Preservation

Moderne Landmark Deserves a “New Deal” With Historic Protections

December 4, 2020 | by Mary Manfredi

The Robert N. C. Nix Sr. Federal Building and United States Post Office was built between 1937–41 and designed by Harry Sternfeld and Ballinger Company. The Moderne landmark was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. However, the building is not designated historic on the Philadelphia Register and is not legally protected from alterations or demolition. | Image courtesy of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

A few years ago my mother sent me a newspaper article about the closure of the William Penn Annex Post Office in the Robert. N. C. Nix, Sr. Federal Courthouse. She circled the name Donald De Lue in the image credit. De Lue was a renowned sculptor who had executed several pieces on the facade of this building. My mother had taken an interest in his work from a young age when she visited the sculptor’s studio in the artist colony of Leonardo, New Jersey. She vividly remembers venturing into his workspace with my grandmother on several occasions to view his finished clay sculptures before they were shipped off and cast in bronze. As I learned of this remote family connection and began to explore De Lue’s life and works, I was shocked to learn that the Depression-era building that his reliefs reside on was not listed on the Philadelphia Register.

Without a local historic designation to legally protect the building, the Robert N. C. Nix, Sr. Federal Building remains vulnerable to demolition. Razing this building would erase New Deal public art that is scarce in Philadelphia’s current landscape–art that became synonymous with the style of federal buildings erected during the Depression. It would also further diminish the contributions of De Lue, who used this federal art commission in the late 1930s as a launching pad for his career.

De Lue began professionally sculpting under the shadow of the economic crisis of the 1930s. During that time, public trust and confidence waned not only in the stock market, but in the government’s ability to care for their well-being. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized a series of massive public works projects aimed at rejuvenating both the economy and public spirit. The Nix Federal Building was one such grandiose New Deal public art project. Its unique style came to typify American industriousness, strength, determination, and hope through such bleak times. 

The Justice and Law bas reliefs by sculptor Donald De Lue on the facade of the Nix Federal Courthouse. | Images: Prints and Photographs Division , Library of Congress

De Lue was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1897. He had a passion for art as a child and it has been said that he impressed many people with his drawings. De Lue began to apprentice with local sculptors at 12-years-old and several years later trained at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. He also studied internationally in Paris and Lyon. In the midst of the economic crisis of the 1930s, De Lue forged his own distinctive style often depicting the human form in a smooth fusion of realism and classicism. This created a style in which De Lue was able to generate human like figures who appeared almost angelic in nature, and represented the quintessence of ideals–exactly what the U.S. government wanted to inspire its people. When the federal government presented the opportunity to fund commissions for public art, De Lue was ready and he quickly began submitting designs for projects in Washington D.C. and New York.

De Lue’s big break came when the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture selected him as one of the emerging artists to make sculptural reliefs on the facade of the Nix Federal Building that was commissioned in Philadelphia in 1937. De Lue received a recommendation for this project in 1939 because he was a runner-up in the Federal Trade Commission Building in Washington D.C. The Nix Federal Building’s architect, Harry Sternfeld, was opposed to having a public art competition for his building. The Section of Fine Arts compelled Sternfeld to choose De Lue because they wanted to award commissions to artists who had competed in their Washington D.C. competition. De Lue submitted preliminary sketches for the reliefs and received a contract which the committee promptly approved.

The building’s Moderne architecture reflects popular trends in the 1930s that are few and far between in Philadelphia. Law, Justice, and Eagle‘s patriotic themes speak to the function of the federal building. This was De Lue’s first public commission, yet his reliefs were placed prominently near the main entrance and two eagle models in the elevator lobby. De Lue received $2,000 for each of the relief sculptures and $1,000 for the eagles. Edmund Amateis executed the remaining mail carrier reliefs on the adjacent facade of the building. Amateis’ pieces spoke to the building’s use as a post office, highlighted in a Hidden City article in 2016.

