Ariel Rios Federal Building, Washington, DC

Building History

The William J. Clinton Federal Building is part of the Federal Triangle government complex in Washington, DC. It was constructed in the 1930s as the headquarters for the U.S. Post Office Department, which was then one of the largest civilian employers in the country. Referred to as the New Post Office, it replaced a succession of post offices, including the 1890s Old Post Office building located across 12th Street.

By the early twentieth century, the area north of the National Mall between the Capitol and the White House was one of the city's most blighted neighborhoods. Referred to as Murder Bay, it was a center of crime and prostitution instead of the grand locale that Pierre Charles L'Enfant envisioned as part of his 1791 plan of Washington.

In an attempt to improve the city, planners decided to fulfill L'Enfant's intention while incorporating the ideals of the City Beautiful movement. The result of their efforts was the McMillan Plan of 1901--the first federally funded urban redevelopment plan. Distinguished office buildings executed in classical styles of architecture would replace the blight and assert the power and permanence of the government.

Architects William A. Delano and Chester H. Aldrich created a monumental building with a semicircular facade to front the grand plaza planners envisioned for the center of the Federal Triangle. Their design was intended to rival the magnificence of public buildings in other world capitals. They drew inspiration from London County Hall and Place Vendame in Paris. Using the same trowel that President George Washington used to lay the Capitol's cornerstone in 1793, President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone in 1932.

In 1971, the U.S. Post Office Department became the U.S. Postal Service and shortly after vacated its headquarters. Renamed the Ariel Rios Federal Building in 1985 to honor a fallen Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent, the building still has a post office, but the Environmental Protection Agency is the main occupant. It is part of the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site designated by Congress in 1966.

Architecture

The Ariel Rios Federal Building is eight stories in height and has an unusual footprint that is essentially two semicircles back to back with side wings, resulting in a dramatic sweeping facade. The building is designed in the Classical Revival architectural style. Characteristics of the style found on the building include monumental columns, dentils (square blocks), and balustrades. The exterior is clad in limestone, with granite used to cover the basement level. The rusticated two-story base contains limestone blocks with deeply recessed joints.

The exterior displays columns, porticos, and arcades (arched openings) that are arranged slightly differently on each elevation. The 12th Street elevation is dominated by a colossal portico (entrance porch with columns) and pediment (triangular gable end) that projects from the curved facade and marks the location of the entrance doors. Scrolled Ionic marble columns support a triangular pediment, and similarly designed pilasters (attached columns) are located on the exterior wall. The Pennsylvania Avenue elevation also has a projecting portico that marks the entrance to the Benjamin Franklin Post Office. The pediment is supported by fluted Doric columns that have less ornate capitals than the Ionic columns on the 12th Street elevation. Paneled bronze doors are decorated with molding and floral motifs. The 13th Street elevation is not as varied in detail. It incorporates another dominant portico, and classical motifs on this facade include marble urns, dentils, and acanthus leaves.

The exterior is embellished by sculpture and bas relief panels depicting the significance of the postal service. They were designed by German-born artist Adolph Alexander Weinman, whose work can also be seen on the Supreme Court and National Archives buildings.

The interior was richly appointed with superb finishes. Parquet and marble floors, bronze and chrome lighting fixtures, and mahogany, black walnut, oak, and butternut woodwork are found throughout the building. Much of the stone, wood, metal, and plaster was crafted and installed by hand. The public spaces on the first floor--the entrance and elevator lobbies, postal station, and library--are elaborate. The lavish interior spaces within the original U.S. Postmaster General's suite, which contains four offices and a conference room on the third floor, are among the finest in Federal buildings. The major spaces contain butternut paneling and marble fireplaces. Distinctive chandeliers with glass and chrome light the rooms.

Starburst chandeliers with exposed light bulbs descend seven stories through the open center of two magnificent marble circular staircases. alluding to the post office mission, a design of twisted serpents surmounted by wings, a traditional symbol of Mercury, Roman messenger of the gods, decorates The bronze balustrades.

Art is an integral component of the interior. Commissioned by the Section of Fine Arts during the 1930s, 24 murals depict the country's postal heritage and a ceiling mural depicts the 4 seasons and Zodiac signs. Figurative sculptures are found throughout the building.

