An impressive three-story, pillared building marks the eastern edge of downtown Commerce, Texas. One of the oldest surviving buildings in the community, this former post office now serves as a public library. The US Department of Treasury broke ground in July, 1917, three months after Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany in World War I. The Supervising Architect’s Office, Washington D.C., designed this building and a number of other identical buildings across the nation. The acting supervising architect was James A. Wetmore. The contractor for the building was Algernon Blair of Montgomery, Alabama. The final cost was $45,000, including $6,000 for equipment and fixtures and $3000 for plans and administrative expenses. The building was planned to be ready for occupancy by March 2, 1918. There was a bit of a delay with that date because of late deliveries of material caused by “emergency work,” perhaps related to the war. The building officially opened in August 15, 1918, three months before the end of the war.
A description of the building appeared in the October, 2018 Commerce Journal Illustrated Industrial Edition: “A standardized building, one of a group of eight contracted 1917-18, two in western territory, Beeville, Texas and Girard, Kansas….The new post office is a semi-fireproof building of the third class, approximately 50 x 70 feet, of the basement, one story and clear story type. A partial second story being provided in the rear of the clear story. It is of composite design, with a front portico of a modified Tuscan order. The foundation and exterior walls are of brick with cypress exterior ornamentation, ballasted composition roof and tin roof on the clear story and extension. The roof terrace is enclosed with parapet walls and balustrade panels.”
On April12, 1972 an open house celebrated the opening of a new Post Office Building in Commerce at 1300 Park Street, directly south of the 1918 building. This new and modern $200,000 Post Office had many advantages over the old one. There were 4,000 additional square feet of work space as well as “snorkel” boxes for convenient drive-in mailing. Off-street parking, an enlarged vestibule about three times the size of the old one, a worker’s lounge with a coffee machine and space for cold drink machines were major improvements. Best of all, unlike the old building, the new post office had only one floor, with no stairs to climb.
This left the old post office building at 1210 Park Street vacant after fifty three years. The City of Commerce requested that the federal government gift the building to the city for continued use for the benefit of the town and its people. A Deed Without Warranty was awarded the City in March 1972 for use as a public library. The value of the building at the time was set at $31,500 but a public benefit allowance for the entire sum was granted because the building was to be used as a library. The city spent $15,000 to renovate and repurpose the building. Care was taken during renovation to preserve special architectural features. No outside changes to the building were made and only those inside which were necessary to accommodate library functions. Even the black marble baseboards in the front lobby were retained when the mail boxes were removed.
The Library moved into the building on March 23, 1973. All spaces of the main floor, full basement, and partial second floor were converted to various library usages. In 1976 a small partially-enclosed loading dock on the east side of the building was completely enclosed and a space of 200 square feet was added to the useable space for the library. Air conditioning was installed in 1987. On November 17, 1991 the building received a Texas Historical Marker.
As a library, the building is full of surprises and invites exploration. Ladders from the first floor lead to a secret observation room and a hidden brick passageway that runs along the back of the central room. The children’s area hosts the “Eternal View” art installation in the south side window. The basement has its own secret passages along with an old coal chute near the local history room. Like the books it holds, it is a building that you can enjoy getting lost in.
The Friends of the Commerce Public Library worked with members of the town and university communities to raise funds and completed a restoration of the Portico in 2013 and, in partnership with the City of Commerce, replaced the roof and restored the parapet wall. This historical treasure continues to host the public library and to be a central part of a revitalized downtown.