Opened in 1916 as the main Denver Post Office and Federal Building, this four-story Greek temple (1823 Stout Street) is Colorado’s finest Neoclassical Revival structure. It represented the growing role of the federal government in a city that now has one of the largest concentrations of federal workers outside of Washington, DC. The building also introduced Denver to exemplary Neoclassicism on a grand scale, inspiring many other such designs.
After the post office moved to 921 Twentieth Street in 1991, this building underwent a $28 million exterior restoration and interior renovation. Reborn as the Byron White US Courthouse, home of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, it honors a Fort Collins native and the first Coloradan appointed to the US Supreme Court, where he served from 1962 to 1993. Because of its civic as well as architectural distinction, this building earned designation in 1973 as a National Register landmark and is also a part of the Downtown Denver Historic District.
Earlier Post Offices
Post offices, the only arm of the federal government to reach Americans every day, were once architecturally grand and inviting. Denver, however, had various unmemorable post offices after its 1859 beginnings. The Denver post office did not graduate to a large, imposing home of its own until a three-story federal building opened in 1892 at the southwest corner of Sixteenth and Arapahoe Streets. This unremarkable gray sandstone structure cost $570,500.82 and stood in stark contrast next to the Tabor Grand Opera House, Denver’s finest piece of architecture.
As is true of many post offices, the 1892 building also housed other federal government facilities. Its thirty-two rooms included space for federal courts, the customs office, the land office, and the weather bureau. Jerome Smiley, in his definitive History of the City of Denver (1901), declared it “one of the conspicuously inconvenient, ill-arranged, cramped, dark, and inadequate public structures evolved by ‘bureau architecture,’ and . . . wholly unfitted for present requirements.”
1916 Post Office
The 1916 post office was a different story. This $2.5 million edifice took six years to build and was designed by Tracy, Swartwout and Litchfield of New York City with Denver architect Maurice Biscoe, the team that also designed Denver’s St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral. The building’s Neoclassical style was favored by the federal government as befitting a vigorous young Republic aspiring to be the Rome of the Rockies, the Athens of the West. Of many Neoclassical elements, the most imposing is the Stout Street main entry featuring a three-story portico of sixteen ionic columns topped by eagles. The other three sides of the full-block structure on Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Champa Streets echo the Neoclassicism with engaged columns embedded in the walls.
The building is one of the finest examples of Colorado Yule Marble, which is used throughout the exterior. Denver sculptor Gladys Caldwell Fisher later carved the two limestone bighorn sheep guarding the Eighteenth Street entrance, which were a Works Progress Administration project in 1936. Inside, the grand limestone lobby and courts are illuminated by round-arch windows. The vaulted lobby walls are inscribed with the names of postmasters general and some Pony Express riders. Denver artist Herman T. Schalermundt painted the two lobby murals “Agriculture” and “Mining.”
Like its predecessor, this post office also served as a federal building. The post office occupied the basement and first floor, while the second through fourth floors came to house federal courts and ever-expanding federal agencies—including the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Justice, Labor, and Treasury—as well as the Customs Office, Food and Drug Administration, Geological Survey, Land Office, Reclamation Service, and Surveyor General. Such overcrowding led in 1931 to the construction of a large new Customs House and Federal Building catercorner from the post office, which was also a neoclassical revival structure clad in Colorado Yule marble. Since then, other federal buildings and an entire Federal Center were created to accommodate the state’s largest employer.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the post office drastically reworked the building. It sliced up the grand lobby, which once extended the entire length of the building; carved up courtrooms into smaller, functional office space; and built a cinderblock addition. But that was not enough to make the grand building suit the needs of the modern US Postal Service, which moved in the 1980s to a new, warehouse-like building a few blocks north. The General Services Administration (GSA) then bought the old post office to turn it into a US Court of Appeals.
Between 1992 and 1994, the GSA and Denver architect Michael Barber undid decades of alterations to thoroughly restore the interior. The lobby returned to its former grandeur, including historic writing tables used by post office patrons. A new courtroom was built in the former mail-sorting area on the first floor, while historic courtrooms were re-created on the second floor and the former law library was turned into an oak-paneled courtroom. In 1994 the renovated building was named for Byron White, the first Coloradan to serve on the US Supreme Court, from which he had recently retired after more than three decades of service. An exhibit of White’s personal memorabilia now occupies part of the first floor.
Today the federal judicial system occupies the entire building, which is best known as the home of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The building’s first-floor historical displays are open to the public during business hours, and the courtrooms can be visited during scheduled tours.