Constructed between 1892 and 1899, the Old Post Office was designed to house both the U.S. Post Office Department Headquarters and the city’s main post office branch. As one of the tallest buildings in the nation’s capital, the Old Post Office offers spectacular views of the city. Now a defining feature of the city’s skyline, the massive Romanesque Revival structure spent much of the twentieth century slated for demolition. However, through the efforts of dedicated preservationists, the Old Post Office has weathered storms of controversy and remains one of Washington’s favorite landmarks.
In 1928, not thirty years after its completion, the Old Post Office Building was first slated for demolition in an effort to clear the way for the development of harmonious neoclassical federal office buildings. A product of the Beaux-Arts City Beautiful movement, the creation of the Federal Triangle transformed the area surrounding the Old Post Office. Only after seven other Triangle buildings were completed did a lack of funding during the Great Depression save the Old Post Office from demolition. The building continued to serve as a home to various government agencies over the next thirty years. In 1964, the President’s Council on Pennsylvania Avenue recommended the demolition of all but the clock tower, in yet another attempt to create architectural harmony in the Federal Triangle. As a result, local citizens banded together and, with the help of Nancy Hanks, the politically influential chairperson of the National Endowment of the Arts, convinced Congress to reverse its decision.
A decade later, redevelopment plans for the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor included preservation of the Old Post Office , which had been listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Renovation of the building began in 1977, including a mixed-use redevelopment with retail commercial spaces on the lower level and federal offices on the upper levels. This adaptive, mixed-use approach received national attention as a viable option for historic preservation. In 1983, the building was officially renamed the Nancy Hanks Center in recognition of her devotion to the preservation of historically significant buildings.
In honor of our nation’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976, the Ditchley Foundation of Great Britain presented a set of English change ringing bells to the U.S. Congress as a symbol of friendship. The bells, an exact replica of those found hanging in Westminster Abbey, were placed in the Old Post Office clock tower in 1983 and are still rung each year at the opening and closing of Congress and for national holidays.
As the next chapter in the building’s history is set to unfold, the Old Post Office serves as a reminder of the importance and lasting impact of preservationists devoted to the conservation of our built environment.