The 1898 portion of the Museum was originally designed for use as a Federal Post Office and Custom House to handle the large volume of foreign mail created by the city’s international tobacco business. It is built on the site of a former boarding house.
The structure was designed by Federal Treasury Supervising Architect William Martin Aiken in the eclectic style popular with Victorian America. Aiken incorporated many architectural styles including Stick, Queen Anne, Italianate, Romanesque, Flemish and Gothic. Its highly pitched roof with large eagles on the four corners, steep gabled windows and elaborate terra cotta ornamentation combine to give importance to a relatively small building. Contrary to popular myth, the design was not inspired by the architect’s visit to China.
The building was constructed by Charles A. Moses of Chicago. His bid of $32,243.00 was the lowest of 14 bids submitted. David A. Murphy, Superintendent of Construction of U.S. Public Buildings, supervised the construction. Ground was broken in September 1897, and construction was completed in 1898.
It measures 62 feet, 2 inches by 62 feet, 2 inches overall and is built on a smooth stone foundation. The brick exterior has decorative terra cotta around all openings and on the corners. The terra cotta was manufactured by the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company of Chicago. The hipped roof with flared eaves is made of slate over long leaf pine, with the roof framing being of steel construction.
There are a total of 20 dormers on the building, five on each side. The central gable dormer on each side has a curvilinear opening and is flanked by hip roof dormers. All dormers are surmounted by pinnacles, and there is a series of three stepped pinnacles on the angles of the roof line. Each corner is decorated with a copper eagle on a pedestal. An ornate tower is located at the apex of the roof.
There is one brick chimney on the south side. The windows are double hung arched windows, and the doors are aluminum with arched transoms. There is a small stoop on the east side. The floor plan features an entrance on the Second Street side. The second level of the building was used to secretly view mail handlers. The Postmaster had his office to the right of the entry lobby with a private bath. The floor is of Knoxville, Tennessee marble, and the plastered walls feature extensive natural white oak trim. The building contains three vaults. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
Note: Information was compiled from various sources including Nineteenth Century Heritage, Clarksville, Tennessee by Ursula Beach and Eleanor Williams.