This neighborhood post office is taken for granted by most local residents, but the next time you drop off a package or pick up your mail it’s worth pausing for a moment to appreciate both its design and history. The Uptown Post Office is of the Art Deco school of design as evidenced by its very geometric shape—the brass lines of the main doorway and windows are particularly striking, giving one the sense that they reach for the sky. The two granite eagles with their sharply chiseled lines proclaim, as one local tour guide put it, “the might of the machine age.” The Uptown Branch is also one of the few in Illinois with W.P.A. murals.
In 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.), later the Works Projects Administration, was created to provide economic relief to those suffering financial hardship. The Federal Art Project was the visual arts arm of the WPA and through its programs is reputed to have created 5,000 jobs and nearly a quarter of a million posters, paintings, sculptures, and murals—including some of the most significant public art of the period. Many federal post offices were designed and constructed as part of this program, including the Uptown Branch. Artists were selected through local and national competitions and were requested to produce works celebrating American life.
Many W.P.A. works of art have been lost over the years, but at the Uptown Branch one of these unique works has survived the passing decades. In 1943, painter and ceramist Henry Varnum Poor (1887-1970) was hired to create a work of art that would celebrate the people and history of Chicago. Poor, who was born in Chapman, Kansas, studied art at Stanford University and later spent time in London under Walter Sickert and in Paris at the Académie Julian. Although primarily known for his paintings, after the stock market crash of 1929 he focused on ceramics and murals. His most famous works include frescos at the Department of Justice and Department of Interior Buildings in Washington, D.C. and at Pennsylvania State University. He taught art at Columbia University and his work is on display in many American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Whitney Museum. He was one of the founders of the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine as well as the American Designers Gallery in New York and is the author of Artist Seeks Alaska (1945) and A Book of Pottery (1958).
Poor chose as his subject matter Uptown-area resident and poet Carl Sandburg and architect Louis Sullivan, who designed such Chicago classics as the Carson Pirie Scott building. The mural is made of ceramic tile and can be visited during regular post office hours.Other post offices in Chicago with W.P.A. artworks include: Central Anex, Kedzie-Grace, Lakeview, Logan Square, Loop, and Morgan Park.