The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, November 30, 2018

Masons rehab classic federal/postal building

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING - Before winter sets in, union masons have given the exterior of the Charles E. Chamberlain Federal Building and Post Office a brisk shower, some new joints, and plenty of TLC under its Mankato limestone exterior.

On the job since June, BAC Local 2 pointers/caulkers/cleaners employed by Cusack's Masonry Restoration, have removed, repaired, replaced and power-washed hundreds of yellow limestone wall panels at the classic building, which sits across Allegan Street from the Michigan Capitol Building. Constructed in 1932, its application to the National Register of Historic Places calls the block-long structure "one of the most imposing 1930s post offices in Michigan."

Cusacks's Masonry Restoration owners Nancy and Doug Cusack said the project, which is slated to be complete next May, basically involves the cleaning and rehabilitation of the entire exterior of the building, "The work has moved along very well," said Nancy Cusack last week. "We have done a lot of work this year, and before too long we will wrap things up and wait until spring to continue."

The project has involved the removal of hundreds of 6x10-foot stone panels, weighing about 2,500 lbs. each, as well as the removal of about 5,000 capstones. Doug Cusack said many of the original steel "strip anchors" in place behind the stones had rusted and deteriorated, leaving the stones loose and certainly a concern to the building's owner, the Government Services Administration (GSA).

"We knew going in that there would definitely be a few unforeseens as we got into the job," said Doug Cusack. "And there have been. Sometimes the stone next to a stone was the only thing holding it in place. But it's been an interesting, challenging and satisfying project. We love being able to bring the exterior of the building back to its original state."

According to the GSA, the building was originally constructed as a post office in the "Egyptian Revival" style. The GSA said it acquired the building from the U.S. Postal Service in 1976, and its website says the building's major tenants include the U.S. District Court, Court of Appeals, bankruptcy courts, and the Federal Highway Administration. Other tenants include the U.S. Marshals Service, Department of Labor, Probation and Pre-trial Services, Public Defender, Attorneys, Postal Service, Mine Safety and Health Administration, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Transportation.

In 1987 the building was named after Charles E. Chamberlain, Michigan's Sixth Congressional District Representative from 1957-74.

The two-story, 223-foot-long building has a symmetrical facade with dual entrances on the ends on the Allegan Street front (which are also being repaired). Built by the Christman Co., the project was completed under the Public Works Administration, which created jobs for the millions of Americans out of work during the Great Depression. A 1960 addition in back is simpler in design than the original building, but uses the same materials.

Even though it was constructed during the Great Depression, this and other post offices in Michigan were seen as important local edifices and were built to be a source of community pride. On the building's interior, the public lobby and entrance halls have walls of gold-flecked, grayish marble and with travertine and synthetic marble. The ceilings are divided into long recessed panels lined with fluorescent lighting fixtures of ribbed glass. The stair halls have metal grille doors and open staircases with grille-work rails.

The National Register application for the Flint Post Office building points out that it and the postal buildings erected in Bay City, Jackson and Lansing were the only large post office built in Michigan during the 1930s. "Many more post office buildings and at least two post office/federal buildings were constructed in Michigan during the later 1930s, but nearly all were small and simple buildings by comparison with these four large and elaborately detailed buildings," the application said. 

"It's a beautiful building, and the stonework is just phenomenal," Doug Cusack said. "Working on it gives you an appreciation for the skills of the original masons who didn't nearly have the equipment we have today."

THE BEFORE AND AFTER effects of power-washing the exterior limestone panels of the lovely Charles E. Chamberlain Federal Building and Post Office are made evident by Tim Holliday of Bricklayers and Craftworkers Local 2. He’s at work power washing, employed by Cusacks’s Masonry Restoration.