A History of the St. Louis Old Post Office and Custom House

St. Louis Old Post Office and Custom House

The Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District has its offices in the Old Post Office (OPO).  The OPO was originally known as the United States Custom House and Post Office. When the OPO was owned by the United States General Services Administration (GSA), it was ranked as the sixth most historic and the seventh most architecturally significant building among the over 2200 buildings the GSA owned in the United States.  The Courtroom and Library are designated “Level 1,” a classification reserved for only the most historically significant spaces, such as the Statue of Liberty, the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, and the Rotunda in Washington, D.C.  The OPO was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968. 

The primary architect on the OPO was Alfred B. Mullett, supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury.  The architectural style of the OPO is characterized as French Second Empire, which is the same style as the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.  It is also referred to as the “General Grant Style,” because it was popularized during his presidential administration (1869-1877).  Mullett also supervised the construction of five similar buildings in Washington, D.C., Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati.  Only the OPO and the Washington, D.C. Executive Office Building next to the White House remain.  The other four were demolished between 1936 and 1942. 

Construction on the OPO began in 1872 and it was completed in 1884 at a cost exceeding $6 million. The windows are equipped with iron shutters for fire prevention.  One of the stories surrounding the construction of the OPO is that it was built on quicksand.  In 1873, while the workers were digging the foundation, they struck a large rolling bed of quicksand.  Several hundred men worked to stem the flow of the quicksand and only succeeded after driving pine support beams deep into the bedrock, then packing 500 bales of cotton around the beams, and covering it with four feet of limestone concrete slabs. 

The first floor façade is built of Iron Mountain Red Granite, shipped from Iron Mountain, Missouri by train.  The façade of the upper three levels (including the floors housing the Court of Appeals) is built of Grey Hurricane Island Granite from Maine, shipped by boat via the Atlantic Ocean to New Orleans and up the Mississippi River.  On the outside of the OPO below the dome was the sculpture “Peace and Vigilance” by Daniel Chester French, who also sculpted the famous Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.  The sculpture has also been called “America at War and Peace,” as well as “Peace, Vigilance and the American Eagle.”  The original sculpture was restored and relocated to the OPO’s first floor in 1991 and a replica now rests at the base of the dome. 

On March 15, 1884, General William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the great Civil War heroes, presided over the dedication of the OPO.  At that time, the OPO housed federal offices administering the post-Civil War expansion westward, the Eighth Circuit federal court and the federal district court.  It also served as a storage site for up to $4 million in gold bullion. 

From 1884 to 1933, the Eighth Circuit was housed in the OPO.  The courtroom for the Eighth Circuit was located in the current En Banc Courtroom.  The former U.S. District Court courtroom now contains the library for the Missouri Court of Appeals.  In 1884, Judge David Josiah Brewer was the only circuit judge initially located in the OPO.  In 1891, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals was created and consisted of three judges.  The federal courts moved in 1935 to the “new” federal courthouse, which currently serves as the Carnahan Courthouse for the City of St. Louis. 

One of the most famous cases handled by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals was the decision ordering the breakup of Standard Oil in 1909, which was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 1911.  The Eighth Circuit also handled the Teapot Dome case, United States v. Mammoth Oil, in 1926.  The Teapot Dome was a highly publicized scandal of the Harding Administration involving a fraudulent lease agreement between the Secretary of Interior and Mammoth Oil to develop the naval petroleum reserve called the Teapot Dome.  The Eighth Circuit cancelled the lease, because the secretary had received a $400,000 “loan” from the company that was awarded the lease. 

In 1978-1982, the federal government renovated the OPO for federal offices.  In the 1990’s, most federal offices moved out of the building and the OPO was designated as “surplus property” by the federal government.  In Fall 2000, the DESCO Group and DFC Group developed a plan to restore the OPO.  In January 2006, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, moved its offices to the OPO.