Post Office and Custom House

Javascript is required to view this map.
Landmark Images:
Custom House; Louis Kurz for Jevne & Almini, Lithograph, 1866-67 (ichi-61956)

Custom House; Louis Kurz for Jevne & Almini, Lithograph, 1866-67 (ichi-61956)

In 1855 the United States government acquired land at the northwest corner of Dearborn and Monroe streets for the construction of the first of a series of impressive federal centers in downtown Chicago.  The main entrance of this building was on Dearborn Street.  The Post Office occupied the main floor and basement, while on the second floor were the offices of the Collector of Customs, the Public Depository, the Collector of Internal Revenue, the Steamboat Inspector, the United States Marshal, the United States Commissioner, and the clerks of the Post Office.  The top floor was reserved for federal courts, court clerks, the district attorney, and jurors.  

This was one of several "fireproof" buildings that would be destroyed by the great conflagration.  Subsequent federal centers have been located in the block formed by Adams, Dearborn, Jackson, and Clark streets.  A portion of this building's walls were salvaged for use in Haverley's Theater, which was replaced in 1881 by the First National Bank. 

This Jevne & Almini print captures the bustle of street life around the Post Office and Custom House in the years before the fire.  In the lower right a laborer carries a mop and bucket, while on the left a woman converses with a man who appears to be selling fowl.


The Post Office and Custom House before the Fire; P. B. Greene, Stereograph, 1871

The Post Office and Custom House before the Fire; P. B. Greene, Stereograph, 1871

This stereograph was likely taken shortly after the Jevne & Almini lithograph was published.

Post Office and Custom House after the Fire; P. B. Greene, Stereograph, 1871 (ichi-64153)

Post Office and Custom House after the Fire; P. B. Greene, Stereograph, 1871 (ichi-64153)

"It may be interesting to know how this Government building took fire," Francis William Test wrote to his mother three days after the flames went out, "for it was considered fireproof. The wind was blowing a living gale from the Southwest when we saw the fire was coming near, or rather that our office was in the line of the sweeping flames. The inside iron doors were closed on all the windows. The outside shutters are always closed after office hours by the watchman.... Mails are received in the basement and distributed in the first floor. The iron shutters in the basement were also closed but a failing wall burst in these north windows and in less than five minutes the first floor (the post Office proper) was in flames. We still thought the second floor (Custom House) was safe; so it would have been had it not been for the flooring that was nailed over an old stairway that used to connect the second floor west room with the first floor.... The fire burst through this and in a short time burned out the interior--forced its way through the wooden doors, bounded through the hall to the East side; the main offices of the Custom House are situated here. In a few moments the flames rushed like a tornado of fire through the windows; there are no outside shutters to the second story but there are on the inside. Unluckily these shutters are fastened to wooden stiles; these burned and let the shutters fall."