Agriculture South Building, Washington, DC
The Agriculture South Building is a building of great mass, horizontally expressed. For all its size, however, it was conceived of as a subordinate element of the Agriculture complex located south of the Mall. A serviceable building rather than an administrative showplace, the building's emphasis is on its low mass rather than on its detailing. The building covers the entire block between Independence Avenue and C Streets and 14th and 12th Streets, NW, measuring 457'-10" x 944'-2" at its base. Construction required the acquisition of three city blocks and the abandonment of two streets which formerly traversed the site. The low monumentality of the building is enforced by a uniform cornice line at 75', above which a set-back sixth floor and pitched roof extend the overall height to 100'. The street facades give a uniplanar appearance and are broken only by shifts in material and, occasionally, by the shallowest of projecting pavilions. A horizontal continuity is achieved in the common cornice line, in the rhythmic sequence of windows, and in the building's tripartite striation, with its base, central, and upper sections. The building's four street elevations share a common pattern of fenestration and a tripartite classical staging of base, colonnade, and crown. In each instance, however, materials occur in difference combinations and a clear hierarchy is established. The 14th Street and Independence Avenue elevations are clearly the most elaborately treated elevations and include the main entrances. By comparison, the 12th and C Street elevations are obviously secondary. The 14th Street or principal facade is almost entirely of limestone and is further distinguished by a Corinthian colonnade set above a central entrance of three arched doors. The focus of the 14th Street facade is absent in the Independence Avenue elevation with its seven entrances and its two bridges linking it with the Administration Building. While it has a central pavilion, this feature is not strongly articulated and the variety and placement of materials effects a divergent focus toward the two ends rather than the center. The building's most varied use of materials is at the Independence Avenue elevation. The 12th Street elevation is simply articulated and without any entrances. The vehicular portals over the simply treated pedestrian entrances are indicative of the subordinate nature of the C Street elevation. The six rectangular courts were essentially light courts, with three ramping to the basement garage, and three including infill structures housing the Auditorium (Court 5), the Library (Court 4), the new cafeteria (Court 2). The court elevations repeat the variegated brick, large windows, and cast iron spandrels of the street elevations. A slate shingled hip roof occurs above the set-back sixth story. At each of the junctures of the various wings is a penthouse housing a stair and elevator equipment. The Agriculture South Building has six major floors, a basement, a sub-basement, and an attic. The basement and floors 1 through 6 were used historically for offices and laboratories, and are remarkably consistent in treatment, with only the first floor distinguished by its function as the entrance floor. The typical floor plan consists of a series of double-loaded corridor sections flanked by inter-communicating spaces intended interchangeably for office or laboratory use. Clustered at the ends of each north-south wing are elevators, stairs, toilet rooms, telephone booths, and electrical equipment rooms. The isolation of these elements provides for long, uninterrupted runs of office/laboratory space and for consolidation of specialized mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and other systems. The building is one of an impressive number of major Federal buildings designed in the Stripped Classic style which flourished in the 1930s. The style is alternately referred to as starved classicism, Depression Modern, and WPA Modern. The style was grounded in a reinterpretation of classical formulas, but also offered a departure from the Beaux Arts and Neoclassical styles of earlier in the century, although it remains identified with components of the Neoclassical style. By emphasizing mass over detail, architects working in this style could evoke a sense of great strength without literal reference to specific classical forms and details. As such, the Stripped Classic style was considered especially appropriate to government buildings.
The Department of Agriculture, South Building was designed by the Office of the Supervising
Architect of the Treasury, and erected between 1930 and 1936 to provide laboratory and office
space. Until the erection of the Pentagon in 1942, the Agriculture South Building was
considered the largest office building in the world. With overall base dimensions of 458' x
944', the building has 4,500 rooms, seven miles of corridors, 12 million bricks, and 11,000
miles of structural steel. Despite its enormity, the building was intended to occupy what was
clearly a subordinate position both within the Department of Agriculture complex and within
the larger realm of the city's monumental core, characterized by a predominance of
monumentally scaled public buildings.
The Agriculture South Building grew out of a desire to consolidate in a single complex the
myriad functions of the Department of Agriculture. The Administration Building, built in 1928-
1930, and its laboratory wings (1904-1908) had been planned in the early 1900s, as part of
the 1902 Senate Park Commission. The site to the south across Independence Avenue from
the Administration Building provided a logical extension of the existing USDA complex.
Reflecting its location and function, it was important that the design of the South Building be
physically separate and distinct, while subordinate to that of the earlier Administration Building.
