The "castle’ mail built |

The "castle’ mail built

Roger Peterson
Leadville Chronicle/Roger PetersonLeadville's City Hall was once the post office for the town. Hidden beneath the facade of the building are secret passageways leading all through the building.

Not unlike a bastion built of stone, brick and wood, Leadville’s City Hall stands fortress-like, overlooking the northern entrance to the city’s business district. Occupying the dominant position at the intersection of East Eighth Street and Harrison, her cubic bulk, resembling a modified, but squat Egyptian obelisk, rises geometrically from the surrounding sidewalks.

Its walls create the visual illusion of a dizzyingly tall building when viewed from the adjacent walkways. A band of light-colored brick near the top of the second-story windows encircles the building as if to keep the walls from falling outward.

Nearby buildings and homes cower around the feet of city hall, and pedestrians, minuscule in proportion to the massive structure, go about their business, hurrying along the white brick and pink granite trimmings of its ponderous walls.

High on the ramparts above, piercing the steep slate roof, eight tiny dormer windows with curiously beveled cupolas, face the four directions. With panes barely large enough for a human to peer through, they are reminiscent of the crennellations found on some Old World fortification. Were it not for the lack of a moat and drawbridge, the castle-like character of the municipal hall would be complete.

Bowels of bureaucracy

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Inside, the machineries of city government roll along, and the lengthy arm of the police department extends outward to the Leadville town limits. The municipal tribunal, held monthly on the upper floor of the edifice, is the “highest” court in the realm.

Constructed 99 years ago, the Leadville City Hall is anything but medieval. However, an active imagination could easily turn the lovely old structure into its ancient counterpart. The major difference though, would be the four-paneled revolving storm door, a convenient merry-go-round for turn-of-the century children.

Public access to the building is limited to a single entrance on Harrison Avenue. The eastern entryway is reserved for the ranks of the police force. Newcomers to Lake County see the landmark as the town hall, but seasoned residents and those born locally remember it as the Leadville Post Office. Others residents confuse it with the county courthouse, located several blocks away.

Fiery architect

City hall, at its present location, gained that distinction in the 1960s when the town’s newest post office was built on West Fifth Street. Previously, municipal business was conducted in the Carnegie Library on the corner of Harrison and Ninth Street.

When Horace Tabor presided over the first city council meeting in 1879, the group met in a long-gone building on East Chestnut Street. However, the unofficial city hall, standing at 132-134 East Sixth, soon became the more popular gathering place. It also doubled as banquet and dance hall, meeting place and ballroom, serving the city in the clouds until March 30, 1916, when a fire started in O’Keefe’s Paper and Paint Store.

The conflagration consumed the entire north side of the street, incinerating Monyhan and O’Malia’s undertaking establishment, tin and harness shops, a grocery, a plumber’s shop, a furniture store and a barn.

Over the years, the post office made its way northward from locations in the 100-block of East Chestnut to 320 and 604 Harrison, before settling at the new federal building in 1905.

Postal ghosts

Passing through the stone-lined covered entryway from the street, visitors climb solid granite steps flanked by black marble as they ascend to the main floor of city hall. Brass handrails, polished by years of passing hands, stand out vividly against black stone.

On the right side of the vestibule, where hundreds of vintage post boxes once lined the wall, glass showcases now house a variety of exhibits.

On the left, massive arched windows containing crude glass panes provide no shortage of natural light. Close observation of the north wall will reveal the location of three now-absent writing tables for the use of postal patrons.

Decades of shoe leather and shuffling feet eroded basins in the marble floor and mark the spots where countless former Leadvillites stood to pen letters and address envelopes. At the far end of the lobby, postal business was transacted through a trio of iron-grilled teller windows surrounded by frosted glass. Mid-window, the oak countertop is inlaid with a thick glass plate to prevent the softer wood from eroding with the exchange of so many coins and parcels.

Venerable vices

From the head of the entryway stairs, the visitor passes beneath a massive archway to the stairway leading to the upper-floor offices. Rich golden oak handrails, balustrades and newel posts shine like glass as they coil their way up the open stairwell.

On the upper level, doorways capped with transoms mark the entrances to offices and historic marble and nickel-plated lavatories. Several safes, located in offices throughout the building, recall an era when large sums of money, valuables or irreplaceable documents were kept there.

Today, they hold priceless ledgers containing police and municipal court logs detailing bygone incidents such as the 1911 arrests of Thistle Cossoboom for a breach of the peace, Rubie Mack for frequenting saloons, John Doe for drunkenness, Alice Dubois for prostitution, and raids on local bagnios in which Kittie Fell, Blanche Russia, Minnie Rivers, Ida Hill, Nellie Valentine and dozens of their erring sisters were jailed for five days and fined $12 each for plying their trade about town.

Top to bottom

Crowning the building is a 35-foot tall attic of cathedral-like proportions. The gable consists of a pair of 4-inch by 12-inch beams supported by lengthy roof trusses sporting 6-inch square spans with iron rods holding the roof together and attaching it to the upper brick walls. Also in the high, cold attic room, a precipitous staircase, with rails polished by years of sliding hands, climbs to the peak, where a trap door leads onto the roof.

On the subterranean level, one side of the structure served as a lunchroom for early 20th-century postal workers. Nearby was their wainscoted marble and nickel shower room and lavatory, built in 1905 at a cost of $600. On the north side, an auger fed a gargantuan boiler its daily quota of coal to keep city employees comfortably warm.

Haunted hall

But what lies behind and between the walls of the Leadville City Hall presents a peculiar enigma to both town employees and visitors.

Hidden rooms, passages and ladderways, just out of sight, connect all parts of the building. They permitted their users to pass from top floor to basement and front to rear without being seen.

Louvered metal openings at strategic places along the route apparently allowed hidden observers to observe or listen to post office activities while remaining unseen. The walls and ceilings of the dim and unlighted labyrinth were plastered and painted with the same airtight and soundproof material throughout.

The passageways could have served as an early-day interior fire escape or some other function, depending on the motive of the users.

With the lengthy history of the building, there is little wonder that seemingly paranormal late-night occurrences sometimes take place inside its four walls. Unexplained doors opening and closing, the customer bell ringing by the tap of unseen fingers and electronics turning on late at night sometimes take city employees by surprise.

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