The Many Faces of the West Chester Post Office
Updated: Nov 19, 2021
Above: The US Post Office at the corner of East Gay and North Church Streets in downtown West Chester, PA. (photo by the author)
The United States Postal Service has had a significant presence in West Chester for well over 200 years. Its services, first championed by Benjamin Franklin and guaranteed by the US Constitution, has contributed to the growth of the Borough and has been part of many historical events. This report reflects how local postal services have evolved along with the changes of the community as well as current challenges facing the downtown branch.
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.
Above: Photo circa 1880 (courtesy of Chester County History Center)
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 (see photo). According to Pat Sullivan, author of SpotsylvaniaMemory.blogspot.com, 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).
In 1885, William Shields moved the Post Office to the Cabinet Building on South Church Street at Wollerton Alley (pictured above, courtesy of the Chester County History Center). Lewis C. Moses was Postmaster until it was moved to its current location in 1907. David M. McFarland owned the building which had been designed by Thomas U. Walter. Note that Church Street is unpaved but there are pavers for a crosswalk. A news stand was located at the entrance. Today, the West Chester Laundrymat and Love Again Local occupy the space.
Above: Post Office circa 1907. Note trolley tracks on Gay Street. (courtesy of Chester County History Center)
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. Community leaders thought the new location for the Post Office would help strengthen the economy of that part of downtown by increasing foot traffic. Congress soon appropriated $60,000 for property acquisition and construction. Edgar H. Klemroth was selected as the architect and Harry G. Smith was appointed 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 which 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 elevation features a five-bay façade 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 (more than $2-million in today's dollars).
A young boy named William Brinton ceremoniously receive the first letter at the new facility.
While it's 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.
Above: 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 History Center)
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 (more than $1.4-million in modern dollars). Victor Gondos of Reading (PA) was the contractor.
By the 1980s, the demand for sorting services outgrew the space and that aspect was relocated to a new facility on Airport Road. This left the downtown location with just window service and post office boxes.
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.
Recently, it's been recognized that the downtown Post Office is showing severe deterioration, particularly at the windows. According to an article by Bill Rettew (Daily Local News, November 18, 2021), efforts are being made by borough leadership, including Borough Council member Bernie Flynn (Ward 6), to have the downtown Post Office structure transferred to private ownership while retaining current postal services. This would spur needed restoration of the building that would protect the integrity of the site while adding value to the downtown economy. (photo by the author)
Thanks to A. Roy Smith, Dale Frens, Tom Walsh, and the Chester County History Center for historical information.
Parts of this article first appeared February 14, 2014.
Malcolm Johnstone is the Community Engagement Officer for Arts, Culture, and Historic Preservation at the Cultural Alliance of Chester County, an initiative of the Chester County Community Foundation located at the Lincoln Building, 28 W Market St, West Chester PA 19382. Contact Malcolm at firstname.lastname@example.org