U.S. Post Office & Federal Building

219 Washington Ave Oshkosh

Explore Historic Washington Avenue in Oshkosh, Wis./U.S. Post Office & Federal Building
Oshkosh Public Library
Written By Oshkosh Public Library

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From a single log cabin to a 110,000-square foot complex, the Oshkosh Post Office has grown with the city and been an “index to the prosperity of the community." Two of the buildings that housed the U.S. Post Office in Oshkosh were located along Washington Avenue - one is still standing today.

Mail Service Comes to Oshkosh

On March 12, 1840, Postmaster General Amos Kendall established Oshkosh’s first post office and President Martin Van Buren appointed John P. Gallup as postmaster. Gallup opened the post office in a room at his home - a log cabin located near the first settler monument at the intersection of Bowen Street and Bay Shore Drive. Postmaster Gallup contracted with Chester Ford to carry the mail once a week on horseback from Fond du Lac. As you can imagine, Ford's job was not easy.

The first trip made by Mr. Ford was a light one, and the mail was carried in his coat pocket; consisting of one letter and one newspaper; highly suggestive of the greatest impropriety of robbing the mail. His mail was light, but not so his task, when we consider that it was carried through Indian country, through deep snow in winter and deep morass in summer, but with few stopping places, and those not always first class “Hotels”. - Biographical and statistical history of the city of Oshkosh, Winnebago Co., Wisconsin: its early history, progress, and present condition (1867)

During the first decade of service, mail delivery occurred weekly or semi-weekly and was a community event. On delivery day, a large crowd would gather at the post office to hear the postmaster read out the names of those who received mail. If someone was absent, the townspeople would track them down to let them know they had mail. Mail was often sent collect, especially in new territories such as Oshkosh. Before postage stamps were introduced, residents paid the postmaster directly, and since Oshkosh had no bank, the postmaster was responsible for the money. One early postmaster even placed the currency under his bed each night for safe keeping.

First Government Building

When mail service began, 135 settlers lived in Winnebago County. By the time free daily mail delivery to individual homes started 42 years later, more than 15,000 people lived here. In the first 50 years of mail service, the post office was in the postmaster's home or another leased space. During that period, the post office moved 13 times and was destroyed by fire on three separate occasions, the last time during the Great Fire of 1875. By the 1880s, community growth made the need for an official federal post office building clear to Postmaster Col. Henry B. Harshaw and others.

The first federal post office building, located on the northwest corner of Jefferson Street and Washington Avenue, opened in the spring of 1890. Designed by architect William Waters, the impressive red brick building with Bedford limestone trim also housed the court house and other government offices.

The building was demolished in 1939.

A Move to 219 Washington Ave.

By the 1920s, the city’s mail delivery needs had outgrown the building at Jefferson and Washington. Congressman Florian Lampert championed a new post office building for Oshkosh, making the first request in the United States House of Representatives in 1919. Not until 1926 did plans for a new post office truly gain momentum under Postmaster Ernest P.G. Schlerf, who argued that increased mail volume demanded a new, larger facility. The site was purchased on Sept. 24, 1928 and construction began seven weeks later.

The new post office was one of thousands of government buildings credited to James A. Wetmore. A long-time employee of the Treasury Department, Wetmore began his career as a 22-year-old stenographer and steadily rose through the ranks at Treasury until accepting the position of Acting Supervising Architect in 1915.

Though not an architect, Wetmore had a deep respect for the profession and kept a strong rapport with the architects and draftsmen of the Treasury Department. He served as Acting Supervising Architect for nearly 20 years, retiring in 1934 and never allowing his position to be classified as permanent.

You can still see his name on the cornerstones of hundreds of federal buildings throughout the country, including this one.

Built by Magee & Ganley Bros. Co. of St. Paul, Minneapolis, the building officially opened for business on Feb. 24, 1931. The exterior is finished with Bedford limestone and green trim, which is consistent with the neighborhood's style.

The upper floors had offices for Navy recruitment, the Internal Revenue Service and War Department. It also featured a large room used to administer civil service exams - the first and only room serving this purpose in the area.

The lobby was impressive. The construction supervising engineer thought the lobby’s marble pillars, walls and bronze lock boxes, made it “the most beautiful of any he had supervised." Fun fact: The interior contained a system of “loopholes” or “spyholes” which could be used to observe staff members suspected of tampering with the mail. The vault was rigged to release tear gas in case of a break-in.

On The Move Again

By the mid-1960s, Oshkosh had again outgrown its post office. In 1966, the Oshkosh post office handled the third highest mail volume in the state and served fifty-two communities in the region. Traffic around the Washington Avenue building was described as having “reached intolerable proportions."

In 1968, the federal government leased land from the Winnebago County Airport, later renamed Wittman Regional Airport, for a massive modern facility. The 110,000 square-foot facility opened on 20th Avenue in July 1974.

The building at 219 Washington Ave. served as a branch post office until 1975. Since that time, a variety of businesses and government agencies have used it, including former Congressman William Steiger and Sen. Ron Johnson.

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