A. B. Mullett: His Buildings Then and Now


Art Historians and Historic Preservationists take notice!

Information on "Preservation" magazine produced by National Trust for Historic Preservation has an article on the GSA executive officer Robert Peck, by Andrea Oppenheimer Dean called "Right Time, Right Place" in the July/August 1996 issue. However, this is an incomplete picture of GSA activities. GSA did an excellent job on restoration and preservation of Port Huron, MI and OEOB in DC but that work was started under the Reagan administration. They knew how to properly research historic construction and how to hire construction engineers who had a background in historic preservation. As kind as I would like to be to GSA for what they have done, their intentions for San Francisco Mint Museum and Pioneer Courthouse in Portland, OR and now word has reached us that their control of the Old St. Louis Post Office remain to be seen.

What is the future of the Old San Francisco Mint ?

The building is now in "moth balls" but it was supposed to be kept up in minor ways to ensure it did not deteriorate while decisions are made for its future. In 2000 GSA put the building up for new ownership with restrictions in compliance with Historic Buildings and National Monuments regulations. The City and County of San Francisco have negotiations underway since the beginning of 2001, but GSA has been maligning the building since they took possession from the U.S. Treasury Department. The Treasury Department officer who was in charge of the U.S. Mint buildings had been told by architects who wanted to find buildings on which they could test their new seismic technology, claimed that the Mint was ready to tumble in the next earthquake. This of course is not true but that was their claim. The only evidence that they had was photographs of the damage to the chimneys that were removed after the 1906 earthquake. The chimneys did not fall, they did crack sufficiently to either need repairs or removal and the choice was to remove the short one and repair the two big ones used for smelting. The structure of the building itself has suffered no damage at all from earthquakes in 1906 nor since. The facts are that if the new seismic technology is used on a building as secure as the Mint, and it survives, the designers will claim that their technology is working. If it destroys the historic building and the original design of floating the building, they don't care. If the building falls after they use the new technology they will still blame the building and not their technology. But they are making use of a new technology on buildings that are secure hoping this will prove their experiments work. They should not be allowed to use secure buildings for their experiments. 

The summer of 1998 while visiting San Francisco, GSA officers agreed to show me the blue prints they just discovered were piled in a window well in an attic room. They have moved these blue prints to a flat storage drawer to protect them. It is important that they do becasue many of the originals of these blue prints appear to be missing from National Archives and the Western branch office. As for the building? GSA wants to transfer ownership to the city of San Francsico. The building is secure. However lack of maintenance has resulted in decorations chipping away due to leaks in the roof and gutters. Rain water getting into the stone on the facade is causing deterioration. At present it is closed and exhibit equipment moved out to other museums or Mints. This building withstood the 1906 earthquake and the more recent one in the 1990s without a single coin falling to the ground. It was the first building to be "floated" on a base foundation that isolated it from the surrounding earth. A. B. Mullett studied technologies, invented a design of his own to float the building. He used theories based on his understanding of how boats stay afloat when there is a major storm. See the book, A.B. Mullett, His influence on American Architecture and Historic Preservation on our catalogue page. This book tells more of these buildings.

Now that the city and county of San Francisco plan to take over they are asking for rehabilitation. the Pre-submittal Old Mint tour was July 2, 2002 and the pre-submittal conference was the same day. the date for submissions of proposals is due August 30, 2002. Contact Ms. Hala Hijazi, project manager, Mayor's Office of Economic Development, 1 Dr. Carlton B. goodlett Place, rm 436, San Francisco, CA 94102. e-mail: hala.hijazi@sfgov.org

The Pioneer Post Office/ Courthouse in Portland, Oregon

GSA plans to do worse things to the Old Post Office and Court House in Portland, Oregon. The Post Office is to be moved out and only courts used by three judges. They plan to use new seismic technology that is questionable and will destroy the current original foundation. GSA also intends to put a parking lot for five cars under the building because they arranged a new law to go into effect in Portland that all courts have a parking lot. Since so many car bombs have gone off in parking lots below buildings, this makes us nervous. We received the report from GSA on the results of the community of Portland reactions to the new plans. There was not one letter sent to them supporting the plan to remove the Post Office which is the only one in that part of downtown Portland. It is frequently used and the courtyard in front of the building has been a place of congregation for picnickers outside and visitors just sitting and talking. Most downtown areas want to have this community support. GSA's plans will eliminate this downtown activity and may ruin downtown shopping and business activity surrounding the Pioneer Post Office. GSA seems determined to carry out their plans.

