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York’s old post office architecturally significant

Northeast corner of Philadelphia and Beaver Streets
Northeast corner of Philadelphia and Beaver Streets

Recent news reports indicate that the striking 1895 Federal Building, built to house the York Post Office and the local Internal Revenue office, is going to be redeveloped.

About five years ago I recapped a detailed history of that building in my York Sunday News column. The column is still available online through my Universal York blog, but the illustrations that accompanied that column, along with a companion blog post with photos I took inside and outside the building, didn’t transfer over with changes in the blogging system. I am therefore restoring the illustrations and reposting them. The column is below and the blog post with more photos will follow in the new few days.

The Lighthouse Youth Center Ministry of the York Rescue Mission has been operating its worthy programs out of the impressive building above at the corner of West Philadelphia and North Beaver Streets in York for many years. Those with long memories may recall that it was the home of the York Masonic Lodge from 1917 until the 1970s.

This stately building was actually erected in 1891-1895 as York’s first permanent Post Office building, with an Internal Revenue office taking up the second floor. At that time all Federal Buildings, such as this one, were designed by the U.S. Treasury Dept. Supervising Architect who was in office at the time. These were the leading architects of the day, tapped to serve a term at this prestigious post. York was lucky enough to have had funding approved by Congress during the term of Supervising Architect Willoughby J. Edbrooke. Nowadays, the buildings usually have floor-to-ceiling windows and have various Architectural Curtain Walling Features.

Image of original 1890s architectural drawing of York's Federal building
Image of original 1890s architectural drawing of York’s Federal building

One of the best known Edbrooke buildings is the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C. He did many others, both as U.S. Supervising Architect (ex: Milwaukee, Wisc. Federal Building and Sioux City, Ia. City Hall), with Chicago partner Franklin Burnham (ex: Georgia State Capitol and University of Notre Dame’s Main Administration Building) and on his own (ex: Wheeler Opera House.). Some of Edbrooke’s buildings are still in use for their original purpose and many others have been beautifully restored and repurposed, such as the Federal Archives Building in New York City, now studio and loft apartments, and St. Paul, Minn.’s former Federal Courthouse and Post Office, now the Landmark Arts Center. York’s Old Post Office would be a wonderful candidate for future restoration.
See my York Sunday News column below for more on the Old Post Office.

York’s Oldest Post Office Is an Architectural Gem

York’s post office moved around the downtown area until landing in its first real home in 1895. That imposing building, of pressed brick with brownstone trim, still stands on the northeast corner of Philadelphia and Beaver streets. York’s leading architectural firm, the Dempwolfs, designed buildings in similar Romanesque revival style, but I didn’t think they had a hand in this one. It turns out that the 1890s York “Federal Building” was designed by one of the most famous architects of the day, Willoughby J. Edbrooke.
How did that come about? At that time a bill had to be passed in Congress for a new public building and funding approved. Then the public building was designed by the current Supervising Architect of the U. S. Treasury Department. Col. Levi Maish, a Civil War veteran, was the Congressman from this area and obtained approval for the construction of the building in May of 1890. $24,000 was appropriated for the lot and $80,000 for the building, which would house the post office on the first floor and offices of the Internal Revenue Service on the second.
Progress can be traced through newspaper articles available at York County Heritage Trust. Seven properties at the corner of Beaver and Philadelphia streets were combined for the site. The corner property was owned by Samuel Shumaker. Properties of Marcus Lanius, Mrs. Elizabeth Blasser and James Devers stretched up Philadelphia Street for a total frontage of 98 feet. Henry Heartzog’s three lots on Beaver Street combined with Shumaker’s for a Beaver Street frontage of around 116 feet. Attorney John F. Kell apparently bought these properties and transferred them as one parcel to the U.S. Government on July 11, 1891 for $23,500.
W. J. Edbrooke served as U.S. Supervising Architect 1891-1892. During that time he is said to have designed about 40 court houses, post offices and other federal buildings. They include the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., now a center for music and events, shopping and dining and one of Washington’s top tourist attractions. The huge Landmark Center for the arts in St. Paul, Minn. was built as an Edbrooke federal court house. The San Jose, Calif. Museum of Art is made up of Edbrooke’s 1892 San Jose post office with additions. Similarities to York’s old post office are easily seen in these and other beautifully restored Edbrooke buildings
Buildings already on the York lots were removed. Elias Spangler of York was superintendent of the project and Dawson Construction Co., the contractor. George Yinger of York came in with a low bid of $9,090 for the stone and concrete foundation, cut stone and brickwork for the basement, basement columns and first floor beams and joists. Asher Bassford, noted contractor from Lansdowne, contracted for the rest of the structure: stone and brick work, iron and wood floors, ceilings, roof construction and roof covering. Dawson Construction finished the interior and painting was done by popular York decorators Watt & Brother. John Graybill installed the electric and gas lighting fixtures. Broomell, Schmidt & Co. of York built a “very large steam furnace.” All actual work at the site was performed by local workers.
The impressive three-story building with its two towers had entrances on both Philadelphia and Beaver streets. Six brown-stone risers led up from the pavement to each lobby entrance. The general delivery entrance was on Beaver Street and the 738 metal boxes for letters and packages, each glass fronted or of metal decorated with an eagle and U.S., were accessed from Philadelphia Street. The nicely furnished postmaster’s office, with its marble-mantled fireplace, was on the southeast corner and the money order department took up the northwest corner, in the area of the smaller tower. Two safes, made by York Safe and Lock Co., were set into the walls.
The ceilings rose 17 ½ feet from the first floor. Two large plaster columns, surmounted with flower petals, supported the main beam. The deeply set ceiling was marked off by cross beams, and three scrolled bronze chandeliers, each with eight jets and globes alternately placed for electricity or gas, were suspended from the ceiling. A wood panel screen with opaque glass separated the lobby from the work areas of the post office. The top eight feet of the screen was of clear glass to let light into the mail processing floor.
A wide semi-circular staircase to second floor fills the larger tower. It was guarded by an ornamented wrought iron gate, spiked at the top, which opened and shut on a roller. The wooden bottom post was surmounted by a tall gas fixture of bronze.
The second floor was simpler than the first floor. A spacious hallway led to the office of the “Outside Deputy,” then into the main Internal Revenue office. This office was divided by a counter, running north and south, with another York Safe and Lock safe built into the north end of the room.
For reasons that I have not yet researched, this grand building was only used by the government for about 16 years, when the classical revival post office building was built on S. George Street The “old post office” was soon occupied by the York Masonic lodge. The Masons combined it with their building to the north and used it from 1917 until the 1970s. The building was then sold to Allen Bernstein, who reportedly updated the wiring and plumbing, and then sold to the York Rescue Mission, whose Lighthouse Youth Center has put it to worthy use for many years.
This is a significant building, designed by a nationally-important architect. The exterior has suffered little change since 1895, and much of the first floor retains its original configuration and woodwork. If the Rescue Mission would ever decide it wasn’t needed for their operations, the building would be an excellent candidate for restoration and reuse, perhaps even as a post office. It is also advantageously located right in middle of the revitalized arts district of York.

See also Gordon Freireich’s recent York Sunday News column detailing the York Post Office migration around town over the past couple of centuries.