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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
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The Dubuque Post Office was built in 1934 and remodeled in 2007 for government offices. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

POST OFFICE. The first post office in Dubuque was located on Main Street between Third and Fourth STREETS in the store of Milo H. Prentice, appointed the first postmaster in 1833. Jurisdiction over Dubuque came under the Territory of Michigan on June 28, 1834.

This period in Dubuque postal history lasted until the area fell under the control of the Wisconsin Territory from July 4, 1836, to July 3, 1838. Mail service expanded in 1836 when George Wallace JONES began a mail route with steamboats on the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. Before Jones began the business, mail took six months to reach the East. The new system reduced delivery to about one month. There were several CANCELS used on letters mailed during this time. Guy Morrison became the postmaster.

During the period Iowa was part of the Wisconsin Territory, the post office location moved to 7th and Iowa Street. It shared a building with the DUBUQUE VISITOR, which was operated by John KING, the postmaster. In 1837 the post office name was changed from Dubuque’s Mines to Dubuque.

In February, 1838, the citizens held a public meeting to devise ways and means to improve the mail service. A committee was appointed to petition Congress to afford additional mail facilities. This included: 1. A tri-weekly, four-horse, post coach route from Dubuque to Milwaukee,; 2. a weekly horse route to the center of Delaware county; 3. a weekly horse mail from Dubuque to the Cedar River settlement ; 4. an improvement of the mails between Dubuque and Chicago and between Dubuque and St. Louis.

In 1849 the post office was moved to the Globe Building. (1) It remained there until 1857. During this time, letters could be carried 3,000 for three cents with additional miles for ten cents. Dubuque had the only mail distributing office west of Chicago and north of St. Louis. The Dubuque post office moved to 6th and Iowa Street in 1857 for one year before being relocated in the Odd Fellows Hall at 8th and Locust streets. This location too proved brief. A fire led mail deliveries to be made from the Town Clock Building. In 1863 the mail distributing office was removed from Dubuque. The act was believed to be due to the opposition to the war shown here.

On March 1, 1859 the post office, according to federal law, advertised in the Express and Herald a list of all the letters left unclaimed in the post office. Broken down into a "Ladies List" and a "Gentlemen's List", the letters to be reclaimed had a charge placed on them of one cent. (2)

Postal employees were paid once monthly when the postal pay car arrived in Dubuque. In July, 1875 the post office clerks and mail agents (number of employees not known) were paid a total of $3,000. (3)

In 1876 a post office was opened in Key West. (4)

In 1892 the post office received its first electric stamp cancelling machine. (5) It proved to be the first in the state followed in 1894 by Cedar Rapids and Burlington. The "self-everything" machine had the capability of postmarking and cancelling stamps on mixed cards and letters at a rate of 30,000 per hour or 35,000 if cards were processed only. (6) In 1896 a newer machine not as complicated as previous models was installed. The government did not own but simply rented the machine that processed 34,000 letter per hour. (7) The Dubuque post office was one of 200 locations in the United States to test the new canceling machine manufactured by the Barry Postal Supply Company. With the proper gearing changes, the manufacturer stated the machine could handle 60,000 letter an hour. (8)

The Dubuque post office served many years as the depository of the postal funds for nearly one-half of the fourth class offices in Iowa. Once each quarter each postmaster was required to pay to the Dubuque office whatever balance was due the department. This amount was then sent to the sub-treasury in Chicago. Around 1891 the Dubuque post office was also made the depository for the third class money orders in the northern part of the state. In 1894 the combined collections of the two accounts amounted to several hundred thousand dollars. (9)

As Dubuque grew during the 1920s, the post office was not large enough to handle the increasing volume of mail. Rather than enlarge the existing building, city officials decided to construct a new post office. Congressman T. J. B. Robinson led the effort to secure a more appropriate postal facility. Officials determined that the new building would function as both a post office and courthouse.

The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse was constructed with funding from the 1926 Public Buildings Act, in which Congress appropriated monies for Federal buildings throughout the United States. Dubuque received approximately $650,000 for site acquisition and construction costs. Respected city planner John Nolen intended for the building to be part of his civic design, “Administrative Center at Washington Park,” which he developed in 1931.

