston’s postal district was becoming one of the largest in the country. The original post office and sub treasury building served Boston for many years, but this explosive growth lead to the building becoming overcrowded. It was clear, Boston needed a new federal building. The early 20th century ushered in the era of the American skyscraper. In 1926, Congress passed the Public Buildings Act, a marked rise in new design in construction resulted. And Boston’s new federal building was part of it. The design of the new building resulted from a collaboration between the federal government and a private firm. The building’s basic layout was supplied by U.S. Treasury Department’s office of Supervising Architect under the direction of James A. Wetmore. The task of designing the primary interior spaces and the exterior of the Boston Federal Building was awarded to the prestigious Boston firm of Cram & Ferguson. Ralph Adams Cram was a champion of the neo-gothic architectural style and had made his reputation designing many gothic style churches, such as the cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and college campus buildings throughout the U.S., including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Princeton University. But Cram wanted to develop a more modern aesthetic for his architecture and he was also eager to try his hand at designing a skyscraper. So he decided to design the Boston Federal Building in the newly emerging art deco style. It proved to be an appropriate response to the dense, urban environment that would surround it. >>This is the art deco style, Ralph Adams Cram didn’t call it that, he called it, a building done in the modern style. >>One often thinks of art deco in cities like Miami, where it’s more flamboyant, there’s more color, but Boston is a very conservative place and the art moderne here is quite strong without being as flamboyant as one might see in other parts of the country. Narrator: The old post office was demolished and construction began in July of 1931. The budget was increased from $4.5 million to $6 million and the extra funds provided greater employment to Boston during the midst of the great depression. >>Dear sir, I’m a married man, 38 years of age, a plumber by trade, I belong to the local plumber’s union here in Boston. I am also a world war veteran. I have been out of work for the past 15 months. I would like to know if there is any way you could use your influence to get me to work as a plumber on the new federal building in Boston. Narrator: In January of 1932, the cornerstone was laid in a ceremony that included many local and federal dignitaries and two sisters who were daughters of former Boston Postmaster General, William B. Burt. The women had been present at the laying of the cornerstone for the original post office more than 60 years earlier. Construction was completed in 1933 and garnered admiration immediately. The building was featured that year in Architectural Forum magazine and praised from architectural critic, Charles Loring, who called it a dazzling cliff, glimpsed unexpectedly across narrow streets. Ralph Cram was able to say that he was proud of his first skyscraper. >>We don’t have a lot of art deco buildings, so I think Boston really cherishes any example of that style, because we don’t have a lot of it or we don’t have a lot of good examples and certainly McCormack is one of the best. Narrator: Critics hailed the Boston Federal Building, saying the art deco elements created a romantic, urban image, reflective of the modern city. Today, many consider it to be one of Boston’s finest art deco buildings. Faced in three types of New England granite, the building occupies an entire city block, three towers of varying heights rise above a 5 story base. The tallest tower, facing Devonshire Street, is 22 stories and its upper floors step back in a zigarette fashion. The two other towers are 17 stories each and act as the arms of a U that opens onto Post Office Square. The building, however, is not without its classical motifs. Eagles, often used in federal buildings, and pilasters. >>These lovely buildings often used white metals, which was perceived as the new design. They had illusions to industrial technology, which were part of the metal and they often were quite muscular in the way they presented themselves, an Ayn Rand kind of look. Narrator: But inside the building the art deco elements of Cram’s unique designs predominate. >>It is a style that definitely likes rich colors and the inner weaving of strong materials, like white metal, and dark wood, bronze, terrazzo, all of these very durable, high end finishes that have extraordinary sustainability characteristics as well. Narrator: The historic courtrooms on the 12th and 15th floors contain a high level of detailing, including wood wainscoting, marble walls, and ornate ceilings and trim. >>Well, the courtrooms are majestic, all three of the bankruptcy courtrooms are majestic in a different way. Narrator: The two story law library has an 80′ long main reading room encircled by a mezzanine. Many landmark cases were tried in the building’s courtrooms, New Deal legislation, civil rights decisions, and the well known Anderson vs. Cryovac case that was the inspiration for the movie, A Civil Action, with John Travolta. In 1972, the building was re-dedicated in honor of John W. McCormack, a highly respected, Massachusetts Congressman, who served in the House of Representatives for 43 years and as Speaker of the House from 1962 to 1971. But after the turn of the 20th century, the 1933 building was showing its age. The U.S. General Services Administration, as steward of the building, decided it was time for modernization. In 2006, work began on a major renovation and refurbishment of the John W. McCormack Post Office & Courthouse under the direction of GSA. The