Back in the 1930s, during the height of the Great Depression, the United States Post Office went on a building spree. The Works Progress Administration, (WPA) that great New Deal agency that put millions of desperate people back to work, sponsored the building. New post office branches went up all across the country, the largest building project for the PO, ever. The architects who were chosen to design these buildings were also from all over the country, and were varied in talents, styles and materials. Some of the post offices were Art Deco in style, while others were designed in many of the other popular styles of the day, most especially the Colonial Revival style, reminiscent of our Federal-era buildings.
Ever since the turn of the 20th century, Americans had been in love with Colonial Revival architecture. It resonated with the national feeling of patriotism, so important during this time of national economic struggle. The architecture was reminiscent of the Founding Fathers, the Revolutionary War, and the gracious life of the Georgian period. Good red brick, white painted wood trim, Palladium windows, Classical Greco-Roman details, what’s not to love? It was quintessential America, and considered eminently suitable for a national service such as the US Post Office.
Here in New York City, one of the architects chosen to design some of the post office branches was Eric Kebbon. He was a New Yorker, and a 1912 graduate of M.I.T. He was the president of his class, and very popular with both students and teachers. After studying abroad for a few years, he came back to M.I.T. as resident architect. Associated with Welles Bosworth, a noted architectural firm, he designed new structures for the school during their $6 million dollar campus building plan.
In 1917 Kebbon was a commissioned captain in the Corp of Engineers, and was later promoted to major. After the war, he returned to Welles Bosworth, and was lead architect for that firm’s American Telegraph and Telephone Company Building on Broadway, and the Western Union Building, both in Lower Manhattan. Between 1921 and 1938, Kebbon had his own firm. During that time, between 1934 and 1935, he also served as the consulting architect to the United States Treasury Department. He designed post offices and courthouses in Tallahassee, Florida, Greenville, South Carolina and post offices in Poughkeepsie, NY and in New York City.
Kebbon ended up designing five post office branches in New York City and suburbs. All except one are on the National Register of Historic Places. Three of the branches are in Manhattan, one in Bronxville, and the last in Far Rockaway, Queens, at 18-36 Mott Avenue. They are all good; the Lenox Hill station in Manhattan might be the largest and most ornate, but this one is quite different from the others, and is a fine example of civic architecture.
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello was the inspiration for the design. Kebbon took the iconic domed polygonal central pavilion and pedimented entrance of the mansion and incorporated it into his post office. He made the everyday act of mailing a letter or receiving a package special by designing one of the most elegant entrances any post office could have. McKim, Mead & White’s Central Post Office in Manhattan may be a temple, suitable for the rich captains of industry and the Gilded Age, but this was a post office for the people, battered by the economic forces around them, but still dignified and very much American.
The grand entrance vestibule is not unique to this post office, but it was unusual for the time. Kebbon also made the interior sumptuous as well. He mixed various types of marble in the interior, creating a fine interior. Very few post offices of this period were as nice. The rest of the building was true to the Colonial Revival civic design of the day: brick construction and otherwise symmetrical features.
Designed in 1935, the construction took almost a year, and the post office opened with great fanfare in 1936. It was an unusual move to base the design of a post office on an historic mansion, and then kit it out so richly, especially at this time in American architectural history, but it worked. The Far Rockaway Post Office was a huge success.
Kebbon was quite well known due to his post offices, and was able to go back to private practice. In spite of the Depression, there were still wealthy people desiring homes, and Kebbon made a good living designing country houses in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts. He also designed new suburban housing developments.
In 1938, he was appointed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to the position of architect to the Board of Education and Superintendent of School Construction, a position once held by the great CBJ Snyder. Like his predecessor, Kebbon made his mark on NYC’s school buildings. He held the position from 1938 to 1951, during which time Kebbon designed over one hundred buildings or annexes for the city public schools throughout the five boroughs.
Among his many school buildings designed during his long tenure were Forest Hills High School and Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn. He also designed Joan of Arc Junior High School in Manhattan, Queens Valley School, and Herman Ridder Junior High School in the Bronx. His James Fenimore Cooper Junior High School in Manhattan received a certificate of merit from the New York State Association of Architects, and he also received an award from the Municipal Arts Society.
In addition to his other talents, Eric Kebbon was also a fine painter and sculptor. He belonged to a number of associations, and was a fellow in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), was a Vice President of the Architectural League, and was on the National Council of Schoolhouse Design. He was also a member of the National Academy of Design, the National Sculpture Society, the Society of Mural Painters, the Society of Officers of World War I, and a was a charter member of the American Society of Military Engineers.
Eric Kebbon lived at 1105 Park Avenue. He took one last position with McKim, Mead & White between 1956 and 1958, adding his expertise to that eminent firm. He then retired. He died a few years later, in 1964, at the age of 73. He left behind his widow, a son and daughter and grandchildren. Although he is not a household name, his impact on the city was significant. Most New Yorkers don’t know his name, but perhaps subconsciously appreciate his talent as they wait in long lines to mail packages, or send their kids to school. GMAP
(Photo:Daniel Winter for Wikipedia)