If asked the question, “Where do you live?” your reply is quite likely to be the name of a post office. Whether they are large (Kankakee) or small (Buckingham), the identity of most communities can be summed up in those two words.
In some cases, the place where you live and your post office will differ in name — for example, residents of the village of Limestone actually have Kankakee (ZIP code 60901) postal addresses. Every ZIP code has a village or city name, but includes adjoining rural areas and possibly some smaller communities. The 60901 ZIP code includes the city of Kankakee (population 26,296) but serves a total population of 35,725. St. Anne (ZIP code 60964) has a village population of 1,419, but serves an area with 4,854 residents.
Sometimes, post office names change. In September 1853, the few dozen residents of the new community of Kankakee sent and received mail at a post office named “Clarksville.” Three months later, the post office name became “Kankakee,” which it has remained ever since.
Locations of the city’s earliest post offices have been lost in the mists of time. However, in 1859, Kankakee’s post office occupied the first floor of a three-story stone building on the northeast corner of Court Street and East Avenue. The city’s first newspaper, the Kankakee Gazette, was located on the third floor of the same building.
After a quarter-century at that location, the post office moved in 1884 to Emory Cobb’s new Arcade Building on the northwest corner of Schuyler Avenue and Merchant Street. The Arcade, which quickly became the city’s most desirable business address, also housed retail shops, a bank, and business offices. The western half of the building was the Kankakee Opera House.
In 1902, work began on a new building designed specifically for use as a post office. Located on a quarter-block site on the northwest corner of Court Street and Harrison Avenue, the brick and stone building featured classical pillars flanking its entrance. Tall, arched windows provided ample light to the high-ceilinged lobby and mail processing areas. The building opened to the public in 1905.
By the late 1930s, the need for larger postal facilities had become apparent — since 1900, the city’s population had increased from about 14,000 to more than 20,000. The federal government advertised for bids to build a new structure that would house not only the Kankakee Post Office, but local offices for several agencies, including Social Security, the Internal Revenue Service, Army and Navy recruiters, and the Department of Agriculture’s Extension Service.
Low bidder for the project was Melton, Seelye & Company of Chicago. Its winning bid was $133,141 (actual cost, by the time the building was completed in 1940, would be $220,000). Before work on the new building could begin, however, post office operations had to be temporarily relocated, and the existing structure demolished.
On Sept. 9, 1939, Kankakee Postmaster George Ravens announced that space had been leased for 10 months in the Fraser Building at 236 E. Merchant St. The move took place three weeks later. On Saturday, Sept. 30, the post office closed at noon; it reopened in the Fraser Building on Monday morning, Oct. 2.
A wrecking crew from Chicago’s Commercial Contracting Company began work on the old post office building on Oct. 16. “This firm has the contract to raze the old structure and dispose of the used materials. The site is to be cleared for erection of a new modern federal building,” reported the Kankakee Republican-News.
Construction of the new Post Office was finished in less than a year. On Oct. 1, 1940, the Republican-News announced, “The new $220,000 post office building was opened for business this morning. More than 20 truckloads of equipment and supplies were hauled out of the temporary location on Merchant Street last night and made ready for business on schedule this morning in the new quarters.”
The new building stretched 102 feet along the north side of Court Street, from Harrison Avenue westward to an alley, and was 88 feet deep. The walls were laid up with cut yellow limestone obtained from the Lehigh Quarry, some 7 miles west of Kankakee.
Postal customers entering the building found themselves in a high-ceilinged lobby that ran the full width of the building. At the left side of the lobby were rentable post-office boxes in several different sizes; to the right of the boxes a large counter provided space to transact business with postal clerks.
High on the wall along the lobby’s right side were three large pieces of art: carved wood reliefs depicting a farmer holding a bushel basket of corn, a group of farm animals (pig, turkey, and duck) and a farm wife with a sheaf of wheat. Entitled “Farming,” the reliefs were executed by artist Edouard Chassaing under a federal program to provide public art.