renovation encompassed more than 607,000 square feet of floor space and consisted of renovations to the entrance, ground floor lobby, five elevator lobbies, courtrooms and library. The emphasis was on modernization, environmental sustainability and especially historic preservation. The project reused 99% of the historical structure and preserved many of the interior features. >>The types of materials, the finishes that you see in a building like this, you just cannot reproduce today. I think GSA makes it a point to take care and retain our historic properties and this is a significant asset in GSA’s portfolio. >>It was not a very easy construction project, where you’re trying to take an historic building, maintain its unique character, historic features, but yet turn it into a modern day facility. So one of the things we had to do is we had to work within the confines of the historic footprint of the building, the historic nature of the building itself. This courtroom that we’re in today is a perfect example of it. And while you see what the building is and what the courtroom looked like pretty much in the 1930s, we have to make it a modern day project with modern technology. Narrator: The $136.5 million renovation plans called for rehabilitation of the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, heating and air conditioning, and refurbishing of much of the office space. As many as 400 people at a time worked on the building. But while the work was extensive, all parties involved strove to achieve a successful melding of past, present, and future, to retain the best aspects of the original building, while creating a model of sustainability for the future. >>Design is about reestablishing community, about creating economic viability, and about treading more lightly on the earth. All of those things were paramount in the way we approach the McCormack. Narrator: One of the tenants of the building is the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency, which felt it very important that the building incorporate environmentally friendly green features. >>EPA’s mission, of course, is to clean the environment, so we wanted to be in a space that was a green building. We had also worked with GSA in 2000 to green our laboratory out in North Chelmsford, so we had had experience with GSA in greening buildings. Narrator: And GSA, as a member of the United States Green Building Council, helped develop that group’s LEED specifications, specifications intended to benefit the environment and reduce energy use. So it was important to both GSA and EPA that the building be green. >>GSA wants all of their buildings to be at least gold LEED, which is the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership & Energy & Environmental Design. In this building we tried to achieve as many points in the six different categories as possible, so we were able to get 42 points, so this is the gold LEED building. Narrator: Among the building’s many green features, green roofs, covering the fourth and fifth floors, insulating the building and reducing energy costs, native and drought resistant plants that filter storm water runoff and provide a pleasant garden for the building occupants and habitat for wildlife, solar panels that power irrigation pumps and cisterns that collect rainwater to irrigate the plants, insulation inside the building’s skin and office occupancy sensors that turn lights off when offices are unoccupied, daylight dimming in perimeter spaces and ceilings that allow deep penetration of daylight, and high efficiency, historically appropriate windows, that cut down on heating and cooling costs. The building offers 53 bicycle racks to encourage alternative modes of transportation. Two of the 32 parking spaces under the building are reserved for fuel efficient vehicles and the building is within walking distance of multiple transportation stops. During construction, 91% of the construction debris was recycled on site. In April of 2010, a dedication ceremony took place. Regular tour programs allow the public to see the transformation that has taken place. >>People will walk by and you will frequently observe them looking up at the majestic building, the beautiful carvings along the sides of the buildings and the ornamentation of the building. Moving into this building, people were very excited, because it is a beautiful building, it’s a historic renovation with all the green features in it. People felt like this is a building where what was put into it is part of what they do. >>This is a very important historic building to the City of Boston, so to be able to come by here with my grandchildren and to be able to say, I had something to do with that building. I was on the team that renovated that building and part of the reason why that building is still here, I think that has value, because what we build in construction is something lasting, its something that you can show, it’s tangible. Narrator: The renovation and restoration of the John W. McCormack U.S. Post Office & Courthouse fulfills one of GSA’s most important responsibilities, stewardship of its historic properties. In spring 2011, the building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a fitting reward for one of Boston’s grandest landmarks. >>GSA, it has created as intended a very significant case study for the reuse of early 20th century and even mid 20th century buildings that indicate that you can aesthetically and physically extend their service life and make them viable, delightful, wonderful places to work. >>We’re proud of this building. We’re proud of it as having it being a legacy building within GSA and we feel like we achieved it as a model for sustainable historic renovation. So it was a win for the agency and a win for the local community.

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