The headline of the Northfield News ran across the top of the entire front page on Oct. 30, 1936: “New Postoffice Building Completed.” There were four subheadings: “Public Invited To Join ‘Open House’ Today; Open House To Be Conducted By Postmaster Heibel And Assistants; Convenience And Beauty Stressed; Northfield’s Federal Building Unique in Appointments And Architecture.”
Word that this iconic structure which faces diagonally toward the Cannon River and Bridge Square may no longer be used as a post office has hit many Northfielders hard. At the time of its opening, the town took great pride in the construction of the building, built at a cost of $87,444.15, with $31,000 additional for the site, according to the article. The post office moved from the MacKay Building at 314 S. Division St., where it had been housed since March of 1925. The change fulfilled hopes that went back 25 years, said the News, but the wait was worth it because the “new building is unique in its design and unusually well placed.”
Charles Legris, Treasury construction engineer, was quoted as saying, “I do not believe that another town in the Northwest of Northfield’s size has a more beautiful building.” It is “far different from the usual stereotyped design, is complete and commodious, a fine addition to what I have learned to know as a fine and beautiful little city.”
An average of 35 men were engaged in the construction of the building, with work started in March of 1936 by the James Leck Company of Minneapolis, general contractors. It was built as a WPA project under the New Deal. By mid-October, the tall, white flag pole had been erected, the terrazzo flooring had been laid and the lobby surfaced with “beautiful Mankato stone with a base border of Montana gold marble.” The exterior was rock-faced limestone, in a Gothic Revival style designed to “express the collegiate atmosphere of Northfield.”
Northfield’s postal history goes back to the first office a mile and a half west of Northfield called “Fountain Grove.” It was established in the fall of 1855, the year in which John North founded the town. On May 15, 1856, John North’s wife Ann wrote her grandmother, “We now have a post office here so that letters to us may be directed to Northfield, Rice Co. Minn.”
The Northfield News of March 6, 1931, announced the Bridge Square location of the new post office, made possible by an appropriation of $125,000 by Congress the preceding year. The story noted that it is “not only centrally-located, but will mean an important improvement of the city. Federal buildings are frequently located on side streets so that the Northfield situation is regarded as unusual.” Six property owners were affected. Another story in the News of June 17, 1932, with the headline, “Old Landmarks on Site of New Post office are Victims of Time’s March,” said that work had begun to clear the property. The Northfield Furnace company office and shop, dating back to 1865, was wrecked and the city’s first gasoline station (Standard Oil, erected in 1919) was moved to Division and 7th streets.
Disagreement over the price asked for the site by the property owners led to condemnation proceedings and further red tape. But at long last, an open house was held on October 30, 1936. The Northfield Independent of Nov. 5 said that comments were made on the beauty, convenience and substantial construction by 1,500 people who toured the new facility. Postmaster Carl C. Heibel noted that Northfield had an unusually large volume of parcel post mail. In fact, on a visit to the South St. Paul post office which served a community three times as large as Northfield, Heibel found that on that particular day the South St. Paul post office had delivered 16 parcel post packages within city limits, while Northfield was averaging 500-750 per day, not including rural routes. The South St. Paul postal officials “smiled incredulously” when Heibel told them the figures. Heibel told the newspaper that letter mail was running about a thousand pieces ahead of the previous year.
Evidently some Northfielders had commented on the size of the building, because the government engineer, Legris, said federal records show that the life of a federal post office until it is outgrown is 25 years. The story in the Independent said that most people were skeptical of that average and “some are inclined to believe that the new building will serve the city for 250 years rather than 25 years only.”
It is yet to be seen if the building will reach its 75th anniversary as a post office facility in October of this year.