Evanston’s own post office is a New Deal relic.
A trek to the post office likely conjures hesitation and dread in any mortal being. Few first-time visitors to the Evanston Post Office on Davis Street expect the gold-covered aluminum structures of men slinging bulging bags of mail, their expressions strained. What, exactly, do striking, severe metal figures have to do with mail?
In 1937, the United States sat sandwiched between the Great Depression and World War II. Evanston, meanwhile, decided it needed a new post office. The city sought out artists to spruce up the new building, funded by the Department of Treasury’s New Deal Section of Painting and Sculpture.
The city commissioned Robert I. Russin, a lauded Wyoming sculptor known for his public building art, to complete the two lobby figures. Their titles, Throwing the Mail and Mail Handler, are pretty straightforward. The golden men resemble the Monopoly figures that one might lose under the couch.
Outside, two limestone relief sculptures deliver a more ambiguous message. Armin A. Scheler carved out the ominously named exterior works: The Message and The Answer. In the latter sculpture, a woman sits on a crooked tree with a man at her feet. “The Message” seems to align with the New Deal’s nationalistic drive for economic prosperity. A rugged man, barefoot, surveys land with an early model tool while the other looks on adoringly.
“[In the Section of Painting and Sculpture art], the people are very rounded and strong,” says Heidi Hoppe, owner of the Evanston-based architecture firm, Heidrun Hoppe Associates.
Evanston’s somewhat frightening post office art is no rarity. Along with the other members of the non-profit Design Evanston, Hoppe documented the city’s architectural history in the 2016 book, Evanston: 150 Years, 150 Places. The authors learned that the Evanston Post Office is just one of over 1,100 New Deal post offices throughout the country.
Through the Section of Painting and Sculpture, the municipal government commissioned artists to install pieces in public spaces. Post offices are an important symbol of the government, Hoppe says, which presented an opportunity to quell residents’ anxiety during the Great Depression.
“[The government] thought if they would build these post offices, which were beautiful and solid, then that would give people hope,” Hoppe says.
The city also hosts artworks constructed by the New Deal’s Public Works Administration. They reflect the Machine age aesthetic: think metal, stone and brass. Evanston’s public schools once displayed plenty of New Deal art, Hoppe writes in Evanston: 150 Years, 150 Places. While most works have disappeared with renovations, a few remain. Nichols Middle School still displays pieces by the Harlem Renaissance painter Archibald Motley Jr., one of the only Black New Deal artists.
“In downtown Evanston, we have this built reminder of what was going on in our country in the 1930s,” Hoppe says. “It represents a history that some of us lived through, some of us didn’t live through, some of us will never live through in the future.”