Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, Washington, DC

Building History

Refined Doric details articulate the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, the most dramatic example of Classical Revival architecture in the Federal Triangle. The Triangle is a massive complex of government buildings constructed during the 1930s on a site bounded by Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues between 6th and 15th Streets, NW. The 70-acre project was the largest building program undertaken by the government to that time. The Departmental Auditorium, as it was originally known, is part of a three-building ensemble facing the National Mall.

Plans to redevelop the area between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall began to take shape with the 1902 report of what has become known as the McMillan (or Senate Park) Commission. The Commission was a group of four prominent designers appointed by Michigan Senator James McMillan, chairman of the Senate District Committee, to chart the future of Washington's historic core. Implementation of plans, however, went largely unrealized until Congress appropriated money in 1926 and 1928 for the work.

A team including some of the nation's most respected architects, known as the Board of Consulting Architects, planned the Federal Triangle buildings. The board considered Classical Revival architecture appropriate for conveying the power and permanence of the national Government. Arthur Brown, Jr., an Ecole des Beaux-Arts-trained architect from San Francisco, became responsible for designing an ensemble to house the Labor Department, the Departmental Auditorium, and the Interstate Commerce Commission.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the auditorium on February 25, 1935. Among a number of historic events in the building, President Harry S Truman hosted the 1949 signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, which established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The building was renamed in 1987 in honor of Andrew W. Mellon, who oversaw the development of the Federal Triangle complex while serving as Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 to 1932. The Mellon Auditorium was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a component of the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site in 1966.

Architecture

Architect Arthur Brown, Jr., gave the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium a monumental Doric temple front to serve as the central focus of his three-part building group. Like other buildings in the Federal Triangle, Brown's trio of buildings is constructed of steel frames clad in Indiana limestone. Red terra-cotta tiles roof the seven-story auditorium building. Colonnades resting on arched portals connect the auditorium to the twin office buildings designed for the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Department of Labor. The three units encompass nearly six acres and extend 1,000 feet along Constitution Avenue.

The Mellon Auditorium faces Constitution Avenue and is entered through three doorways in the deeply channeled Indiana limestone above Deere Island pink granite. Granite stairs rise to the main doors. All three entrance openings stand 20 feet tall and have gates made of gilded and burnished aluminum, topped with spearheads and tassels. Four 10-foot-high bracket lamps of gilded and burnished aluminum, with foliated volutes supporting the lamp and a pineapple finial, frame the entrances.

Six colossal fluted Roman Doric columns rise 62 feet 6 inches above the base to create the auditorium's portico. The columns are matched by fluted Doric pilasters set against the smooth limestone back wall. This wall has a large niche above which is a historical bas-relief. Flanking the niche are doors providing access to the portico. Crowning the portico, the auditorium's central pediment displays Edgar Walter's "Columbia," a richly carved allegorical sculpture group symbolizing the country, national defense, and national resources.

The grandeur of the building's exterior is matched by its interior. In the stair hall vestibule, the first major interior space of the auditorium, limestone-finished walls and piers define the room and frame views of even grander spaces beyond, including the east and west staircases and the lobby. The marble floor is laid in rectilinear patterns of gold, pink, and dark red marble. The auditorium's lobby is similar to the vestibule.

At the heart of the building is the large meeting room, a spectacular auditorium four stories in height that seats 2,500. Fluted Doric columns surround the room, which is embellished with limestone pilasters, gilded relief carvings, and polished oak. The walls and columns consist mostly of acoustical stone, with the lower portions remaining relatively plain, pierced only by doors and vents with ornamental grilles. Colossal luminaries, made of brass and burnished aluminum, are suspended from the ceiling.

GSA modernized the auditorium in 2002-03. The project restored exterior stonework and key interior spaces such as the small meeting room and the east and west committee rooms. In all three of these rooms, located north of the large meeting room, the deep green glaze and gold leaf accents of the wood-paneled walls were re-created as they originally appeared. The building served as the set for several movies and television shows, including "The West Wing." The modernization project also upgraded office spaces to meet modern technological needs as part of a larger restoration of Federal Triangle buildings to house the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Significant Events

1926: The Public Buildings Act is passed, providing $50 million for Federal construction.

1928: The Triangle Bill authorizes acquisition of land in the area that became the Federal Triangle.

1931: Construction begins on the Labor Department, Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Departmental Auditorium buildings.

1935: Official dedication of the auditorium takes place in February.

1949: President Harry S Truman signs the North Atlantic Treaty in the auditorium, establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

1966: Mellon Auditorium listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1987: An act of Congress renames the Departmental Auditorium in honor of former Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon.

2002-2003: Office spaces are modernized by GSA to accommodate new technology and restore key historic interior spaces for the new tenant, the EPA.

Building Facts

Architect: Arthur Brown, Jr.

