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'PWA MODERNE' - US Depression-era architecture

November 24, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

The entrance to the Nashville Post Office (converted in 2001 into the Frist Center for the Visual Arts)

I recently visited two stunning art deco-influenced buildings in Minneapolis and Nashville.  As both were built as post offices, I wanted to find out more about how such fantastic buildings came to be designed for this purpose. It turns out that there are many more examples and most were built during the New Deal program of the mid-1930s, the architectural legacy of which is especially rich.

During the Roosevelt New Deal period (1933-36) thousands of new buildings were designed and built under the aegis of the Office of the Supervising Architect (OSA) which was soon to become part of the main New Deal agency, the Public Works Administration (PWA).  Among these public buildings were over one thousand post offices, many of which are architecturally significant and/or contain valuable murals.  As in the UK, the Unites States is now rationalizing its post office network by closing relocating and selling thousands of postal facilities, including New Deal Era post offices. Unlike the UK however many of the buildings are worth saving and various campaigns are underway to save these buildings or to have them creatively and appropriately repurposed.

Minneapolis Post Office, east elevation

The OSA designed federal government buildings (customhouses, federal courthouses, post offices, federal office buildings, and other structures in thousands of communities across the country) from the early 1850s to the late 1930s. The OSA employed scores of architects and was the most important federal agency shaping the architectural character of American cities through the design and construction of monumental and ornately-decorated buildings.  Courthouses and post offices in particular were intended to be symbolic of the prosperity of the cities in which they were located; they were constructed to last with durable materials such as granite masonry and symbolised the strength of the federal government

The work of the OSA was cut short by World War II and it faded from view in the post-war era. In 1949 responsibility for design, preservation and construction of federal buildings was given to the Public Buildings Service division of United States General Services Administration.

Staircase in the Frist Center

In the 1930s the OSA became a part of the PWA, whose remit focused as much on job creation as design work. .  Nevertheless, headed by architect Louis A. Simon (1867-1958) between 1933-39, the OSA was artistically vigorous during the Great Depression era.  Simon favoured a "conservative-progressive" approach and most of his own buildings, including many post offices, were Colonial Revival in style or in some other restrained or more stylized classical style. Yet the OSA issued guidelines encouraging architects to follow both of the most important architectural styles of the period, classicism and art deco. One history of the period notes that:

During the Depression, architects working for the federal government were expected to express the vales of permanence, stability and order in their buildings – values that a classical style had traditionally embodied – but in streamlined forms to suggest progress and simplified to lower production costs. (1)

The architectural style of many buildings completed between 1933 and 1944 sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) branch of the PWA emerged as what has come to be known as ‘PWA Moderne’ (or sometimesFederal Moderne’, ‘Depression Moderne’ or ‘Classical Moderne’). Drawing on beaux-arts and art deco examples, but often with zigzag ornamentation added, the exterior of these buildings was often ‘stripped down’, exhibiting conservative and classical elements which have a monumental feel.  They show classical balanced and symmetrical forms, with windows arranged as vertical recessed panels and surfaces sheathed in smooth, flat stone or stucco.

  Minneapolis Post Office, west elevation

The Minneapolis Post Office, located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, was completed in 1933 and is still in use as a postal facility. Built of granite and stone in the PWA Moderne style it cost $4.5m. at the time.  The main building is 540 feet (165 m) long. Its interior is unchanged and customers still utilize its original bronze teller cages and fixtures, marble terrazzo floor and sandstone walls. Perhaps the longest light fixture in the world, a 350 foot (107 m), 16 ton (16256.8 kg) bronze chandelier runs the length of the lobby, originally designed to regulate temperature. Peepholes were installed in the corridors so that inspectors could protect the mail and observe employees. The main building contained a three-room suite panelled in walnut for the postmaster, recreation rooms and a hospital unit for employees as well as a shooting range in the basement.

  The Grand Lobby in the Frist Center

Nashville Main Post Office (1933-34) at 919 Broadway was converted into the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in 2001 after the postal service relocated to a new facility. This is a quite stunning renovation, funded by a public-private partnership, which brings out all the marvellous art deco features which the local firm of Marr & Holman designed in and adds a number of new sympathetic features. In spite of the OSA’s exhortations to cost-savings, the designers specified cast aluminum doors and decorative grillwork as well as colored marble and stones on the floors and walls. True, the designs on the grillwork – displaying symbols of progress and productivity – came from a federal building planning manual, but they are stunning for all that.

  Cast aluminum 'Progress' icons in the Grand Lobby of the Frist Center

  Photograph Bob Schatz © Frist Center for the Visual Arts

The light floods into the huge, high-ceiling sorting rooms which make ideal galleries. The former skylight has been resurrected in the new design. Two beautiful new staircases take visitors between the two floors of exhibition space. Sadly, I was not allowed to photograph in the gallery spaces themselves.

  Cast aluminum grillwork in the Grand Lobby of the Frist Center

Other examples of PWA Moderne post offices include Simon’s Long Beach Main Post Office (1933-34), a registered historic building located on Long Beach Boulevard in downtown Long Beach, CA. Architectural historians David Gebhard and Robert Winter have described the design as ‘PWA Moderne  accomplished with restrained and sophisticated taste.’ (2)  The Santa Monica post office, another New Deal post office in the distinctive PWA Moderne style, is also one of about 200 post offices that the Postal Service has indicated it will sell because of its financial problems.


(1) Frist Centre for the Visual Arts, From Post Office to Arts Center: A Nashville Landmark Repurposed, n.d.

(2) David Gebhard and Robert Winter. An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles,  2003, Kindle edition



Date 13.11.2014

Copyright   © All text and photography (other than where indicated) Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014. Photograph reproduced with the permission of the Frist Centre for the Visual Arts

Citation   Alan Ainsworth, ''PWA MODERNE'  - US Depression-era post office architecture', 24.11.2014 available at http://www.alanainsworthphotography.com/blog/2014/11/pwa-moderne---us-depression-era-post-office-architecture

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