Big, bas reliefs of regional mail carriers, titled North, South, East, and West, by public building sculptor Edmond Amateis on the facade of the William Penn Annex Post Office remind passerby of a time when the postal service was America’s primary communications system. | Photo: Michael Bixler

De Lue was not a traditional sculptor and forged a distinctive iconography that is recognizable in much of his later works. While he chose to incorporate identifiable symbols of patriotism in federal projects, he imparted his own unique style into the clay. The Michelangelo-inspired sculptor typically imbued his pieces with energy, exaggerated characteristics, elongated gestures, defined muscles, and curvilinear motions. Justice and Law are seated, flanking parallel sides of the main entrance. Behind the pair are eagles with their wings thrust open. Justice holds a flame in her left hand, which symbolizes truth. In other examples of American public art, symbols of justice are depicted with a scale. Nodding to this tradition, De Lue chose to have Justice stretch out her right hand as if the figure depicted would weigh the actions of the individual herself. Law rests his right hand on fasces, which serves as a symbol of power and authority. The defined muscular tones and elongated robes convey a sense a power. These two sculptures symbolize the function of the courthouse: to uphold the law and ensure justice.

De Lue’s work on the Nix Federal Building opened many doors for future commissions. He used this opportunity to introduce himself to Paul Cret, the French-American architect who, at the time, was working on the Federal Reserve Bank Building down the street from the courthouse. As he recounted in The Sculptures of Donald De Lue: Gods, Prophet, and Heroes, this networking opportunity enabled him to gain commissions at the University of Pennsylvania, the old Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia, Boy Scout Monument in Washington D.C. and Spirit of American Youth in Omaha Beach Cemetery in Normandy. When viewed in this context, Law, Justice, and Eagle mark the ascendance of De Lue’s career.

In 1990 the Nix Federal Building gained federal designation on the National Register of Historic Places because of its architectural significance as a structure built in the Moderne style. Sadly, a listing on the National Register does not guarantee the survival of buildings in Philadelphia. Owners of nationally-designated buildings can remodel, alter, demolish, or sell off their property with no restrictions without heed to the building’s structural, historic, or cultural integrity. Without a listing on the Philadelphia Register Donald De Lue’s works could hypothetically be eradicated from the city’s landscape. The demolition would diminish not only the legacy for the artist, but a living part of Philadelphia’s built history. De Lue’s privately funded works Alchemist, on the exterior of the University of Pennsylvania’s Cret Wing, and Triton Fountain, standing behind a fence at 925 Chestnut Street, while important, occupy far less prominent positions in the city.

Donald De Lue in his Leonardo, New Jersey Studio with an 8-foot, 6-inch model of Thomas Jefferson in 1975. | Image courtesy of Randall Gabrielan and Arcadia Publishing

Privatization and demolition are not uncommon fates for New Deal public art across the country. In 2005, the Philadelphia Civic Center was torn down after a decade without a regular tenant. The building opened in 1931 and served Philadelphians by hosting concerts, famous speakers, sporting events, and Democratic and Republican National Conventions over the course of its lifetime. Architectural modelers and sculptors Brockhouse and Kerner executed several limestone friezes for the exterior of the building. The artworks referenced education and sporting events the Civic Center hosted. Before its demolition, Olde Good Things, an architectural antique dealer, salvaged the New Deal artwork and sold it to buyers in New York, New Jersey, and Russia.

These bas relief sculptures represent the federal government’s investment in artists during the Depression. Artists like De Lue gained invaluable experience and exposure through these commissions. Like the Philadelphia Civic Center, Law, Justice and Eagle could be relocated within the city or to new locations across the world. However, a new venue would distort the way the artist intended for these works to be presented.

Buildings on the National Register of Historic Places like the Nix Federal Building should be legally protected in Philadelphia and automatically qualify for placement on the Philadelphia Register. De Lue’s public art was meant to beautify and inspire civic space and should remain doing so for generations to come.

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About the Author

Mary Manfredi is from Monmouth County, New Jersey where she grew up surrounded by Revolutionary War history and Bruce Springsteen. Her research interests revolve around American material and visual culture. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Rosemont College and a Master of Arts from Villanova University. She also runs, "Mary's Musings," a space where she shares her thoughts about museum exhibitions, art, and history.