Construction Dates: 1931-34

Landmark Status: A component of the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site

Location: Constitution Avenue between 12th and 14th streets, NW

Architectural Style: Classical Revival

Primary Materials: Indiana limestone, Deere Island pink granite, structural steel

Prominent Features: Doric temple front facing Constitution Avenue; 2,500-seat large meeting room

Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, Washington, DC

The central focus of a three part building group by Arthur Brown, Jr., the Departmental Auditorium has a pure temple form facade and, inside, a magnificent assembly room of monumental scale. The Auditorium is a temple-form building connected by colonnades and narrow wings to symmetrically flanking, twin office buildings of the Interstate Commerce Commission and the U.S. Customs Service (originally the Department of Labor). The group occupies roughly six acres of ground and has overall dimensions of 250'x1000'. Linking the Auditorium with the flanking ICC and Customs Buildings are narrow connectors of arched open portals topped by columns 45' in height. Brown's 3-part group forms the southern wing of what was intended to be an enormous U-shaped group. The Auditorium's Constitution Avenue (principal) facade is fenestrated by 3 entrance doorways, providing a clue as to the special and almost singular function of its interior. The 6-story great assembly room occupies 57% of the building mass, with the major remaining spaces devoted to small meeting rooms, lobbies, and a series of offices assigned to the Interstate Commerce Commission. The entire first floor of the building is devoted to monumental spaces, the basement to service spaces and cafeteria, and the 3rd through 7th floors to office and storage space. The building has a simple rectangular part which, by inclusion of the connecting wings, is extended on east-west axes at the extreme north and south ends of the building. These east-west sections connect with the flanking office buildings, the north section devoted largely to office space for the ICC and the south section being a colonnade with 6th and 7th floor passages to the adjoining buildings. Of steel frame construction, the building is clad in buff colored limestone and has a terra cotta tile roof. In contrast to the horizontality of the flanking office buildings, the Departmental Auditorium has a strongly vertical emphasis. This verticality is countered by a classical, tripartite division of the facade consisting of a 2-story rusticated base, a mid-section of 3 stories, and an attic consisting of a monumental cornice and pediment. The exterior elevation at Constitution Avenue is embellished with Beaux Arts sculpture, including an allegorical pediment group, figural keystones, metope in 26 designs and bas-relief panels. Wall mounted light fixtures and entrance gates of large scale are associated with the Constitution Avenue entrances. These are of burnished aluminum with an oxidized finish, richly embellished. The interior is exceptionally grand, its monumental public spaces among the very finest ever designed for a Federal building.

Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, Washington, DC

The Federal Triangle project was the largest building program ever undertaken by the government; it was the first federally funded urban redevelopment project of this scope and, as such, provided a model for city planning in the 1930's through 1950's. The new buildings were to be designed to reflect the "dignity and power of the Nation". Senator James McMillan introduced legislation in 1900 authorizing plans for developing an urban park system and for the siting of future Federal buildings. McMillan's plan proposed that the triangular area south of Pennsylvania Avenue, north of the mall and east of the Ellipse be developed for Federal office buildings and museums. The plan for the Federal Triangle was tied to the passage of the Public Buildings Act of 1926 and, finally, in January, 1928 the Triangle Bill was passed authorizing acquisition of land and allocating funds.

The Departmental Auditorium design was developed several years after the first Federal Triangle plans were published. Arthur Brown, Jr., an Ecole des Beaux Arts architect from San Francisco, was granted a contract for the preparation of preliminary drawings for a 3 part building group (ICC, Customs, Departmental Auditorium) in October 1928. The central element in the 3 part building group was planned as a great temple facade to be a link between 2 large office buildings. As the plan developed, a large assembly space took the place of the previously planned landscaped court.

The historical significance of the building is derived primarily from its great assembly rooms and purposes for which they've been used. Official dedication/inauguration of the room was February 25, 1935. On October 29, 1940, 13,000 people gathered in the auditorium to witness Franklin D. Roosevelt initiate the Selective Service System lottery. Other draft system lotteries were held here in 1941 and 1942. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed here in April of 1949; President Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson and ministers of 11 nations attended. In more recent years the building has been used for both public and private functions: concerts, IRS confiscated property auctions, weddings, and private receptions.

During the 1930's as the government was in the midst of its ambitious building program there arose the question of lack of assembly space for large gatherings and ceremonial occasions. At this time the largest government-owned assembly spaces were the Commerce Department conference room and the House of Representatives chamber in the Capitol. The Departmental Auditorium was intended to fill the lack of space and offer a magnificent hall for government functions. Before the building was completed, however, the need for a still larger space was perceived. Therefore, the use of this splendid auditorium has been cyclical with both periods of high activity and relative abandonment.

The Departmental (Mellon) Auditorium is a component of the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site (National Register #66000865, listed 10/15/1966).

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1928 1934 Original Construction Arthur Brown, Jr.