Historic Federal Building

Dubuque’s Historic Federal Building, formerly known as the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, is located in the heart of downtown Dubuque, Iowa, and fronts Washington Park. Construction of the building commenced in 1932 and was completed in 1934. The building, which was designed in the art deco style, displays the strong rectilinear qualities that influenced modern architecture in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The building has a form that is similar to public architecture of earlier periods, but most of the elaborate ornamentation found on buildings from previous eras was omitted. The result is clean and restrained, yet still monumental. Many civic buildings constructed during the great depression display this reserved quality. 

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The building consists of a centrally placed projecting, four-story tower flanked by three-storm wings. The tower was originally designed to accommodate an observation room for the local weather bureau. The exterior is clad in cream-colored Bedford limestone cut into ashlar (squared and smooth) blocks. Decorative details that are consistent with typical art deco ornamentation are found on the building. These include stylized flowers, swags, dentils (rectangular blocks), and chevron (v-shaped) elements. The corners of the tower are chamfered with a 45-degree bevel cut and contain stylized eagle motifs that express the federal government’s presence in Dubuque. The tall, vertical windows are evenly spaced and have bronze mullions, which are common on art deco architecture. The windows are separated by fluted pilasters (attached columns) that add to the classical appeal of the building’s design.

The interior features several important murals in the lobby vestibule. The murals were funded with $2,000 of the original money allotted for construction of the building. Although a competition to select an artist was held, officials intended to select Grant Wood, the famous Iowa painter of “American Gothic” to complete the murals. When Wood did not enter the competition, William E.L. Bunn was selected. The selection was subsequently overturned in favor of a painter named Bertram Adams. As a compromise, both Bunn and Adams, who each studied and worked with Wood and were friends from the University of Iowa, were allowed to paint murals. Adams painted “Early Settlers of Dubuque” in 1936 and 1937. The painting depicts several symbols of the city’s pioneering days, such as the Julien Dubuque monument and the Mesquakie Native American village. Adams also represented impending industrialization by painting the shot tower and a bridge. Bunn painted “Early Mississippi Packet ‘Dubuque 111’” (also referred to as “Early Mississippi Steamboats”) at the same time. His mural illustrates life in Dubuque in 1870, when steamboats were a primary method of transportation in the Midwest. The two murals show a harmony of scale and color use. 

The lobby is also decorated with American walnut veneer panels topped by an ornamental cornice with designs of leaves and circles. Bronze grilles with geometric patters are a typical art deco feature. The main staircase on the north end of the building is richly finished with rose-gray marble wainscot, stairs, and landings. The brushed aluminum railing adds a strong art deco character to the space. 

The Dubuque City Council Chambers, formerly a courtroom, are located on the second floor. Cardiff green marble encircles the base of the room. American walnut paneling is laid in a herringbone pattern and topped with a scalloped band of wood. The scalloped motif is repeated in metal grilles and furniture. The most elaborate feature of the room is the plaster cornice with carved dentils, leaves, floral designs and chevrons highlighted with metallic paint. 

Historically, federal public buildings were designed to welcome visitors and to convey the important role the government played in the daily lives of its citizens. Integrated into the design of many of these buildings are inscriptions and works of art depicting the civil functions housed within them. It is a testimony to the durability of these design and construction standards that many of these buildings continue to serve the purpose for which they were originally built, while others demonstrate the ability of historic public buildings to serve new functions. 

As part of the City of Dubuque’s commitment to its downtown and historic preservation, the City acquired this building as Historic Surplus Property from the Federal Government through the General Services Administration (GSA) for $1 on July 1, 2006. 

As a condition of the City to acquire the property for historic monument purposes, a “Program of Preservation and Utilization” (PPU) was developed and submitted to the National Park Service. The PPU will be updated biennially to record changes to the building as long as the City remains its owner. 

The City then conducted a $3.1 million renovation of the building in 2007, the goals of which were to maintain the architectural excellence of the building while also making it useful, safe, and accessible. The renovation included: 

  • Conversion of the former courtroom on the second floor to a public auditorium and meeting facility.
  • Conversion of the jury deliberation rooms to a small meeting room and a remote broadcast studio for CityChannel Dubuque.
  • The former office of the Social Security Administration on the third floor became the offices of the City’s Housing & Community Development Department. The renovated area will contain a public reception area, approximately 20 office spaces, an ADA-compliant bathroom and a break room for all third-floor tenants. This included a complete renovation by relocating interior walls, painting, flooring replacement, and installation of voice and data systems backbone technology throughout the building.
  • Partial restoration and exterior painting of the building’s historically significant steel windows.
  • New landscaping, a monumental sign, period lighting, and decorative sidewalks.
  • Other items included in the project were: miscellaneous ADA improvements to upgrade accessibility of the building’s public spaces, a dedication plaque, mechanical system improvements, and electrical system improvements, the addition of a “green roof” to the second floor light well.