WELLSVILLE — Historic groups, officials and individuals in the area are looking at historical buildings in the hope of receiving grant funds for revitalization. However, one of Wellsville’s most historically significant buildings, the Post Office on Pearl Street, is out of the running, due to the truncated submission time and the fact that it is federally owned.
Although far from the oldest building in the village, the 90-year-old building is historically relevant.
Oldtimers used to say that due to the oil industry and the Sinclair Refinery, the residents of Wellsville didn’t suffer as much during the Great Depression as did those in other parts of Allegany County and the nation.
Constructed at the height of the Depression from 1931 to 1934 the post office building project must have offered much-appreciated work for local laborers, just as it did for its architect.
According to papers filed for the Post Office’s 1989 application to be included on the National Register of Historic Places, “Little is known about the principal designer of the Wellsville Post Office, Walter B. Olmsted, except that he was a native of the Wellsville area.”
The Wellsville post office is architecturally significant because it is an example of the federal architecture erected as part of the public works project initiated by the U.S. government during the Great Depression. The building was designed in a refined Classical Revival style using features derived from the Greek Revival style, such as the two-story limestone pilasters of the facade and the repeated Greek fret decoration.
Historically, many of the post offices constructed in New York state during this time were designed in a Colonial Revival style.
However, the building that has served as the post office for the last nine decades, was not Wellsville’s post office site. The first was established in 1835 by Dr. George B. Jones, more than 20 years before the village was officially established. Traditionally, post offices then were located in the business or residence of the postmaster, so Wellsville’s first post office was located in the doctor’s office on Main Street.
Over the next 100 years the post office had many locations. It was located on Jefferson Street just before Congress authorized the present building in 1928. Construction was delayed because funds were not appropriated until 1931, when an amendment was passed that authorized 136 new post offices and post office extensions for New York state as part of the public works project.
The entry is decorated with a low-relief Greek key motif, which is reiterated in a decorative course that divides the first and second stories. On the principal facade there are six windows that are surmounted by paneled stone lentils. Each wing features windows identical to those of the central windows except in the single front bays where they are flanked by half pallisters articulated with Greek fret moldings and panels.
Through heavy bronze doors patrons step onto a marble floor laid in a geometrical design and into a lobby where wainscoting rises to a height of nine feet ending in a guilt incised band of stylized flowers. The walls are embellished with fluted beige marble pilasters topped with guilt incised capitals. The coffered ceiling incorporates rosettes painted in red, silver and gold on a blue background.
Perhaps the most distinguishing features are the two 11-foot-long and 4-foot-high panels depicting the formation of the first League of Peace of the Iroquois Confederation and the story of Mary Jemison, the “White Woman of the Genesee.”
The artworks were sculpted specifically for the building by H.K. Bush-Brown and Fred Cowels.
From 1934 to 1943, the New Deal murals and sculptures seen in post offices were produced under the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, later called the Section of Fine Arts.
This program was not directed toward providing economic relief, instead, the art placed in Post Offices was intended to help boost the morale of people suffering the effects of the Great Depression with art that, in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was, “native, human, eager and alive — all of it painted by their own kind in their own country and painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved.”
Artists competed anonymously in national and regional contests for the projects.
Olmsted collaborated with Frederick V. Murphy of Washington, D.C. on the building design as consulting architects to the office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury. According to the historic register application, they were among a relatively small number of architects in private practice who were recruited by the government to design post offices during the public building programs of the 1930s that were designed to relieve unemployment caused by the Depression.
While other buildings in the village are being “written up” for the revitalization grant, in this time of economic need, the Wellsville Post Office stands alone as a guardian of another era when federal programs helped save a floundering nation.