History 615


Alexandria U.S. Post Office and Customs House 1858-Present
November 16, 2010, 1:14 am
Filed under: History 615

First some background info.  I know I’m going to break all kinds of the “rules” that we talked about in class last Thursday with this assignment here, but oh well.  It needs to get done.  I didn’t really have anything related to my final project that I wanted to model, so I decided to go back to old town Alexandria.  I didn’t really have a particular building or neighborhood in mind, but I remembered my girlfriend’s dad had gotten this book as a Xmas gift a few years back.  So I borrowed it from him and flipped through it looking for something interesting to model in Google Sketchup.  I zeroed in on picture ca. 1900 of the U.S. Post Office and Customs House; a sort of unspectacular looking, three-story, stone building.  As I continued flipping through the book, I found the building cited in two other instances, yet in each picture the building looked different.  What I found even more intriguing was that two of the pictures were dated 1900, but in one of those two pictures the building was significantly wider than the other.  So from there I went and looked up the buildings on Sanborn maps and proceeded to reconstruct them in Sketchup…

Ok, so on now to the actual assignment.  I know…Prof. Petrik is probably going to knock me for the excess number of images, but I like it and I think that here it makes sense to show the change in the building(s) over time.  Also, I just realized I could add captions to the images themselves rather than just in the text portion of the post.  Cool stuff.

The Original Alexandria, VA United States Post Office and Customshouse (Built in 1858)

The U.S. Post Office and Customshouse (ca. July 1, 1900) Source: National Archives, RG 121-C, Box 37, Folder A, Print 1. AND http://www.fjc.gov/history/courthouses.nsf/lookup/VA-Alexandria_1858_1_Ref.jpg/$file/VA-Alexandria_1858_1_Ref.jpg

Prior to 1858, U.S. post offices and other federal offices and courts were scattered all throughout Alexandria.  Built in 1858 the Alexandria U.S. Post Office and Customs House consolidated several key federal services offered to the public into one central location.  The first floor served as a post office, the second floor housed the customs offices, and the third was home to the United States Federal District Court in Alexandria.  The fireproof, granite and iron structure was designed by architect Ammi B. Young and was one of a series of U.S. Post Office and Customs Houses built throughout the country during the late 1850’s while Young was serving as the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury.  The architectural design used in the Alexandria building was nearly identical to several other of those buildings (see example below).

The Georgetown U.S. Post Office and Customs House. Source: http://www.nps.gov/history/NR/travel/wash/dc16.htm

As evidenced by the photos below, the building remained a prominent structure near the center of Alexandria throughout the rest of the 1800s.  But Alexandria was growing quickly, and as seen in the screenshot of the model below in Google Earth, had the building remained as is, it would have been dwarfed by the surrounding buildings that would eventually go up around it (assuming the scale of my model and the models in Google Earth are mostly correct).

The caption says "The Post Office and Customs House, on the southwest corner of Prince and St. Asaph streets. (ca. 1900)" Source: Holtz, Rita Williams and Patton, Julie Ballin. Historic Photos of Alexandria. Turner Publishing Co. Nashville, TN, 2008.

Sanborn map of Alexandria, VA (ca. 1902), sheet 12.

The 1858 U.S. Post Office and Customshouse building situated in its actual location, surrounded by present day 3D building models in Google Earth. View is overlooking intersection of Prince and St. Asaph streets. (The current Post Office and Customshouse is directly adjacent to the original building.)

Renovated and Enlarged in 1904

Between 1858 and 1904 the building had been renovated multiple times, at a price of more than several thousands of dollars.  By 1904 it had been determined though that building itself was no longer sufficient in size to fill the needs of its tenants, and it was widened from three, to five bays wide along its side facing St. Asaph Street.  Central heating was installed at the same time, which accounts for the lack of chimneys on the roof which were present in the previous photographs.

The caption says "Alexandrians gather for a photo beside the Customs House and Post Office. Built in 1858, the first floor housed the post office, the second contained the customs offices, and the third a courtroom. (ca. 1900)" The date cited in the caption is more than likely incorrect. The building was not widened until 1904. Source: Holtz, Rita Williams and Patton, Julie Ballin. Historic Photos of Alexandria. Turner Publishing Co. Nashville, TN, 2008.

Sanborn map of Alexandria, VA (ca. 1921), sheet 9.

The U.S. Post Office and Customhouse building (enlarged 1904 building) situated in its actual location, surrounded by present day 3D building models in Google Earth. View is overlooking intersection of Prince and St. Asaph streets.

Present-Day United States Post Office and Customs House (Built in 1930)

No more than two and a half decades later, the city of Alexandria had outgrown the building again.  Rather than expand a second time, the city decided to raze the original building and start from scratch.  Even though the new building remained just three stories high, the overall size of the new building was increased significantly, taking up nearly the entire length of a city block.  The building was constructed of brick rather than granite, as was the previous, and four imposing columns were added above the main entrance.  If King Street is the main east/west thoroughfare in Alexandria, Washington Street is the main north/south thoroughfare (Washington Street is the old town Alexandria section of the GW Memorial Parkway) and the building was rotated so that front now faced Washington Street rather than St. Asaph.  The result was a building not only unique to Alexandria but one that was large enough to support the growing city, and clearly acted as a stronger symbol of power and respect than the one being demolished.  The site of the original building was cleared and paved over and became the back parking lot for the new building.

The caption says "Corner of Prince and Washington streets. The Confederate Monument faces south. Behind the monument rises the U.S. Custom House and Post Office. (1937)" Source: Holtz, Rita Williams and Patton, Julie Ballin. Historic Photos of Alexandria. Turner Publishing Co. Nashville, TN, 2008.

Sanborn map of Alexandria, VA (ca. 1941), sheet 10. Note that the orientation of the map has changed from the previous two Sanborn maps. Washington St. now runs left to right instead of up and down.

The current U.S. Post Office and Customshouse as seen from above the intersection of Prince and Washington St. The original (1904 updated) building can be seen behind the current building in a location that is now a parking lot.

So what is the practical use of an architectural reconstruction like this for history?  I think more than anything else, what I love about this sort of application is that it allows us to place, and visualize buildings or any other objects in places where we cannot otherwise visit, either because it is beyond our means or because they simply no longer exist.  Like NSD, I think when using tools like this we need to take care to make them as accurate as possible.  And as users we need to remember not to take these visualizations at face value, because they are not reality.

Finishing up, and just for fun, here is the location as it stands today.  (Google maps is embedded below, it’s not just an image.)  If you follow Prince St straight ahead a block until it intersects with St. Asaph, you’ll see a fenced in parking lot on your right behind the current U.S. Post Office and Customhouse building.  The parking lot is the site of the original 1858 building.

Additional sources…

Alexandria Archaeology Museum:  Discovering the Decades: 1850’s

Klock, Lowell. Ammi B. Young, Supervising Architect of the Treasury, and His 1858 Alexandria Post Office and Customhouse. The Alexandria Chronicle. Summer 1994, vol. 2, no. 2. 

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