In order to bring its growing laboratory facilities into a modern climate, the Department sought
the construction of the South Building as a simple, flexible space which could accommodate
huge numbers of rooms for laboratory and office use. Originally termed the Extensible
Building, the Agriculture South Building was planned for phased construction. The term
"extensible" is an archaic term meaning capable of being extended. The First Phase of
construction, 1930-1932, consisted of Wings 4 and 5 and the connecting segments along
Independence Avenue and C Street. The Second Phase, begun in 1932 and completed in
1935, included all portions east and west of Phase One, and occurred simultaneously to
complete the building. While not technically a Third Phase, construction of the middle portion
of Wing 1 was delayed for removal of some existing buildings along 13th Street, and to
include the erection of the two pedestrian bridges which link the South and Administration
Buildings, but was completed in 1936.
The architectural significance of the Agriculture South Building is derived from several factors.
The principal characters in the design and construction were the staff of the Treasury
Department's Office of the Supervising Architect. Unlike many other Federal buildings of the
period, no private architects were involved in the design process. The Office of the
Supervising Architect was at the time the world's largest and the predominant force in shaping
the direction of Federal architecture in Washington and throughout the nation. Louis A. Simon
was Chief of the Architectural Division of the Office of the Supervising Architect from 1905
until 1934 when he became the Supervising Architect. He replaced the layman, James
Wetmore, who had held the tile of Acting Supervising Architect since 1915. Although his
exact role as a designer is uncertain, Simon is credited with responsibility for the design.
Simon also designed the Internal Revenue Building (1930-1935), which is the only building
within the Federal Triangle complex not designed by architects in private practice.
The building is one of an impressive number of major Federal buildings designed in the
Stripped Classic style which flourished in the 1930s. The style is alternately referred to as
starved classicism, Depression Modern, and WPA Modern. The building's style was
influenced by the Office of the Supervising Architect and by the Commission of Fine Arts,
which was responsible for reviewing and commenting on plans in the District of Columbia.
The style was grounded in a reinterpretation of classical formulas, but also offered a departure
from the Beaux Arts and Neoclassical styles of earlier in the century, although it remains
identified with components of the Neoclassical style. The style was largely developed by
private architects and fostered by a government client, and assumed a strong, if not
exclusive, association with Federal architecture. The Stripped Classic style had a major
impact in reshaping Washington in the 1930s up to the time of World War II.
Among Washington's Federal Buildings of the period, Agriculture South is of special interest
for its unusual variety and application of materials; variegated brick, limestone, glazed terra
cotta, and cast and wrought iron occur in combination. The varied use of materials in the
Agriculture South Building sets it apart from many other Federal projects of the period and
was probably something of an experimental application on a building intended to appear as a
subordinate element of an Executive Department building complex.
Interior materials are also somewhat unusually applied; they include a variety of polychrome
ceramic floor tile and natural finished wood doors and frames. Except at the Auditorium, and
consistent with the precepts of the Stripped Classic style , minimal architectural embellishment
was applied at the interior. Although intended as a design with restraint, the system of
double-loaded corridors occurring at right angles to the Head House and Tail House, provides
almost no diversion from a rigidly orthogonal grid plan, and a seemingly infinite repetition of
spaces and details. Even the entrance lobbies are held in check so as not to disrupt the
pattern of corridors. Only the Auditorium and Library deviate from this plan by being isolated
and projected into two of the courts; the recently constructed cafeteria has been introduced
into a third court. As with many other Federal buildings of the period, the interior was
designed to permit the future flexibility of spaces and their functions.
While no historical events of singular importance are known to be associated with this
building, its broader association with the growth of the Department of Agriculture is significant.
Between the two World Wars, Washington was transformed by the rapid growth of the Federal
government. The exponential growth of the period may be seen in the population of Federal
employees: the 1880 ratio of one government employee for every 502 members of the total
population had changed to 1:237 in 1910, and to 1:120 by 1940. The concurrent demand for
buildings to house these Federal workers resulted in the vastly scaled building program
conducted by the Office of the Supervising Architect. Through the 1950s, the South Building
continued to function in the capacity for which it was originally intended; the removal of
laboratory functions to the Department's Beltsville, Maryland facility has left the building
exclusively occupied by offices.
Of limited technological significance is the pneumatic tube system installed originally for mail
delivery. Three "Tube Rooms" were located at each floor, one each at the north ends of
Wings 2, 4, and 6, where mail was sorted and distributed.
|1930||1936||Original Construction||Hill, James B.|
|1935||Motion Picture Lab. at Auditorium|
|1957||A/C Sub-Bsmt, Bsmt, 1st-6th Flrs, Attic, Wg 1,2,3|
|1958||A/C Wing 3, Sub-Bsmt, Bsmt, 1st-6th Flrs, Attic|
|1959||A/C Wing 6-7, Sub-Bsmt, Bsmt, 1st-6th Flrs, Attic|
|1962||Thomas Jefferson Auditorium|
|1965||New Lighting, Replace Feeders|
|1969||Clean, Paint, Birdproof|
|1970||Renovate Conference Room|
|1971||Replace Entrance Doors|
|1972||New Cafeteria Court No. 2|
|1979||Handicap Access - Various Buildings|
|1982||Upgrade Electrical System Wings 5-7|