William Mitchell Kendall never delivered a single piece of mail, but he gave the United States Post Office its most famous motto.
Born in 1856 in Jamaica Plain, Mass. to a prominent family – his aunt was Maria Mitchell – Kendall was trained at Harvard and MIT. In 1882 he joined the New York architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, which was the preeminent design firm of its day.
The principles – Charles McKim, Stanford White and William Mead – were men about town, flashy and larger than life. Their focus was more on broad architectural statements, not on minor details. But they hired the best draftsmen in the world. Kendall was a detail man, credited with smoothing and polishing the work of the firm’s other architects.
When Stanford White died in 1906 in an explosive murder, Kendall rose in the firm to fill his shoes as partner, though he had none of White’s panache or flair for high living. By then the work of the firm was declining in originality. Mosette Broderick, author of “When Architecture Could Fashion a Nation,” noted that the firm’s work began to look like a parody of its earlier designs.
“Kendall was a mean, small-minded man who took precedent as his only cue;” she said, “they began repeating themselves in the 1890’s, and you can spot the details on their later buildings lifted directly from their earlier ones.”
Nevertheless, American institutions clamored for the Beaux-Arts architectural style that the firm was known for, and cities, universities and other institutions filled the firm’s schedule with demands for public buildings.
Richly decorative with grand arches and entryways, facades laden with sculptural ornamentation and detailed design, the firm’s style placed the chip on the American shoulder as the nation emerged as a world power during the decades from 1880 to 1920.
Kendall’s work can be seen throughout New York and New England. He contributed to the design of the Boston Public Library.
He designed the Fleming Museum in Burlington, Vt. as well as the city’s City Hall. He designed the canopy that sits atop Plymouth Rock. Kendall also designed the Arlington Memorial Bridge, complete with its gold statues, that crosses the Potomac River between Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps his most lasting contribution to American culture however, is found in New York City where he designed the James Farley Post Office. Originally named the General Post Office, the building opened in 1912. It was this building that gave the postal service its unofficial motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
The line is translated from the work of Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote a similar line describing the courier system in ancient Greece. It was a logical fit with Kendall’s grandiose style, and he ordered it inscribed on the facade of the building. And ever since the motto has been associated with the U.S. Postal Service.
Kendall would continue working right up to his death in 1941 in Bar Harbor, Maine at the age of 85. His later works can be found in several European cemeteries, in the form of memorials to the World War I war dead.