Throwback Thursday: One Man’s Fight for Accessibility in the 1930s

On September 30, President Obama proclaimed that October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which is another important advance for Americans with disabilities seeking equal opportunity and access.  Like any struggle for civil liberties, reform does not occur all at once and it is often thanks to concerted efforts from individuals, as well as groups, that bring about societal change.

L. Richardson Preyer, Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Greensboro, NC.
The L. Richardson Preyer, Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Greensboro, NC.

Take, for example, the story of Grady W. Coble. Coble was living in Greensboro, N.C., in the early 1930s when the federal government built a new Post Office in the area, now the L. Richardson Preyer, Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse. In April of 1930, Coble heard of the plans to construct its replacement, and wrote the Supervising Architect of the US Treasury: “Unfortunately I am the occupant of a wheelchair and have been for twenty years. Am wondering, if your plans for Greensboro’s new Post Office, includes a ramp or incline leading to the interior of the building, and to the elevator?”

At first the Supervising Architect’s office answered somewhat bureaucratically that this type of accommodation was not a common practice and “it is regretted that it would hardly be feasible to make an exception in this case.” Coble, however, was not so easily discouraged and wrote his Congressional Representatives arguing that public buildings had a tendency to have a “large number of steps, disregarding the convenience of the public altogether—in fact; ‘The Public Be Damned’—so long as our buildings look ‘Purty.’”

North Carolina Senator Lee S. Overman passed these concerns along to the Supervising Architect’s office asking “if you can consistently carry out the suggestions of this gentleman I hope you will do so.” Although it wouldn’t be acceptable for a building designed today, one door of the Gaston Street (now W. Friendly Street) entrance was redesigned to only have one step, which Coble found to be “just fine, and I am glad that the Government is at last getting ‘down to earth’ with its buildings.”

In 1931, the original design for the new Post Office was revised, which, once again, raised concerns from Coble. In response, the project architects, Murphy and Olmstead, altered the entrance so that it permitted “an easy incline up to the ground floor lobby with only the threshold at the door.” This eased Coble’s concerns, and was a better solution than the previous one-step alteration. The redesigned W. Friendly Street entrance still serves as the accessible entrance to the building.