Government Services Agency is in charge of maintaining this historic building. Again, they wish to put a parking lot under the building when they dig under it to install their new seismic technology under this building. Even though this building does not use the same foundation technology as the U.S. Mint, the foundation is quite secure. In the old system of design, foundations were overbuilt and extremely secure. There is more on this issue of what GSA has wanted to do, how the public has objected, and the reasoning on each side beginning with the link above.

The Dalles, OR

Nothing really can be done on this structure because it was never completed. The foundation and construction up to the beginning of the second story was finished when the Federal Government put a hold on construction in the Dalles because it could not decide if there should be a Mint or an Assay Office. Eventually, due to the jealousy of the people of Portland and their ability to lobby better than the people of The Dalles, the building was permanently halted. Eventually the ownership was transfered to the city of The Dalles and on our last visit it was owned by Bergman's Storage Company. It was finished off in just simple construction to provide sufficient storage area in the basement and ground level and small offices on the main floor. There is nothing really to maintain except to ensure that the stone is kept from weather damage. This is done. The people of The Dalles who actually know about the building appreciate and treasure old photographs of it. They are pleased to know that it is actually listed as an historic structure.

Preservation Successes

U.S. Treasury Building

Preservation work is going on productively at the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, DC

The North Wing interior of the
U. S. Treasury building was damaged by fire. Treasury Building, Washington, DC - North wing designed by A. B. Mullett U. S. Treasury Building, Washington, DC north view. Click on this photo for Treasury tour. Or you may visit the Treasury Historical web pages.

A website with factual information on the Mullett buildings with some photographs and occasionally with drawings that would be of interest to architectural historians is at the Library of Congress website. A search by building name or by architect can be made at http://lc.web2.loc.gov/cgi-bin.

The information regarding original construction of each government building comes mostly from the National Archives in Washington, DC. A compilation of notes and references have been prepared by the author. Illustrations will include original photos from construction period and photos taken more recently of the buildings as they appear today or at least as they appeared in the last 10 years. Anyone living near one of the Mullett buildings or knowing of recent renovations or changes in use may submit the information to mspress and it will be included in up-dates with the submitter's name.

Custom House, Post Office at Port Huron, MI

GSA had made thorough inspections of this building while Reagan was in office and discovered it needed a new roof and general clean up but other wise the building was in good condition. Some of the ground level rooms were cut up and solid walls were put in. This space was being used by the employment offices giving out unemployment checks, helping unemployed find jobs, and I believe the housing department was also using some space. The upper floors were being used by the Customs offices and police training offices. The new roof that was put on the building was replacement of the original copper roof of a very good quality. The GSA official in charge of the work insisted that even though the cost initially of this type of room would be high, that this would outlast several other roofing materials so that over time, the new copper roof would prove to be the most economical. This was the same reasoning that Mullett used so we were very pleased that the official at that time used the same "proper sense of economy" as Mullett and that the original concept of the building has been preserved. This building still had the original iron shutters on the upper floors that Mullett had designed. The design for these shutters can be seen in the book, A.B. Mullett: his Relevance in American Architecture and Historic Preservation.

Port Huron, Mi.  Custom House by A. B. Mullett Custom House, Post Office at Port Huron, MI.

The Old Executive Office Building

This building is another one under GSA control. This building is in constant use by the various offices supporting efforts of the President and Vice President. The National Security Administration and Office of Budget occupy offices in this building. During the Reagan administration this building was restored considerably. The original wall decorations were uncovered. They had been covered with Government White paint ever since World War II or perhaps earlier. The skylights had been painted with black out paint during the war but this paint was removed and where the original stained glass could be discovered, it was restored. One design for stained glass in the dome was lost so a new design was chosen that was contemporary to designs of the period of the contruction of that wing. Roof, gutter and downspout repairs were made as well as repairs to exterior stone due to water damage from a few years of neglect accumulated over the time when the building design was not appreciated. Tours of the building were available on Saturdays by reservation only but since September 11, 2001 these were suspended. We hope they will resume.