The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse was designed by James A. Wetmore, Acting Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, who received suggestions from Iowa architects. Among the local designers was the office of Proudfoot, Rawson, Souers & Thomas, a highly respected Des Moines firm. This firm had designed high-profile public buildings in Iowa including the Polk County Courthouse in Des Moines and buildings for Iowa State University and the University of Iowa. Although little is known about the Dubuque architect involved in the project, Herbert Kennison, he probably served as an on-site consultant.

The building’s cornerstone was laid in 1932, and a dedication ceremony was held the following year. The building was occupied in early 1934. In 1985, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing resource within the Cathedral Historic District.

The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse was designed in the Art Deco style. The building had a form that was similar to public architecture of earlier periods, but most of the elaborate ornamentation found on buildings from previous eras was omitted. Many civic buildings constructed during the GREAT DEPRESSION display this reserved quality.

The building consisted of a centrally placed, projecting, four-story tower flanked by three-story 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, and chevron (V-shaped) elements. The corners of the tower 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 were separated by fluted columns.

The interior featured 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 hoped to choose Grant Wood, the famous Iowa painter of “American Gothic.” 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 depicted several symbols of the city’s pioneering days, such as the JULIEN DUBUQUE MONUMENT and the Mesquakie Native American village. Adams also represented the beginning of industrialization by painting the SHOT TOWER and a bridge. Bunn painted “Early Mississippi Packet ‘Dubuque III’” at the same time. His mural illustrated life in Dubuque in 1870 when steamboats were a primary method of transportation in the Midwest.

The lobby was decorated with American walnut veneer panels topped by an ornamental cornice with designs of leaves and circles. Bronze grilles with geometric patterns were a typical Art Deco feature. The main staircase on the north end of the building was finished with rose-gray marble wainscot, stairs, and landings. The brushed aluminum railing added a strong Art Deco character to the space.

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

Mail carrier pin.

Significant Events

1932–1934: U.S. Post Office and Courthouse constructed

1933: Cornerstone dedication ceremony

1935: Competition held to select artists for murals

1937: Murals by Bertrand Adams and William Bunn completed

1961: The Dubuque Post Office was designated a Management Sectional Center consisting of 81 post offices in northeast Iowa. The local post office was one of 552 sectional centers in the nation.

1969: The Postal Annex in the KIRBY BUILDING was opened.

1975: Federal postal authorities decided not to build a new $2.9 million post office with 39,000 square feet of space. (Telegraph-Herald, December 3, 1975, p. 1)

1978: The postal service acquired a permanent parking lot for its 50 vehicles at Fifth and Locust.

1985: U.S. Post Office and Courthouse listed in the NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES as a contributing resource within the Cathedral Historic District

A popular spring field trip for area school children was a trip to the post office. As many as three tours were given each week. Following the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma on April 19, 1995, tours of the Dubuque post office as well as others across the United States were ended. (10)

Consolidation of postal service in the United States led to processing being moved to Cedar Rapids. The renamed Dubuque Federal Building was taken over by the City of Dubuque in 2006. (11)

For information on the establishment and operation of the postal annex, see KIRBY BUILDING



1. Oldt, Franklin T. and Patrick J. Quigley. History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Goodspeed Historical Association, 1890, p. 87

2. "List of Letters Remaining in the Dubuque Post Office," Express and Herald, March 3, 1859, p. 3

3. "Caught on the Fly," The Daily Herald, July 31, 1875, p. 4

4. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, September 15, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760915&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

5. "Saves Much Labor," Dubuque Daily Herald, December 24, 1892, p. 4

6. "Rapid Dating," Dubuque Daily Herald, March 24, 1894, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18940324&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

7. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Daily Herald, November 12, 1896, p. 5

8. "Our Post Office," Dubuque Daily Herald, April 8, 1894, p. 8. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18940408&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

9. "Stamp Canceller," Dubuque Daily Herald, November 21, 1896, p. 8

10. Hettena, Seth, "Safety Concerns Forces Halt to Post Office Tours," Telegraph Herald, May 17, 1995, p. 6

11. "Lifetime Center Might Find New Home," Telegraph Herald, February 28, 2006, p. 1

Kruse, Len. "...neither snow nor rain nor heat not gloom of night..." Dubuque Folklore II, American Trust and Savings Bank, p. 85-89