Any building with the scale, history, and gravitas of the L. Richardson Preyer Federal Building on Market Street has a few stories to tell. With a recent Insider Tour sponsored by Preservation Greensboro, a few interesting secrets long forgotten were revealed about the stature and past of the building.
Architectural historians consider the structure to be one of the finest buildings in the state from the 1930s, and one of the best examples of Art Deco design in the Gate City. When it first opened, however, Greensboro residents were not so sure of its forward-looking style. A writer for a local paper opined that the building was an “extreme…departure from the enduring canons of the art”, a reference to the fact that the design did not follow incorporate traditionally articulated classical features such as pedimented porticos and overhanging cornices.
The Preyer Building sits upon a massive foundation of Mt. Airy granite, mined from nearby Surry County and delivered to the site in 12 boxcars. The main walls of the building are clad in Indiana Limestone, a strong, durable, and even grained stone that has been used in many other famous structures in the country, including the Empire State Building, the Pentagon, and 35 of the 50 state capitol buildings. In Greensboro, the Masonic Temple, the Cone Export Building, and the Southern Railway Passenger Station all sport Indiana Limestone. Fifty-five train car loads of Indiana Limestone were used to build this structure.
Notable features of the façade include stone lamp standards to each side of the main steps that are capped by aluminum and glass lanterns. Flanking the main entrance are carved open stone grilles incorporating the letters USA at the top and GNC for “Greensboro North Carolina” at the foot. Paired aluminum spandrel panels separating second and third floor windows above the entrance depict the seals of the Treasury Department and Post Office Department; the Department of Justice and the War Department; and the Department of Agriculture and Department of Labor – all departments that maintained offices within the building when it opened. The forth floor enjoys scored pilasters topped with carved eagles’ heads that rise above Federal shields. The west and north façades include round paterae (Latin for “saucer”) and entry pediments featuring carved palmetta acroteria.
This exuberant building’s cornerstone credits James Wetmore as the projects Acting Supervising Architect. Wetmore was widely recognized from 1915 to 1934 as “the Cornerstone Man” for his name was carved on the cornerstones of more post offices, customs houses, federal court houses and office buildings than that of any other U. S. citizen.
Ironically, Wetmore was never an architect. When Supervising Architect of the United States Treasury Oscar Wenderoth resigned in 1915, Wetmore agreed to take over his job temporarily. Through the presidential terms of Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and the first year of Roosevelt he continued to serve temporarily, and since he was not an architect, he would not allow his title to be other than Acting Supervising Architect. During his tenure, however, Wetmore witnessed the passage of the 1926 Public Buildings Act. The Act prompted the construction of important federal buildings across the country – including the Federal Triangle project in Washington, D.C. and Greensboro’s Federal Courthouse.
Newspaper accounts report that the Preyer Building was designed for the Treasury by the Washington architectural firm of Murphy and Olmstead. Little is known of the firm. A few buildings bear their signature, including a handful of churches and chapels around Washington and Baltimore and only one other federal building located in Wellsville, New York.
The Greensboro building was initially used as a post office, courthouse and offices. Citizens of Greensboro had patiently awaited construction of a new facility since lobbying began in 1922 to replace a facility that stood on the southeastern corner of Jefferson Square. Construction began on December 14, 1931, and when the building was dedicated on July 6, 1933, more than 5,000 people attended the dedication ceremony. The building was projected to cost $800,000 to construct before any dirt was turned, and upon completion (image, right) the price tag exceeded budget by only $25,000. It contained 9 vaults, 88 clocks, 12 electric water coolers, and 2,413 lock boxes for mail.
The postal service moved out their central processing to East Market Street in the early 1970s, and their service branch followed in the late 1980’s, at which point the entire first floor was converted to courts and related offices. At the present time the building serves primarily as a Courthouse for the Middle District of North Carolina. The District was established in 1927, and serves a large portion of central North Carolina. Its headquarters have always been in Greensboro.
In 1988, the building was named in honor of Lunsford Richardson Preyer, a six-term congressman and native of Greensboro.
The Federal Building represents one part of an interesting chapter of American architectural history that is well-represented in the Gate City. The passage of the Public Buildings Act of 1926 initiated a period of building construction that was unprecedented in the United States. The Act specified that Wetmore’s office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury would be responsible for the design and construction of Federal Buildings. Within a brief period, nearly 1,700 architects were employed in the Supervising Architect’s office. That fact was a point of contention of private architects who wanted a slice of the pie. In 1933 Ralph Walker of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects charged that Wetmore’s government architects were doing the work that private firms should have, and he protested the practice to government officials. Wetmore retired from his position within a year.
The spat between James Wetmore and Ralph Walker is notable for Greensboro, because both men are represented in well-preserved buildings in our city. Walker was a principle in the firm Voorhees Walker Foley, and Smith in New York City, who later did work here in Greensboro in the progressive design of the Ellis-Stone Department Store now known as the Elm Street Center in 1949.
When the Federal Building opened in 1933, the local paper marveled at its design and quality…observing “if this mode in monumental building does indeed express our day and generation, it may be at least accorded the highest merit of honesty…” However, the writer seemed to succinctly dismiss the building’s high style by declaring “we are a pragmatic people, little disposed and having little time, to ponder the classics or contemplate the esoteric cosmos…What we are looking for in post offices is a suitable place for postal public servants to work.”
Perhaps the building was too esoteric for Greensboro in the midst of the Great Depression, and perhaps it didn’t garner the attention it deserved until decades later. However, it is appears the L. Richardson Preyer Federal Building is appreciated today, perhaps more now than ever. The structure was listed to the National Register in 2014.
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