The Neighborhood

In 1901, the Senate Park Commission revived the magnificent intentions of the L'Enfant plan upon which the city of Washington DC was founded. Forgotten in the years following the Civil War, the architects, planners, and artists of the commission hoped to create a capital city worthy of representing the nation.

Added to the L'Enfant plan in 1901 were the principles of the City Beautiful movement, which promoted beautiful, well-planned cities as the key to inspiring good moral and civic behavior in the populace. Government buildings were seen as an ideal test of this principle, and City Beautiful was one of the driving principles behind the creation of the Federal Triangle, a large center of government office buildings located between the White House and Capitol along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Construction of the Federal Triangle was authorized in 1926 and by the mid-1930s the complex was fully planned and well under construction. However, the U.S. Government found itself in need of additional space and a second center for government buildings was deemed necessary.

Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., a prominent landscape architect and member of the McMillian commission, prepared recommendations for a "Northwest Building Area." Bound by 17th Street, 23rd Street, Constitution Avenue, E Street, and Virginia Avenue, the area for development was centered around the creation of a long rectangular park, nicknamed the "little mall." The plan included both land for new buildings and incorporated existing government buildings, creating a roughly rectangular district commonly known as the Northwest Rectangle.

The rectangle was designed as a hybrid government center, housing both Federal agencies, such as the Department of Interior and Federal Reserve, as well as quasi-federal groups, such as the Organization of American States, with which the government had frequent interaction. Initially, building development in the Northwest Rectangle was funded by Depression-era public building projects; however, the advent of World War II brought a halt to construction and big changes to the design.

During World War II, the departments of War and Navy quickly expanded, outgrowing their Northwest Rectangle headquarters and moving to the Pentagon. The Department of State took over the old war building; however, Olmstead's vision for a "defense center" housed within the rectangle was destroyed. The second impact of the war was not seen until years later, when construction in the rectangle resumed in the late 1950s. By that time, the beaux arts urban planning and stripped classical architecture popular in the 1930s had been supplanted by modernism, resulting in the addition of a diverse collection of building styles and types to the rectangle.

Today, the Northwest Rectangle shows almost no resemblance to Olmstead's original plan. The modern buildings and highway are a far cry from the unified classical style once envisioned. However, the overarching vision for a vibrant government center lives on – the headquarters for the Departments of Interior and State, as well as OPM, GSA, and the Federal Reserve still reside within the rectangle.




Last Reviewed 2016-06-30