30 April 2013

Receiving the Mail on the Farm in Jasper County

Rensselaer Post Office with the Jasper County Courthouse in the background.
Until 2009 I had been to Rensselaer only twice in my life.  Once I had driven through it on the way to Remington; actually I was driving through Remington also.  This was back when I would just pick a route in my college days and then just drive.  The second time was on the job for a potential project associated with Drexel Hall (Indian Normal School), a part of St. Joseph College.  But in 2009 I was invited to take a look at the city's New Deal-era post office and its downtown for possible National Register nominations.

So I drove into the Jasper County seat of government, spied their amazing courthouse, and quickly noted that the street grid threw me off my Midwest-mindset that streets go north-south and east-west.  After multiple trips to Rensselaer, I still get confused which way I'm heading until I leave town and become re-acclimated with polar north.

The Rensselaer Post Office, built in 1937, is fairly non-descript and was designed in a style that became known as "starved classicism".  This was due to the fact that leading up to the Great Depression the United States Postal Office was building more and more elaborate buildings in high classical or colonial revival styles and that just wasn't going to fly under the stretched budget of Depression-era America, regardless of the USPS being a recipient of New Deal funding for construction.


So, the post office's chief architect during the 1930s stripped away all the frills of more exuberant times and primarily focused his attention on the entry areas in new construction.  This is why post office after post office constructed during the 1930s all look very much the same (they repeated the pattern almost to a T).  But the Rensselaer Post Office has one exciting thing that differentiates it from the scads of other post offices around the country and puts it in good company with only a handful of other Hoosier Depression-era post offices.  It was the recipient of a large mural in its lobby.

The mural was also created under an arts project of the New Deal.  The mural was painted by John Costigan, a well-known East Coast artist who had received a commission for two other post office murals outside of Indiana.  The Rensselaer mural is called Receiving the Mail on the Farm and it was completed in 1938.  Costigan's commission was $670.  Several other Indiana post offices have retained their historic murals painted under this program (more coming to this blog soon).  Only one has been lost.  A book by John Carlisle called A Simple and Vital Design explores all of Indiana's post office murals.  Occasionally I find myself in a community I recall from Carlisle's book and get the itch to pay a visit to the post office lobby.....one of America's last great meeting places.

"Receiving the Mail on the Farm"
The Rensselaer Post Office's National Register nomination is pending review by...well...the USPS, and it's been 4 years.  At one point the nomination had ironically been "lost in the mail."  No kidding.  The good folks in Rensselaer are anxious to have the mural cleaned and restored.  Godspeed.

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