Rocky Ford Post Office

Location: Rocky Ford
County: Otero County
Date Constructed: 1935-1936
Built by: WPA

Description

The Rocky Ford Post Office is a one-story plus basement Classical Revival building. The rectangular plan, flat-roofed building measures 70’ x 60’. It rests on a hollow tile and brick foundation. It is clad in multi-hued brown brick laid in a stretcher bond with brick quoins. A course of soldier bricks forms a stringcourse at the basement level. There is a yellow sandstone stringcourse above the windows and a simple stone cornice at the top of the wall. Brick jack arches and sandstone slip sills frame the window openings. The building retains its original multi-light, wood-framed windows. The window surrounds are also wood.

The southeast facade features a distinctive Classical Revival entrance, constructed of yellow sandstone with a broken-scroll pediment, urn, rosettes, and simple pilasters. A rectangular transom and sidelights with leaded glass surround the opening. The entry is approached by broad, concrete steps and/or a handicap-accessible ramp running along the facade from the entry to wrap around the south corner. On the interior, a wood and glass vestibule is located at the entrance. The lobby area has multi-hued brown tiled floors and wainscoting. The lobby features a mural, located at the south end above the postmaster’s office. It is entitled “The First Crossing at Rocky Ford” and depicts the first settlers arriving at Rocky Ford. The workroom has a maple floor and wood wainscotting.

Significance

The Rocky Ford Post Office meets Criterion A for its significance in the area of Politics/Government for its association with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislative agenda as a project of the PWA. The construction of new post offices was a way for the federal government to aid the economy by spending money on materials and construction crews. This was the only PWA project in the city of Rocky Ford. The project provided Rocky Ford with its first purpose-built post office. It has been the only post office in Rocky Ford since it opened in 1936.

The Rocky Ford Post Office meets Criterion C in the area of Architecture as an example of a small federal building designed by the Office of the Supervising Architect under the direction of Louis A. Simon. The Classical Revival style is simple and restrained, an excellent example of a federal building constructed during the Depression. The symmetry, massing, and formal appearance of the building clearly identify it as a federal building. It is the only federal building in Rocky Ford. This standardized federal design sets the post office apart from New Deal projects constructed by the WPA in southeastern Colorado. These work relief projects were predominantly designed in the Rustic Style and emphasized masonry craftsmanship. PWA projects such as the post office used purchased materials and professional construction crews as opposed to the unskilled workers quarrying or manufacturing the materials for WPA projects. The interior of the post office retains an exceptionally high degree of integrity, with its original finishes and layout intact. The interior is an outstanding example of the standard interior plan of a 1930s era post office.

Historical Background

In June 1933, the Rocky Ford Chamber of Commerce held a special meeting to try and secure a federal appropriation to construct a purpose-built post office for their town. This was proactive of the community leaders since the Public Works Administration (PWA) had just been established that month. Rocky Ford was awarded a PWA project to construct a post office in November 1933, in large part due to the efforts of Congressman John A. Martin who helped secure the appropriation. It was one of 408 post offices constructed by the PWA from 1933 to 1939.

The lot purchased by the government for the post office belonged to the Swink family, one of the earliest and most prominent families to settle in Rocky Ford. George Swink established a general merchandise store and trading post on the Arkansas River in the early 1870s. The trading post site became the city of Rocky Ford, named for the rocky ford on that particular section of the Arkansas River. Swink would serve as Postmaster from 1875 to 1884 and as a State Senator from 1892 to 1900. Swink moved his family and store to the current Post Office site in 1876. He first built three rooms in 1877 and expanded the house to include ten rooms over the following two years. It was still owned and occupied by the Swink family when it was purchased by the government, although George Swink had passed away.

The post office was designed by the Treasury Department’s Office of the Supervising Architect. This office designed most federal buildings from the mid-1800s to the end of the 1930s. The office’s work ranged from grand courthouses in urban settings to small post offices in communities across the United States. The office had a staff of mostly anonymous architects working under the direction of a Supervising Architect. During the 1920s and 1930s, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), opposed the office, arguing that private architects could design superior buildings. While private architects where hired to consult on some larger buildings, smaller buildings continued to be designed by the office, which was seen as more economical. During the 1930s, the federal government sought to boost the economy and provide employment through the construction of federal buildings. This increase in federal construction encouraged the production of standardized plans to speed the design process. Louis A. Simon became Supervising Architect in 1934 after almost four decades working with the office. Considering the large number of building plans produced by the Office of the Supervising Architect, there is no way that Simon personally designed all the federal buildings constructed under his direction. However, most of the small post offices constructed during this period share a common layout, and Simon may have provided a basic plan that could be modified by staff architects for individual buildings.

Plans for the construction of the Rocky Ford Post Office were available in late 1934 and bids on construction opened. The building was to have the most modern of amenities. The first phase of the project was the demolition of the 1877 Swink House. The project was anticipated to take 6 months to complete. Unlike the work-relief model of the WPA, the PWA was a “pump primer” program designed to help the economy by spending money on construction. Local merchants benefited from the purchasing of materials for the project. The first order for material to be used in the new post office was placed in February 1935 with the local firm of Green & Babcock to supply 700 barrels of cement. PWA projects bid out projects to construction firms rather than hiring off the relief rolls as the WPA did. However, the Rocky Ford Gazette Topic reported that local labor would be used as much as possible.

Initial construction of the post office began in March 1935, but was soon delayed due to the discovery of the water level at 18 inches below the bottom of the main building footings. A raft foundation was used to prevent the building from sinking, and construction again commenced in August 1935. The building was completed in March 1936. The estimated final cost of the project was $55,000.

With the Great Depression, fewer people could afford to patronize the arts, severely impacting the careers of artists. The Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts provided employment by sponsoring artwork in federal buildings. Many of the post offices constructed during the Depression were decorated with murals or other artworks commissioned by the Section of Fine Arts. Funds for artwork were based on 1% of the total appropriation for the building’s construction. Victor Higgins was hired to paint a mural above the postmaster’s office at the south end of the lobby. It memorializes the early river crossings at Rocky Ford. The painting is on canvas, finished in 1936 shortly after the completion of the Post Office. The title of the piece is “The First Crossing at Rocky Ford” and depicts a Conestoga wagon with a woman driver starting into a river while a man on horseback leads.

Higgins was born in Indiana to an Irish farm family. His first paintings decorated the interior of his family’s barn. In 1899, at age 15, Higgins left for Chicago to study art. He worked a variety of jobs to pay for tuition at the Chicago Art Institute. In 1914, Higgins moved to Taos, New Mexico, becoming part of the Taos Art Colony. He achieved great success over the next two decades, exhibiting his work widely (including the Luxemborg in France and the Venice Biennale) and being elected to the National Academy.

Some residents from Fowler attended the open house in March 1936 to “see if Uncle Sam had made an improvement commensurate with the needs of that city, and they found that he had.” They reported that the building was “attractive and commodious.” The Fowler Tribune also reported that “Uncle Sam is a fiend after lights and plumbing. The new building has electric outlets everywhere, and the plumbing is all that could be desired.” The post office was lauded as “one of the best and most modernly equipped structures in Colorado with every convenience to care for each phase of service.”

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