This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.
Of the various buildings that were significantly damaged on 9/11, the Federal Building at 90 Church Street is, perhaps, the least discussed. Occupying a full city block, bordered by West Broadway, Barclay and Vesey Streets, the exterior damage was limited but the interior was badly contaminated by a toxic mix of dust, debris and mold, forcing all tenants to relocate.
The architect of this fine 15-story limestone building was Cross & Cross (with Pennington, Lewis & Mills), one of New York City’s most capable and versatile firms. Active during the first half of the 20th century, they designed a fine crop of iconic structures, including 20 Exchange Place and Tiffany’s at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. The Federal Building, which was commissioned by the Treasury Department, had a dual purpose: to replace a Victorian-era post office that for half a century occupied the south end of City Hall Park, and to provide much-needed office space for government agencies. During the Depression years, construction projects created jobs while reducing future outlays to private landlords.
Construction, which started in 1935, was mostly completed by 1937 when the mezzanine post office opened. Like many government buildings, which date from this time, the exterior is vaguely classical, monumental in scale, and decorated with patriotic details including stars, stripes and, at the corner of each facade, large stylized eagles. On either end of the Church Street facade are large circular reliefs that likely represent night and day. Like the inscription that extends across the front elevation of the earlier James A. Farley Post Office on Eighth Avenue (“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom…”), these contrasting male and female images were meant to express the Church Street Station’s round-the-clock commitment to the public. Both the eagles and reliefs are attributed to the prolific German-American sculptor Carl Paul Jennewein, who also produced noteworthy decorations for Rockefeller Center and Brooklyn’s Central Library on Grand Army Plaza.
After 9/11, a major renovation was undertaken (the second to occur in less than a decade). Completed in 2004, the exterior was repaired and many of the office floors were entirely rebuilt. As part of this project, the front lobby and post office were beautifully restored. These polished public spaces are among Lower Manhattan’s finest Art Deco interiors, laid out with terrazzo floors, marble columns, incised glass ceiling panels and wrought aluminum grillwork. Like much of the best design produced during the late 1930s, these silvery decorative elements have a simple and steely elegance, handsome without being extravagant.
– Matthew A. Postal