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A Legal Tale of Two Structures

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This is a guest post by the Law Librarian of Congress, David Mao, who has previously written about state government contracts, Justifying Speed, and Food for Thought, among other topics.

On a recent visit to St. Paul, Minnesota, I walked through a downtown public park—Rice Park. Looking up, I thought for a split second that I was in Washington, D.C. The building in front of me (Landmark Center) looked very much like the Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. I discovered that both buildings were designed by Willoughby J. Edbrooke, supervising architect of the Treasury Department from 1891 to 1892.  Construction on both buildings began in 1892, though the Post Office was completed in 1899 and the Landmark Center in 1902.

Landmark Center, St. Paul, Minnesota
Landmark Center, St. Paul, Minnesota
Old Post Office by wallyg
Old Post Office Pavilion, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Flickr user wallyg.)

People usually think of the Treasury Department as being responsible for managing the money resources of the United States (i.e., the Bureau of Engraving and Printing or the Internal Revenue Service) and not for architectural design. According to the Treasury Curator, however, “one of the important historical responsibilities of the United States Treasury Department was the design and construction of federal buildings including courthouses, post offices, mints, marine hospitals, and custom houses.”

Why and how did building design fall under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department? George Lamphere’s 1880 text, The United States Government: Its Organization and Practical Workings, notes that the Treasury’s Office of the First Auditor examined “the accounts of expenditures in the construction of public buildings for custom-houses, court-houses, and post-offices under the control of the Treasury Department” (citing the Act to establish the Treasury Department, September 2, 1789, chapter XII). A Treasury Department history of the Office of the Supervising Architect from 1886 states “the Government of the United States is a vast and ponderous machine . . . [that] require[s] the employment of an army of agents who . . . must find shelter and security within habitable rooms and buildings.” It then notes that “with few, if any exceptions, the Secretary of the Treasury, has been charged by Congress with the duty of purchasing sites and constructing buildings” for various purposes and that “as in most cities where a public building is required it is most economical to accommodate all the Federal offices in a single building, the construction of all these buildings has been confided to the Secretary of the Treasury.”

According to the Treasury history, twenty-three buildings belonged to the government and were in the custody of the Treasury in 1853 (and there were fifteen more for which Congress had appropriated funds). The Secretary of the Treasury therefore decided to organize a division that would give him “intelligent and efficient aid in the construction and preservation of these buildings.” In his 1853 annual report to Congress (H. Exec. Doc. No. 33-3 or S. Exec. Doc. No. 33-2), Secretary Guthrie announced the creation of a department of construction with “a view to more efficient management” and detailed the regulations “for the design, construction, and repair of all public buildings under the department.”

The Office of the Supervising Architect was part of the Treasury Department until 1939. In that year, Congress and President Roosevelt transferred architectural responsibility for federal buildings from the Treasury Department to the Federal Works Agency through the passage of the Reorganization Act of 1939 (Chapter 36, 53 Stat. 561) and submission of Reorganization Plan No. I (5 U.S.C. appendix).

Today, the management and design of federal buildings are responsibilities of the U.S. General Services Administration. President Truman established the GSA in 1949, to further streamline the administrative work of the federal government. The GSA consolidated the National Archives Establishment, the Federal Works Agency, and the Public Buildings Administration; the Bureau of Federal Supply and the Office of Contract Settlement; and the War Assets Administration into one federal agency tasked with administering supplies and providing workplaces for federal employees.

Now, back to the two buildings pictured above. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Old Post Office Building (and its tower) is the second tallest structure in the city. As its name suggests, it served as the U.S. Post Office Department headquarters and the main post office in Washington, D.C. from 1899 to 1914.  The Landmark Center in St. Paul was more than just a post office. As noted above, many federal buildings outside Washington housed various different government offices. The Landmark Center was no different. Now owned by Ramsey County, Minnesota, it was formerly known as the Old Federal Courts Building and housed federal offices including the courthouse and customs house, in addition to the city’s main post office, from its opening until 1967.

Perhaps there are other federal or former federal buildings around the United States that look like the Landmark Center and the Old Post Office Building—and have interesting histories as well?

Devitt Courtroom St. Paul Minnesota
Originally the law library, the room pictured above later served as Courtroom 430 (Judge Devitt’s courtroom). Judge Devitt represented Minnesota in the House of Representatives during the 80th Congress, was appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota by President Eisenhower in 1955, and served as the Court’s chief judge from 1959 to 1981.
Courtroom 317 St Paul Minnesota
The entrance to Courtroom 317—a two-tiered courtroom that was the site of many infamous gangster trials during the 1930s. Notorious criminals tried in the Old Federal Courts Building include Ma Barker’s son Doc, Alvin Creepy Karpis, and John Dillinger’s moll Evelyn Frechette.

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