It is always interesting to find cousins who resemble one another. Longtime Evansville residents who pass by, or find reasons to be inside, the historic Old Post Office and Customs House on Second Street in Downtown Evansville will be surprised to learn this magnificent structure has a cousin in Pittsfield, Mass. Located in The Berkshires area of New England, the Berkshire Athenaeum building houses the public library as well a Herman Melville memorial room. The author, most famous for “Moby Dick,” spent 13 years of his life in Pittsfield.
The Athenaeum is a dramatic reminder of Evansville’s Old Post Office and Customs House in its High Victorian Gothic appearance. Both were constructed near the same time period, between 1874 and 1877, when the architect, William Appleton Potter, was the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury.
Potter was only 33 when he became the Supervising Architect for the U.S. Treasury, which caused quite the controversy among his older competitors in “The Gilded Age.” He had distinguished himself with the construction of the Chancellor Green Library at Princeton University and was a partner in his brother Edward’s (also a sought-after architect of the day) design firm. The Potters were well connected socially in New England, which attracted then-Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow to appoint William Potter over the objections of some other interests in conflict within President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration.
In the book “Architects to the Nation: The Rise and Decline of the Supervising Architects Office,” the author Antoinette J. Lee reported that “The much admired custom house and post office in Evansville, Ind., was arranged with the massing broken into a central block and wings, but the window openings and details provided for a façade of great complexity and richness.” The publication American Architect and Building News called Evansville’s post office “picturesque, dignified, and elegant.” Lee further wrote that “the press greeted Potter’s buildings as ‘poems in stone, which represented an extraordinary revolution’ in government architecture.”
Evansville’s post office was completed in 1879 and the side wings were added between 1917 and 1918. The federal government abandoned the building for the new Civic Center Complex in 1969. Today, the building is a multi- purpose facility housing an event center and offices (including some returned federal purposes: the Social Security Office of Disability Adjudication and Review will relocate there in the second quarter of this year).