Nevada State Museum formerly the Carson City Mint

The Carson City Mint was turned into the State museum when the State took possession of the Mint when the Government disposed of it. Some years ago after one of the earthquakes that hit that part of the country, the State noticed a crack up the front facade of the building. The first engineers who were called in to inspect and recommend solutions stated that the old building would have to be removed and they proposed designs for a replacement building. On learning of this, we contacted the State officials and requested that they find another engineer with experience in buildings of the age of the old Mint. We asked that they insist that any recommendations come after these people had actually studied the original plans of the building . The State officials did get a second opinion and discovered that the crack up the front of the building was just on the facia stone but that the actual strength of the building was in the superstructure of brick and stone which was behind the facia stone. They decided that all they needed was a structural support bar running from the front to the back of the building. Then the facia stone was repaired with pointing. The structural bar would not have been needed had the superintendent of construction understood the original design instructions from A.B. Mullett's office. The Supervising Architect, A.B. Mullett had sent the standard instructions for construction and materials. There was supposed to be a space between the facia stone and the supporting walls of the building but the man appointed by the State Congressional Representative selected someone who had never worked on a stone building nor on a building so large. He did not understand that arched brick was made that way but not knowing this he cut regular bricks into arches. The combination of these errors required the braces now on the building. But the structure of the superstructure and foundation were overseen by good engineers whom Mullett sent from Washington to ensure that whatever mistakes were made would not endanger the longevity of the structure overall.

Assay Office, Boise, Idaho, now State Historical Society's Archaeology and Oral History Division, 210 Main Street

The U.S. Forest Service took possession of this building in 1933 after the U.S. Treasury no longer needed it for an Assay Office. Most of the gold mining diminished in that area so the Forest Service made the building its headquarters. There had been plans drawn in 1931 to remodel the interior for offices. Iron bars were removed from the windows, no longer needed to protect gold supplies. During the depression the price of gold increased and mining was revived so the Idaho Mining Association lobbied Congress to reconsider and reopen the Assay Office but the attempts failed completely in 1942. There had been plans by the Forest Service to expand the building with wings on either side and transform the exterior to make it look mofe like all the other Forest Service buildings. But probably lack of funding during the depression and the continued attempts of the local citizens of Idaho who wanted the building reopened as an Assay Office, helped save it from the planned transformation of the exterior. After World War II the Federal Courthouse and Office Building in Boise was planned and one site considered was that of the Old Assay Office. Fortunately another location was selected and the Federal Government no longer needed the building. The building, now under control jointly of GSA and the Forest Service turned the building over to the State and it became listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. The people of Idaho have always appreciated this little stone structure. It has been lovingly cared for and maintained. Although it is not big enough to be a true museum as bigger buildings have, such as the Carson City Mint, it is being used, every space, by caring people who appreciate this building.

631 to 633 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC

This was first St Marc Hotel but in 1887 it was purchased by Central National Bank. A.B. Mullett was hired to convert the hotel to a bank and transform the facade to its current two tower appearance which has been in the background of countless photogaphs of the Inaugural parades every four years. Mullett made structural changes to accomodate the needs of the new bank building. From 1907 the bank became the National Bank of Washington and went through several banking and investing concerns until 1942 when it was sold to J & J Investment Co who soon turned the building's ground floor into the Apex Liquor Store and the upper floors were offices. Everyone in Washington had fun of talking about the liquor store with a Temperance Statue in front of it. Diagonally across the street from the building is the National Archives business entrance. Then in 1960 the building was sold again but the liquor store remained until 1983 when the building and the one behind it were bought by Sears, Roebuck and Co.

The building behind had held the old Brady photography studios from the time of Abraham Lincoln. Sears combined these two buildings. The original stone masonry and the cast iron trim remain as Mullett designed them. Sears cleaned the front and then painted the building a uniform color. Inside some of the original wainscotting remains but it was expanded. The barrel vaulted ceilings were restored. The fluted cast iron columns were cleaned and painted. The new changes work well with the old and they complement each other. But while Sears owned the building the public was not allowed inside to see anything but the entrance.

