I’m currently doing a lot of research on long-time DC Comics letterer and designer Ira Schnapp for a new blog article, and in that process I’ve taken a close look at one of the more puzzling and mysterious aspects of his early life and career, his claim to have designed the huge inscription running across the top of the James A. Farley Post Office Building in New York City. I’ve come to some new conclusions about that, and felt it deserved a separate article, so here it is.
Ira is best known in comics as the designer of many well-known logos such as these, and beginning with his redesign of Joe Shuster’s SUPERMAN logo in 1940.
Ira is also revered for his classic display lettering on house ads like this one that ran in most DC titles from the 1950s-60s, as well as the cover lettering on nearly all of the company’s books in those years. While that period of his career is well known and documented, little is known about Ira’s work before 1940.
Ira himself told stories about his early work to a number of artists and others, and prominent among his proudest accomplishments was his claim to have designed the letters in the massive inscription running across the east side of the Farley Post Office that fills two entire blocks from 31st to 33rd Street on the west side of 8th Avenue.
The inscription is thought by many to be the official motto of the U.S. Post Office: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” The quote is from Herodotus’ Histories from about 450 B.C., and was chosen by William Mitchell Kendall of the building’s architects, McKim, Mead and White. The Post Office has NO official motto. The building was constructed from 1908 to 1912, and opened for business in 1914.
The letters in the inscription are inspired by those on the ancient Roman monument known as Trajan’s Column, as seen above. These letter forms have traditionally been used for centuries on classically-based buildings like many designed by McKim, Mead and White. But did they actually design the Farley Building inscription as part of their architectural plans?
I saw this large Dover paperback online, and decided to buy it for further research. This edition is a reproduction of a work originally published in four volumes from 1915 to 1920, and is a handsome book well worth the $10 I paid for it online.
An example of a v-cut R show’s how the stone is carved at angles on both sides of each stroke until it meets in a central line. A side view of this carved letter would show each stroke is v-shaped. This is a standard style of carving inscriptions, used on Trajan’s Column and ever since.
The firm of McKim, Mead and White were so enamored of the Trajan style, they used it everywhere on their plans, even on titles that describe things but aren’t part of the actual building. There are no very detailed plans of any of their inscription carvings, but the Dover book only has a small selection of the plans needed for the actual buildings, and I have no doubt there were more detailed plans of all the inscriptions they designed.
So where does that leave Ira Schnapp’s claim to have designed the letters on the inscription? First, let’s see how big the carved letters are. Using the scale on the front elevation plan, I estimate that the letters are about two feet high. They could well be larger, but let’s use that as a ballpark figure. Even a detailed drawing of the inscription by the architects would have had much smaller letters, I’m guessing two inches high at most. So, how did the letters get from the drawing to the slabs of stone to be carved? That’s where someone like Ira could come in!
Ira Schnapp was born in Sassow, Austria in 1894 I believe (possibly 1893). He emigrated to New York in 1900 at the age of six. He was part of a large working-class Jewish family that took up residence in New York’s Lower East Side. Nothing is known about his schooling, but it’s likely it did not get past high school. When the Farley Building was being constructed, Ira was a teenager, probably age 18 when it was completed. So how did such a young person from his background get involved in such important work? This is the most puzzling mystery of Ira’s career. My only guesses are through an art teacher at his school, or some kind of apprentice program with the stone-cutters actually given the commission to carve the inscription. A project like the Farley Building would have taken many builders, companies, and craftsmen, sub-contracted for all the special needs of the job. We don’t know who actually did the carving, but it’s quite possible they might have hired or taken on a young man like Ira who showed a talent for working with letters.
If you look up Ira Schnapp on Wikipedia, it says, “Upon his arrival in the United States, Schnapp was already a skilled stonecutter, engraver, and graphic designer. In 1911, while still only 19 years old, Schnapp was hired to hand-carve the engraving on the front of the main branch of the New York Public Library: “MDCCCXCV • THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY • MDCCCCII”. He then worked designing and engraving stamps for the United States Post Office Department, and in 1914 was hired as a stone carver for the post office. Schnapp personally designed the lettering, and hand-carved, the famous slogan “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” in the facade of the James Farley General Post Office.”
I think this is completely wrong. First, Ira couldn’t have arrived with all that training at age 6. Second, Ira spent the rest of his life as a graphic artist, letterer and logo designer. If he had learned the trade of stonecutter, why didn’t he pursue it further?
In 2012 I talked to artist Neal Adams about Ira. Neal knew him near the end of his time at DC Comics, and enjoyed hearing Ira’s stories about his life and work. On the subject of the Farley Building letters, Neal reported that Ira showed him some large, folded up tissue or vellum layouts. Neal said Ira took them out, and started unfolding them, and unfolding them further, until huge letters were revealed, or in some cases just parts of letters. Neal’s jaw dropped with amazement as he told me these were from the work Schnapp did designing the huge carved letters on famous New York City buildings like the James A. Farley Post Office Building on 8th Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets. “Do you think he also carved the letters?” I asked Neal, and he said emphatically, no. Ira was not a carver, he was an artist, a designer. He formed the letters using those tissues. I think this is right.
So, what makes sense to me is that Ira greatly enlarged the architect’s design for the inscription, a task that would have required a good deal of skill and knowledge about letters on his part to do well. The best method I know of doing it, and one I learned myself in high school art class, is the grid method. Above is a Trajan R about two inches tall with a grid drawn over it. The red lines are 1/4 inch apart both ways. If you draw a similar grid on a very large piece of tracing paper or vellum with the grid lines 3 inches apart, then copy each section of the letter as it appears in each square of the grid, you will have a very similar letter about two feet high.
As to how it was transferred to the stone for carving, here’s a graphite transfer technique I also learned in high school. Once your shape is perfected on the front of the paper, flip it over and trace the outline carefully with a soft pencil, making as precise a dark line as you can. Turn the paper back to the front and lay it on the surface to be transferred, in this case probably a slab of white marble. Tape it down to keep it from moving, then draw heavily over the outline again on the front. The graphite you put on the back will transfer to the stone. You can try this yourself on a small scale, it works great.
And that’s what I think Ira Schnapp meant when he said he designed the inscription. He didn’t actually design the letters, but enlarged and perfected them. Perhaps he also transferred them to the stone for carving. And, on such an important project, this was still quite an exciting chance to show what he could do with letters, setting Ira Schnapp on a path that would in time prove him a master letterer and designer.
Remember that Hawkman house ad from near the beginning of this article? I think the HAWKMAN logo shows the influence of the Trajan letters that Ira worked with so early in his career. Even the thicker lines on the right side of each letter suggest carving to me. Ira didn’t forget his early training, and neither should we, but I hope we can be more realistic about what he actually could have accomplished.