Of all of Wichita’s amazing buildings, I’ve always loved the federal courthouse. For those of us, ahem, of a certain age, you will remember that it doubled as the post office and federal courthouse.
In my research I discovered that the original murals painted back in 1936 were still on display. I had to get a look. In case you are wanting to visit. There are no cameras or cell phones allowed in the building and you are not supposed to take photos inside any Federal building. I did my due diligence and with permission from Chief Justice Eric F. Melgren, I was granted a tour and permission to take a few photos. I was met in the lobby by Paige, she is the U.S. Courthouse Division Manager. She also happens to be an amazing source of information on the building.
The courthouse was constructed in 1932 and cost a little over one million dollars to build. It was part of the Relief Program during the Great Depression. The murals were part of a contest to provide art to federal buildings. Artists were asked to submit sketches anonymously providing the government’s emphasis on “Democratic Art.” Kara Heitz of the Kansas City Art Institute told NPR, “They wanted to give opportunities to a lot of artists who maybe otherwise wouldn’t have gotten those opportunities.”
The artists received their commissions through an award from the U.S. Treasury Departments’ Section of Fine Arts. At the time the Treasury commissioned more than 1,600 murals and sculptures for post offices across the country. President Roosevelt believed, “that people needed to feel uplifted and positive,” according to Heitz.
The Wichita murals were painted in 1935 and installed in 36. They are located on the east and west ends of the lobby.
The murals were not as large as I was expecting, they’re about 11’ by 5’, but they are cool to see.
Pioneers in Kansas created by Atchison, Kansas native, Ward Lockwood (1894-1063) depicts the evolution of the post office. The oil on canvas is a collage of images including a stagecoach, a Native American in a gunfight with a Pony Express rider, along with a steam train, vulture and a pioneer couple reading a letter.
Kansas Farming is an oil on canvas painted by Marion, Iowa native Richard Haines (1906-1984). Like Lockwood’s mural, this one is also a collage of images focusing on farm production and rural life. Images include rolling hills, corn, sunflowers, a farmer feeding hogs, a small-town train station and a grain elevator.
Once I took my pictures, I asked Paige if I could set up a tour to see the rest of the building. She said, “if you’ve got the time, I can show you around right now.” I was all in.
As I mentioned the art deco styled courthouse opened in 1932. It was designed by architect Louis A. Simon. Paige told me there are 18 different kinds of marble in the building.
In 1957 the building was modernized with new lights; air conditioning and the ceilings were repainted white. The building was open 24/7 and provided a safe and warm place for Wichita’s homeless population.
The post office moved out in 1984, when the new downtown station opened. That space was converted into two courtrooms and offices. Great attention was spent to create a seamless transition between the old and new, including buying marble from the original quarry.
In 1989 the courthouse was put on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
In 1998 the building underwent a massive renovation bringing the building back to its original look.
The second-floor courtroom received new rosettes in the ceiling, and they had to be recreated because they were torn out to make way for ugly florescent lights.
The fourth-floor courtroom was stunning. When renovations began, crews took scrapings to find out what the original color palette was for the ceiling… turns out it was gold, real gold.
It took about 3 months to paint the ceiling in 24 Karat gold.
The walls were refinished maintaining the original American Walnut. I didn’t notice at first, but some of the wood carvings look like Lego bricks.
Thanks again to Paige for the tour.
Check out some of Wichita’s other public arts. I like to call it, How Great Our Art.