Saturday, September 27, 2008

Old Post Office

I spent the first two nights of September at the Park Avenue Mansion, a bed & breakfast in St. Louis. It's located on Lafayette Park near our new home. We needed temporary quarters because we had not yet closed on the new house. Merry and Joli joined me for the second night after driving our VW to St. Louis from Syracuse.

The B&B is owned and operated by a man named Michael. On the second morning we were passing the time waiting for our real estate agent to arrive to drive us to the closing. Michael was regaling us with stories about the history of his house of which he had made a very close study. Having exhausted that source he moved on to discuss other highlights of St. Louis architecture. He insisted we visit the “Old Post Office” building downtown and claimed it was architecturally one of the most significant of all of St. Louis' buildings. To prove his point he told us the following unusual things about the building: (1) It has a two-story basement that once served as the US Treasury gold depository for the western US. He claimed that it featured its own underground railroad station so gold could safely be shipped in and out. (2) The windows can be completely covered with steel shutters that slide out from slots in the wall. He claimed the shutters were installed in the 1920's during a trial of organized crime figures as a defense against possible mob machine gun fire.

A few days later I was talking with a fellow judge at work, Tom Muldoon. Judge Muldoon informed me that the hearing offices for Social Security used to be located in the Old Post Office. He described the grandeur of his former office in the building and told me he had the good fortune to tour the building with an architectural historian following the building's renovations in the 1990s. He too told me of the steel shutters that pull out of the walls, but in his version they were original to the 1884 building and were intended to turn the building into a fortress against attack from forces hostile to the Union. He explained border conflicts occurred in Missouri for quite a time after the Civil War. He repeated the story about the underground train station and added that the open air space surrounding the two story basement was designed as a moat that could be flooded in an attack thus protecting the gold by covering it with two stories of water. Finally, he told me that to stabilize the massive building it was built on pilings that rest on giant cotton bales. He claimed the bales were inspected during the renovations and were still sound after more than 100 years in the ground.

The very same day after a hearing, Jane Lanser, my hearing reporter, told me she had a book on the Old Post Office she would bring in for me to look over, and by the way, had I heard the story about how the gold mysteriously disappeared from the vaults there. The vocational expert in the courtroom waiting for the next hearing added that during the 1904 World's Fair people wanted to see the basement of the Old Post Office because it was rumored to be the entrance to a tunnel to the center of the earth.

I had to go look. It is an amazing building and architecturally significant for a number of reasons [see attached photos]. The real eye opener, however, occurred this past week when Jane brought me the book she promised. It was published in 1979 by the Landmarks Association, a St. Louis civic group that was leading the efforts to save and renovate the building. This book includes the following (presumably reliable) information: (1) When excavation for the building was underway a large bed of quicksand was uncovered. Attempts to excavate the quicksand caused the surrounding streets and buildings to subside, so excavation was stopped until hundreds of yellow pine pilings were driven then capped with 4-6 feet of limestone slabs (not cotton bales) on which the building now sits. These pilings were inspected in the 1970s and found to be sound. (2) The building was furnished with its own underground railroad platform but it was never used because it was impracticable to stop a coal fired steam train for long underground. (3) The metal shutters were original and intended for fireproofing. (4) There is no moat, the space around the basement was designed to admit light to basement windows.

Great old buildings inspire the imagination and gather stories. There is no tunnel to the center of the earth where the missing gold can be discovered by the fortunate soul brave enough to open the right passageway – but there should be.

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