In December of 1995, The National Council of Negro Women, Inc purchased the building. It is not only their headquarters but also is now the home of the Dorothy L. Height Leadership Institute, and the National Centers for African American Women. The space is quite often rented to individual organizations wishing to have programs or meetings in the beautiful structure. It is well suited for receptions and business meetings.

During A.B. Mullett's tenure as Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department, there were many times when communities around the country sent letters from the workers on the government buildings under A.B. Mullett's supervision complaining that there should be separate buildings for the Negro stone cutters and workers. A.B. was very firm about not giving into the threats of other stone cutters insisting that all workers were to work in the same structure, use the same facilities, and anyone who did not like it could quit and go elsewhere. Very few did leave. Jobs were scarce and the prestige that went with working on one of the new government buildings was more important than winning some petty racial objections. The workers had to learn to get along, work together, and all received equal pay for equal work. As long as workers were competantly doing their jobs, they remained on the rolls. Originally the local superintendents of construction had authority to hire and fire workers. When it became obvious to A.B. Mullett that some workers were let go for reasons other than workmanship, he took over the authority and told the local superintendents of construction that before anyone was fired, letters giving legitimate reasons for letting workers go had to be sent to Mullett's office. He would investigate the accusations personally and decide. If a worker was continually late, did not do his job, or was frequently drunk on the job, that worker would be fired. Otherwise, the worker remained on the work and those launching false objections or prejudices were disciplined. Soon it became known that workers would only be hired and fired based on competance and objections were not even sent to Washington.

The Sun Building, F Street, Washington, DC

This building was originally constructed for the Washington Offices of the Baltimore Sun newspaper. A. B. Mullett designed the building which at that time was considered a sky scraper and was the tallest building in Washington. It did not have the bulbous dome on the back. It did have a clock tower. The tower was removed sometime after new laws were passed in Washington restricting the height of buildings to shorter than the Washington Monument. The building was registered as a National Historic Building and restored by a group of lawyers and magazine editor. The building's ground floor is rented to businesses, often a bank or quality store. The rest of the building is leased to offices of various sorts and it is very well maintained. Some offices still have the original marble fire place mantels and screens. It is a wonderful job of preservation.

The Court House and Post Office in Columbia, S.C.

The people of Columbia, South Carolina appreciate their historic buildings and are maintaining this building. When we visited they had restored the old court room. The Mayor's office was in the building and they work constantly to keep the building up and use it as fully as possible.

Buildings of Unknown Status, we invite your updates...

The Post Office and Custom House in Ogdensburg, NY

On our last visit to Ogdensburg this building was put up for sale by the U.S. Postal Service. There had been plans originally for a Court House in this building and on our last visit before the sale, the original furniture for the court house was still in the building. It was spectacular furniture, never used, in mint condition. The Post Office personel were sad to lose the building. The original observation dome on the building had been removed decades earlier. That was a sad loss because this was the building which set the standard for Custom Houses all having observation towers and domes. The original slate roofing had been replaced by asphalt shingles. Otherwise, the building was well maintained. In the mid to late 19th Century, sewers for buildings used to dump the untreated waste directly into the rivers. Ogdensburg was one of the last Federal buildings to realize they were still dumping. It was the 1950s when they finally discovered the situation and redirected the sewer waste to a treatment plant. We need to know who bought this building from the Government and what has become of it and the furniture. The original plans for the building were not at the National Archives but at the building having never been returned after work was completed on installing new electric wiring for lighting.

The Old Court House and Post Office in Illinois

The Court House and Post Office in Lincoln, NE

On our last visit to Lincoln we received a key to the city. The people of the city were making every effort to keep the building fully occupied and used, they had worked on restoration projects. But they were having difficulty staying in full compliance to the older regulations of the Federal Government for using the building. At the time of transfer of this building the agreement was that the building could only be used for City and State Government offices, charitable uses, museums, schools, but no private organizations or offices could occupy space. The Federal regulations have changed. Even Federal buildings are used by private individuals, corporations, organizations. Multi-purpose and multi-use is the norm. We hope Lincoln, NE has been able to gain approval of changes in its use so that it can be fully occupied and have sufficient funds from rentals and leases to pay for the continued maintenance of the building.

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Copyright Mullett-Smith Press 1996-2002 all rights reserved; photos by D. Mullett Smith of buildings designed by A. B. Mullett.