Old Las Vegas Post Office & Federal Courthouse

one of the places I found most interesting in downtown Vegas was the courtroom on the second floor of what is now the Mob Museum, and what once served as the Las Vegas Post Office and a Federal Courthouse. the Mob Museum (about which more later) was interesting, but I was somewhat dismayed by how generic most of the building felt. the courtroom was one of the few places in the museum that not only retained its original character but also used the feeling to the benefit of the exhibit.

an Federal administrator named James Wetmore oversaw the design and construction of the Las Vegas Courthouse. he began working for the government as a court reporter, then for the Treasury Department while he worked on a law degree from George Washington University. in 1911 Wetmore became executive assistant to the Supervising Architect of the Treasury; four years later he became “acting head” of the department in the expectation the post would be temporary. he retired from that position 18 years later and in the intervening years saw his name go onto buildings from Des Moines (US Courthouse) to Juneau (State Capitol) to Baltimore (Post Office & Courthouse) to Albuquerque (Federal Building & Courthouse), as well as the courthouse in Vegas. during his tenure overseeing New Deal works projects, Wetmore supervised 1,700 draughtsmen and had his name inscribed on the cornerstones of over 2,000 federal buildings.

stylistic decisions fell to a subordinate, Louis Simon, who exhibited a fierce preference for the classical style.  (have you ever wondered why so many federal buildings of the 1930s have such a similar classical or neo-classical style? now you know why!) both aesthetic frustrations (a desire to experiment with more modern styles, such as Art Deco and Moderne) and the use of in-house architects rekindled an animosity between Wetmore’s office and the American Institute of Architects. the Depression had taken a notable toll on the employment prospects of the members of the AIA and during the 1920s, Wetmore nearly doubled his staff (to some 750 people). how can your private sector members expect to find work on large projects, notably those funded by one of the few places with money to spend, when they’re bursting with workers? moreover, although a 1926 act allowed the government to commission private architects to work on projects, it did so sparingly.

the Las Vegas Post Office was part of the federal building program initiated by Hoover and went up between 1931 and 1933. neo-classical in style, the design aimed to inspire similarly tasteful private architecture endeavors; the owners of existing and future casinos took no notice and made no effort to follow the governmental example. undertaken at the same time as the nearby Hoover Dam, the Post Office & Courthouse was the first federal building (excluding a smaller post office built a few years earlier) constructed in Las Vegas and, for law-abiding citizens, proved a source of pride. (perhaps for those citizens living or working outside the bounds of legality, too …) when it opened, the first floor offered 11 windows for postal service transactions; fewer remain in use today, but we did buy our entrance tickets from someone behind one of those windows.

once construction began, problems cropped up — for a start, it was discovered that the building was 32 feet off-center from Third Street. footprint already excavated and foundation already poured, the  intended impressive/imposing view down that avenue had to be abandoned. shortly thereafter, it came to light that the company that won the contracting bid (by undercutting their nearest competition by $10,000) had forged important signatures; his contract was terminated, a grand jury convened, and a new bidding process launched. once a new bid was accepted six months later, work continued without incident until the post office began operating in November 1933.

the building was named to the National Register of Historic Places in thirty years ago last week and continued operating as a post office for several years. the government turned over control of the building, to become a museum and cultural center, in 2002; the Mob Museum opened this time last year.

Mount Rushmore

I started this post right after we got back from South Dakota in September, but wasn’t inspired to complete it until I saw a StoryCorps piece on NPR about one of the stone carvers who helped craft the monument.

growing up, my family was big on road trips and on visiting Sites of Historical Importance (see also: Boston’s Freedom Trail) and Mount Rushmore and western South Dakota were on that list. I must have been … between second and third grads, or so. what I remember most from that trip is washing dishes at our campsite in what seemed an unexpectedly dense coniferous forest. it reminded me a lot of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or northern Wisconsin. also, that the Crazy Horse monument underwhelmed because they’d only completed his forehead and profile of his nose. (also, “Rount Mushmore.”)

one upside to visiting places while young, and returning later, is that appreciation can be twofold. my recollections of Mount Rushmore are vague but rosy and, now that I can place its construction into historical context, I’m rather more impressed.

the massive carving, suggested by Doane Robinson in the early 1920s, sought to entice tourists to the Black Hills. both environmentalists and Native American tribes objected to various proposed locations, but eventually supporters and opponents settled on this mountain (the tallest in the region, renamed for a New York lawyer  from the original Lakota name, Six Grandfathers). (for purposes of this post, I’ll forego discussing the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and ongoing tensions between the U.S. government and the Lakota people for whom the Black Hills are sacred.) Robinson convinced sculptor Gutzon Borglum (who had lately worked on the face of Robert E. Lee at Stone Mountain, Georgia) to come to the Black Hills to ensure the completion of the project. Borglum died before the completion of the monument, but his son, Lincoln, carried on in his stead.

political and financial wrangling ensued: Congress authorized a commission to oversee the project; President Coolidge insisted that, in addition to President Washington, the monument include two Republicans and one Democrat — Borglum based his final selections on the role the Presidents had on preserving “the Republic” as well as expanding territory for said Republic.

between the start of construction in October 1927 and its completion in October 1941, some 400 people worked on constructing the monument. nearly 90% of the carving was done by dynamite; blasters could place charges specifically enough to blast rock off to within 3 inches of the final surface. once it got close enough, carvers switched to jackhammers, drilling a series of holes into the surface in a honeycomb patter to allow for more precise carving. this kicked up an incredible, fine dust. while they were provided with masks to prevent inhalation and subsequent damage to their lungs, the masks were stuffy and, in the direct sun hanging off the rock-face, many workers opted to go without. despite the dangerous working conditions, no one died during the course of the project, something rare for a monument of this size.

while the carvings at Mount Rushmore today don’t match the scope of what Borglum had in mind initially — head-to-waist high sculptures of the presidents, plus monuments to the Louisiana Purchase, Constitution & Declaration of Independence, as well as other territories, what stands today is pretty damn impressive.