Port Townsend Post Office, Court and Customs House opens on March 1, 1893.

  • By Katie Chase
  • Posted 8/15/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9480
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On March 1, 1893, the Port Townsend Post Office, Court and Customs House opens. The building, located at 1322 Washington Street, occupies a prominent location on the bluff overlooking Port Townsend and Port Townsend Bay. Designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style, the building was the first federally constructed post office to be built in the state of Washington.

A Victorian Seaport

During his 1792 exploration of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) identified Port Townsend as a safe harbor on the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula. Vancouver named the site for the Marquis of Townshend. The first Euro-American settlement occurred on the bay on April 24, 1851, with the arrival of Alfred A. Plummer (1822-1883) and Charles Bachelder. Additional settlers and their families arrived in the community, and upon the county's establishment in 1852 Port Townsend was appointed the county seat of Jefferson County. The community’s population and significance continued to grow, particularly when Washington Territory’s official Port of Entry was moved from Olympia to Port Townsend in 1854. Following a petition to incorporate submitted by Port Townsend residents, the Washington Territorial Legislature passed an act incorporating the city of Port Townsend on January 16, 1860.

Port Townsend briefly lost its status as the Port of Entry following the controversial designation of Port Angeles as the new Port of Entry in 1862. Incensed about the change, the community initially refused to relinquish the customs records to Victor Smith (1827-1865), Collector of Customs for the District of Puget Sound, when he sailed into the harbor on August 1, 1862. Persistent in their dissatisfaction with losing the Port of Entry status and with the actions of Victor Smith, Port Townsend citizens succeeded in convincing President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) to remove Smith from his position as Collector of Customs. Port Angeles continued to retain the Customs House until a flood from a burst dam on December 16, 1863, swept the building out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, along with the strongbox containing the valuable customs records. The passage of a bill in Congress on July 25, 1865, reinstated Port Townsend as the Port of Entry for the Washington Territory. 

The citizens of Port Townsend sought to procure a railroad link to connect with Portland, Oregon, during the late 1880s, recognizing the potential for economic growth with the city’s position as the Port of Entry as well as home to several maritime-related industries. Trade ships arrived in the harbor daily and many shipmasters made Port Townsend their home, building houses on the bluff overlooking the water. As the city grew, the community envisioned an impressive downtown corridor and began to construct large buildings. The use of high-style architecture for many of the commercial structures and residences built on the bluff reflected the optimism toward future economic growth and prominence. Popular styles for these new buildings included Italianate, Queen Anne, Richardsonian Romanesque, and Eastlake.

Dreams of Prosperity

On December 31, 1885, the United States government purchased a site in Port Townsend for $9,000 on which to build a post office, courthouse, and customs house. Construction on the masonry basement walls began in 1887, but the authorization for the construction of a larger building temporarily caused a suspension of the initial work. Architects M. E. Bell and W. J. Edbrooke, out of Chicago, Illinois, created the design for the prominent public building. Work continued on the structure with the modified building plans in August 1889. After a construction period lasting eight years, the building opened on March 1, 1893. The total construction cost was $241,822.81.

Construction of the three-story building occurred during a time of great optimism in the city. Port Townsend, like many communities on the Puget Sound, hoped for a link to the transcontinental railroad. This hope stimulated a construction and population boom, expanding commercial and residential development in the city. The population grew rapidly, reaching more than 6,000 by 1889. Consequently, the design for the federal building included the post office, courthouse, and customs house, reflecting the perceived growth and importance of the port. However, by the time of the building’s completion following the prolonged construction period, the confidence that had spurred this phase of development had all but vanished. The proposed rail link to connect Port Townsend with Portland railroads failed following the collapse of the Oregon Improvement Company in 1890, which had purchased the right-of-way. The failure to secure a rail link, coupled with the nationwide economic depression of 1893, halted development in Port Townsend.

Richardsonian Romanesque

In addition to being the first federally constructed post office built in the state of Washington, the building is also the only example in the state of the federal government’s use of the Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture. The sandstone building features a three-story central block with a daylight basement flanked by two-story wings. A half-round tower projects from the front facade. Broad, round-arched first-story windows and round-arched doorways mark the building’s exterior, and a pair of Romanesque columns flank the front entrance. These features, in addition to the building’s overall sense of massiveness, embody the Richardsonian Romanesque style.   

Three primary entrances provide access to the building, one at each end wall and a main entrance on the front facade. The end-wall entries feature a pair of paneled wood doors with a three-light, round-arched transom above. The main entrance sets in a rectangular opening, but is no longer utilized due to the wind off Port Townsend Bay.

Each entry features an interior vestibule separated from the main corridor by double doors. Located within the tower, the primary stairway features a cast iron carriage, risers, and newels. A steel railing with an ornamental metal balustrade runs along the inner edge of the stairway and across the inner edge of the third floor landing. Cast iron risers feature a decorative geometric design repeated across their length and black slate serves as the stairway’s tread and landings.  Finishes throughout the building, including the basement, reflect a high qual­ity of design, workmanship, and material selection. Flooring consists of marble in public spaces, and wood in private and semi-public spaces.

The Port Townsend Post Office, Court and Customs House is a contributing member of the National Historic Landmark (NHL)-listed Port Townsend Historic District, and is listed as a contributing resource in the National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation for Historic U.S. Post Offices in Washington, 1893-1941. Overall, the building has benefited from a remarkable level of maintenance, keeping the majority of original materials and features operational and in use. It is significant for its association with the development of Port Townsend, but particularly for its representation of the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style. 

Sources: "Historic Register Report: U.S. Post Office -- Port Townsend Main," State of Washington, Washington Information System for Architectural and Archaeological Records Data accessed July 2010 (https://fortress.wa.gov/dahp/wisaard/); Marcus Whiffen, American Architecture Since 1780: A Guide to the Styles (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1969), 133-140; "Port Townsend History," PTGuide.com website accessed August 2010 (PTGuide.com); City Guide to Port Townsend website accessed July 2010 (http://www.ptguide.com/history-a-attractions); Artifacts Consulting, Inc., "Port Townsend Post Office, Court and Customs House: Catalog of Character-Defining Features" (Tacoma, WA:  United States Postal Service, 2010); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Captain George Vancouver names Port Townsend on May 8, 1972" (by Kit Oldham), and "Victor Smith forcibly moves the U.S. Customs Port of Entry for Washington Territory from Port Townsend to Port Angeles on August 1, 1862" (by Daryl C. McClary), and "The Washington Territorial Legislature incorporates the city of Port Townsend on January 16, 1860" (by Kit Oldham) http://www.historylink.org (accessed July 2, 2010).

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