Paul Wilson: No one sees downtown's most beautiful room

They closed the Hamilton post office more than 20 years ago. The grand lobby's marble and bronze treasures from the 1930s still shine, but you have to get past a man with a metal detector to see them.
When the Hamilton post office was built in the 1930s, they put the main entrance on John Street. It's locked these days, but you can go around the corner to view the treasures within. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

The post office is in the news, and for all the wrong reasons. No letter carriers coming up the walk anymore. Price of a stamp going way up. Volume of mail way down.

The post office used to get a lot of respect. Anyone who’s seen Miracle On 34th Street knows all about that. The mail service saved Santa. 

These days, the postal counter is usually at the back of a drugstore, card shop or variety. You have to go hunting around to find it.

But there was a time when the post office was just about the most important place in town. And it looked like it.

There can be no grander elevators in Hamilton than those at the old post office. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Hamilton has such a place. Except it’s been more than two decades since it saw a single letter. 

Now, of course, it’s the John Sopinka courthouse, which runs from Main to King at John. But the post office lobby is still there, all that marble and bronze, beyond the metal detector. It’s a shame more people don’t see it.

We lost a beauty

It was built in 1935. Fact is, half-a-century before that, a spectacular post office went up in the same spot. It was a magnificent red stone building, with clock tower, cornices aplenty, a wedding cake of a place. 

Some wanted part of it to be saved, but the architects of the 1930s post office had something much bigger and more modern in mind. 

The Depression was on and Ottawa came up with the Dominion Government Construction Programme of Recovery. They decided Hamilton would get a new post office, with space too for customs, marine, agriculture, immigration and tax offices.

This wedding-cake post office from the 1880s at King and John got knocked down for a new one in the 1930s. (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

In September of 1936, the new $1.6 million Dominion Public Building opened to the public. The Spectator declared it was “probably the finest structure of its type in the Dominion, and is the admiration of everyone who enters it.”

The paper made a prediction that proved to be true: “The descendants of the generations alive today will be impressed by the manner in which the present blended artistic dignity, simplicity and taste with efficiency.” 

But in the very next paragraph, the paper went on to slam the past. The new building, it said, “contrasts to the gimcrack and garish creations of the eighties and nineties, of which a few edifices still survive here.”

Built to last

Wrong there. It would be wonderful to still have that 1886 post office in our downtown stock. And it did not fall easily. 

From the Hamilton Herald, Apr. 17, 1935: “Construction men wrecking the old federal building declare themselves amazed at the strength of the post office tower.  The late Eli Van Allen, who built the edifice, must have intended his work to last several hundred years.”

You could call the massive limestone building that replaced it severe. However, though you certainly can’t peek in those windows high above the sidewalk, it is a different story inside.

Brass, bronze, marble and more – the grand lobby of the old Hamilton post office deserves to be viewed by more. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

We’ll empty our pockets for courthouse security at the door off Main. Then it’s down the hall. And soon we are in a grand and forgotten lobby of marble and bronze. 

See the five fine chandeliers. The nineteen shining postal wickets. The four glass-topped tables, each a sturdy piece of art.

There are two ceramic maps high on the wall, one of Canada, one of the world. And there are four of the finest telephone booths around, ornate and soundproof. Trouble is, the phones are gone.

Planes, trains and dogs

The main entrance used to be off John. By those massive doors, gaze up at the bronze medallions of the world on the move – dogsled, locomotive, mighty ship and propeller plane.

You’re not really supposed to take pictures here. And there’s no sign outside to invite passersby to come in and examine Hamilton’s postal history. (The Lister Block – open to all – is lovely to walk through. But it’s chopped liver compared to this marble mall.)

On an average week in 1892, nearly 58,000 letters, papers and postcards were delivered by Hamilton’s 35 postal carriers. Toronto and Montreal were the only Canadian cities with higher volumes. 

A worker at the downtown Hamilton post office wrestles with some Christmas mail in 1961. (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

And the mail kept building here for generations. Along came automation and postal codes and a huge new sorting plant was built in Stoney Creek.

That resulted in the closing of the John Street post office, on Feb. 15, 1991. Eight years and $77 million later – and thanks in large part to the efforts of Hamilton lawyer Dermot Nolan – the post office became the courthouse. 

Stay out of trouble, but go see it sometime.

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca  |  @PaulWilsonCBC

To read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson, click here.



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