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U.S. Courthouse and Post Office

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1933–1941, Harry Sternfeld, for the Ballinger Company. S. 9th and Market sts.
  • (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)
  • (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)
  • (Photograph by Karen Kingsley)
  • Law by Donald De Lue (Photograph by Karen Kingsley)
  • Justice by Donald De Lue (Photograph by Karen Kingsley)

Sternfeld's brilliant design transcended costcutting necessitated by the economic downturn of the Great Depression to create a masterpiece that blended American commercial and European modern elements. It complements Paul P. Cret's adjacent marble-faced Federal Reserve Bank of 1932 at 925 Chestnut Street that looked to the same classical sources as John Haviland's Franklin Institute (PH41) of a century before. Sternfeld indicated the building's differing functions by sculptural panels on the sides and ends. On the north and south leading into the building's courthouse portions are Michelangelo-influenced figures by Donald De Lue of Law and Justice, representing the majesty of the law emblematic of the courtrooms of the upper stories. The 9th Street side is accented by paired sculpted panels by Edward Amateis of mail delivery in the Arctic North, the Tropical South, the Urban East, and the Wild West, illustrating in WPA realism the U.S. Postal Service's range of delivery. The building now houses a division of the U.S. Archives, offering a small exhibition gallery and facilities for research on genealogy.

The site played a significant role in the history of the city. In the 1790s, it was purchased by the city as the location for a house for the U.S. president. The house was designed by William Williams, son-in-law of Robert Smith, who brought contemporary London fashion to an elegantly designed brick house trimmed with marble pilasters in the elongated proportions of Robert Adam. When George Washington refused to use the house because the Constitution forbade any emoluments other than his salary, the building was auctioned to the University of Pennsylvania and renovated by Benjamin Henry Latrobe. In the 1820s, the growing university demolished the house for twin buildings representing the divisions of the university, the medical school and the college. These were designed by William Strickland and were ornamented on their facades with the pilasters from the Williams mansion. When the university (PH147) moved west in 1873, the site was sold to the federal government and was cleared for a monumental Second Empire post office and courthouse (1873–1884), designed by federal architect Alfred B. Mullett. That building was demolished for the present structure.

Writing Credits

George E. Thomas


What's Nearby


George E. Thomas, "U.S. Courthouse and Post Office", [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Cover: Buildings of PA vol 2

Buildings of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania, George E. Thomas, with Patricia Likos Ricci, Richard J. Webster, Lawrence M. Newman, Robert Janosov, and Bruce Thomas. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012, 78-79.

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