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WC History: The Many Faces of the Post Office

May 14, 2015 | Malcolm Johnstone

The first United States Post Office in West Chester was established in 1804 with Cromwell Pearce as Postmaster (1804-1811). For several decades after that, local postal services were provided in one of the various shops or hotels located downtown, usually determined by the postmaster of the time. In 1849, Postmaster Dr. James B. Wood (1849-1853) opened the first Post Office as a distinct business, unrelated to any other, at 8 East Gay Street. All subsequent postmasters have followed suit.

Post Office in 1880  Photo circa 1880 (courtesy of Chester County Historical Society)

In 1865, Maj. William B. Darlington, a Civil War veteran, was appointed Postmaster from 1865 to 1877. He located the Post Office to what was called the Brandywine Bank Building on South High Street at Pearl Alley, where the F&M Building is now located. According to Pat Sullivan, author of, Major Darlington, son of Dr. William Darlington, served in the 163rd Pennsylvania Regiment, 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry. He was shot while commanding from his horse during the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864, by Confederate sharpshooter John Cooper, who was perched in a cherry tree on Keller's Hill. Darlington was captured by the Confederates and taken to the home of William Shelton Buchanan where his leg was amputated above the knee. He was later freed by Sheridan's Union Troopers while still recuperating. Eventually returning to West Chester, he was appointed Postmaster on June 3, 1865 (most probably by President Lincoln). 

Post Office in 1895  Post Office circa 1895 at Cabinet Hall (Courtesy of Chester County Historical Society)

In 1885, William Shields (1885) moved the Post Office to the Cabinet Building on South Church Street at Wollerton Alley where it remained until it relocated to its current location in 1907. David M. McFarland owned the building which had been designed by Thomas U. Walter. Note that Church Street was unpaved but there are pavers for a crosswalk. A news stand was located at the entrance. Today, the West Chester Laundry occupies the space.

Post Office in 1907  Post Office circa 1907. Note Trolley tracks on Gay Street. (courtesy of Chester County Historic Society)

By 1905, activity had increased to where 130,000 pieces of mail were handled annually for about 15,000 patrons in West Chester Borough and rural routes. Due to this demand it was decided to construct a federally owned Post Office that would also serve as the Federal Building. This was during a time when James Knox Taylor served as the supervising Architect of the Treasury (1897-1912). He believed that government buildings should be monumental and beautiful, designed by individual architects in classical styles and built of the highest quality materials (from Preservation Pennsylvania: 2014 Pennsylvania at Risk).

After much consideration, a location was selected at 101 East Gay Street for which Congress appropriated $60,000 for property acquisition and construction. Congress then selected Edgar H. Klemroth as the architect and appointed Harry G. Smith as the new postmaster. Cramp & Company of Philadelphia were the contractors.

The current Post Office was actually built in two phases, thirty years apart. The first phase called for the Post Office to be designed as a two-and-a-half story structure with a raised main floor above a daylight basement, giving it a piano nobile quality. According to a Determination of Eligibility for inclusion in the National Register (E.O. 11593; May 7, 1979) it is stated that the "U.S. Post Office is an example of neo-classical styling expressed in a vernacular idiom. Classical elements including the blind arcade, window treatment and medallions express the neo-classical style popular for Federal architecture in the early 20th century. This building is particularly noteworthy for its stone material." Indeed, it is faced with Cockeysville Marble that was quarried at Baker's Station near Avondale in Chester County, Pennsylvania. It's a white stone that has crystalline qualities that glitter in the sunlight. Cockeysville Marble is most famous for its use in the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, where the first 152 feet of the monument is faced with it.

The front facade features a five-bay facade notable for repeated curved arches with pilaster trimming the main entrance and adjacent windows. Three eyebrow dormers with oval-shaped windows can seen peeking over the cornice, lighting the attic. Window bays on both the east and west sides of the building have understated 12-over-12, double-hung windows. The original rear wall (the north elevation) can still be seen from inside the structure.

Construction began on August 14, 1905, and it was anticipated that it would take about a year to complete. However, cost overruns and bad weather delayed the project several times and it did not officially open until September 9, 1907, more than two years after breaking ground. The final cost was $80,000 (about $2-million in 2013 dollars). The first patron to receive a letter at the new facility was a boy named William Brinton.

While it is not uncommon for people to complain about new projects, it's ironic that the first complaint came from the architect himself, Edgar Klemroth, who stated that he would have preferred the building to be set-back further than it was and that a darker color stone would have been more elegant.

Post Office in 1935  Construction of the Post Office Annex in 1935. Note the original rear wall of the Post Office and the Eagle Hotel across the street. (courtesy of Chester County Historical Society)

The next construction phase began thirty years later on October 26, 1935, when an annex was added to the rear of the structure nearly doubling its size. A one-foot setback can be seen about mid-point of the building where the back wall of the original Post Office was located. The outside materials and architecture of the new construction is nearly identical to the original, although one can notice a smattering of rock near the top with a blue hue, often called "Brandywine Blue". It was completed about a year later at a cost of about $80,000 ($1.3-million in 2013 dollars). Victor Gondos of Reading (PA) was the contractor.

Today, the West Chester Post Office is called the Robert J. Thompson Post Office, named after a dynamic local County Commissioner and State Senator. It is a 14,000-square-foot building on a 22,000-square-foot lot that provides customer parking and a loading dock. It is within the West Chester Business Improvement District, the Downtown Retail Overlay District, and the Downtown Historic District placed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Thanks to A. Roy Smith, Dale Frens, and the Chester County Historical Society for historical information.

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Parts of this article first appeared February 14, 2014.

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