13 Comments:

  1. James says:

    I love art deco buildings and design. Even have a Parker 51 dated 1947 and it has art deco design elements.

    Who owns the Nix
    building? The Federal Government? Nevertheless we should ensure it is protected on the local historical register.

    1. Anthony DiFlorio says:

      Always admired this beautiful building.

  2. Wow so impressed with the depth of knowledge, the charming family born interest! Well done. Now how can we get this building legally protected!

  3. Jim Fennell says:

    Great read !

    1. C. Davis says:

      I’ve always admired those friezes, and assumed they were New Deal works. I think the work perfectly w/that architectural style. Nice to know the sculptor was relatively local, too. Please keep this treasure!!

  4. Mary-Ann Feldman says:

    I worked nearby in the 1970’s and 1980’s and admired the sculptures as well as the biblical quotes from Isaiah at the top of the building …”They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and peace shall be in the land” ,(or words to that effect,) I always found that inspiring but notice it’s gone now. What happened?

  5. Stephen S Washburne says:

    Wow!
    A shoutout to Mary Manfredi from another Monmouth Co native relocated to Philaelphia. I was a longtime holder of Box 1916 in 19105 then called William Penn Annex. Because of pecularities of the postal system anything addressed to Box 1916 from anywhere in the world came to me – 191 sorts to Philadelphia, and because boxes are unique, I would get the mail.
    Sorry it had to be closed because being open all night meant a lot of unwanted stinky deposits on the floors.
    There also are wonderful murals inside, which I hope are being saved.
    I thought the exterior carvings were by Paul Manship, so am glad to be put straight.

    1. Joe Brin says:

      Thanks to Ms. Manfredi for the excellent backstory on this great integration of art and architecture. De Lue’s work is amazing. Save this building!

  6. Tony Farma says:

    Great article! I’ve always admired these beautiful bas relief whenever I ve had the opportunity to be in the area.The reliefs strongly convey an image of strength and perseverance. A message as relevant in 2020 as it was during the Depression!

  7. Mary Hussey says:

    Beautifully written!

  8. Clifford Tobias, Ph.D. says:

    As a frequent customer in the Post Office, a visitor to the National Archives, and a National Park Service Historian, I was dismayed to learn of their closures. As a pedestrian I’ve often stopped to look at the impressive sculptures, and thanks to this enlightening article I now know much about them and their New Deal context. I even referred to them and the entire building as “Mussolini Modern.”

    While it is true that being listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP)does not prevent a property from considerable alternation and even destruction, that would be very unlikely for such a federal property. I doubt that the General Services Administration (GSA) would propose demolition and that the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO)and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP)would “concur,” as required by Sec. 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966(NHPA). The SHPO and the ACHP would have to be consulted by the GSA and would give the “undertaking” a very thorough review.

    If the building were a National Historic Landmark (NHL), as stated in the final paragraph, securing approval to demolish such a federal NHL would be virtually impossible. However, it’s not a NHL; google the list of Phila. NHL’s. Designation of a NHL by the Secretary of the Interior under the authority of the Historic Sites Act of 1935, long predating the 1966 NHPA, puts a property at the highest level of the NRHP, even above the “National Significance” level of the National Register. The Nix building probably should be upgraded to NHL status by the GSA and National Park Service, its distinctive sculptures making a very strong case.

  9. Jon Paul S. says:

    This reminds me of my World’s Fairs research, where I’ve seen some of this kind of artwork and architecture. 1933 Chicago, 1937 Paris, 1939 New York. So beautiful! I’m all for preserving this. Thank you for bringing it to light!

    Unfortunately, we’re living in the age of socialist revisionism and iconoclasm. All monuments must be destroyed so the public mind can be reprogrammed.

  10. Joan Wilder says:

    Hi Mary, you are doing Rosemont proud. Wonderful article.

    Former Dean Joan Wilder

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