While traditional materials were used to construct portions of the building, modern materials such as cork, nickel silver, and structural glass were also used. The building had the first central airconditioning system in a federal building, chilled drinking water, and one of the first central vacuum systems in the country. The cafeteria contained state-of- the-art electric potato peelers, spinach washers, and pea shellers.

In 1993, the U.S. General Services Administration began a building restoration and upgrade. Historic features were kept while state-of-the-art environmental systems were added.

Significant Events

1901: McMillan Plan

1934: Construction completed

1966: Pennsylvania Avenue Historic Site designated

1971: U.S. Post Office Department becomes U.S. Postal Service

1985: Building renamed Ariel Rios Federal Building

1993: Renovation to upgrade the building for the Environmental Protection Agency commenced

Building Facts

Location: 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Architects: William A. Delano and Chester H. Aldrich

Construction Dates: 1931-1934

Landmark Status: Located within the boundaries of the Pennsylvania Avenue Historic Site

Architectural Style: Neoclassical Revival

Primary Material: Limestone

Prominent Features: Sweeping Classical Facade; U.S. Postmaster General's Suite; Winding Marble Staircases; Murals and Sculpture

Ariel Rios Federal Building, Washington, DC

The configuration of the New U.S. Post Office building, renamed the Ariel Rios Federal Building, derives directly from its location on axis between two focal plazas of the original Federal Triangle scheme. It was constructed as two semi-circles back to back with side wings. Although the dominant architectural style and proportions of the buildings were dictated by the need to maintain overall harmony with the Triangle complex, the Ariel Rios Federal Building is profusely decorated throughout with paintings and sculptural reliefs depicting U.S. Postal Service iconography.

The plan is dominated by two semi-circles of unequal size, placed back to back and tangent at their mid-points. The two main entrances to the building are located at this point of tangency, within a two-story, groin-vaulted arcade. Parallel wings running north from the semi-circles are terminated by another wing of the building placed on the diagonal parallel to Pennsylvania Avenue. A six-sided irregular polygonal courtyard is contained within these wings, with walls parallel to the exterior. The shorter wings running south from the central semi-circles are terminated by the north wall of the Interstate Commerce Commission Building and enclose a five-sided light court. The building is eight stories in height, though from the exterior it gives the illusion of having only six stories; the seventh floor is obscured behind the upper balustrade, and the eighth floor is contained within the roof. All of the facades are composed architecturally in three horizontal divisions, as is common in classically influenced structures: a rusticated two-story base; a smoothly finished central section articulated as three stories on the street facades, and as five stories on the lightwells; and a single story cap at roof level. The walls on all sides are of self supporting limestone masonry; on the north and west elevations and in the lightcourts, granite is used for the base watertable and at basement level. Columns, porticos and arcades are used to articulate each facade slightly differently. A steel frame supports the concrete floors inside.

On the 12th Street elevation, a columned pavilion projects from the semi-circular wall to mark the center of the curve and the locations of the entrance doors. The center pavilion is three bays wide, with three arched openings in the rusticated base decorated by scroll keystones and three elaborate bronze lanterns flanking each arch. Above the base, four pairs of marble Ionic columns, with matching pilasters along the building wall, extend from the third to fifth floors and support a sculptured triangular pediment. A balustrade runs between the column pedestals at the third floor level and shields a narrow promenade. The curved sections between the central porticos and end pavilions are eleven bays in length and contain a vaulted arcade approximately 1-1/2 stories high within the rusticated and arched base. The arches sit on smooth limestone pedestals. The inside walls of the arcade are covered with smooth-faced ashlar limestone, with pilasters defining the bays and supporting the groin vaults. The smooth limestone walls above the arcade are defined by a moulded cornice and paneled balustrade at the second floor level and denticulated cornice at the eave above the fifth floor. A Corinthian cornice entablature continues across the entire facade and supports a balustrade at roof level. The corner pavilions on 12th Street project several feet from the arcaded wall and are one bay wide on the north and south faces and three bays on the east face. On the east elevations of the end pavilions, the section between the third and fifth floors is articulated by four fluted Ionic pilasters, with window treatment echoing that of the connecting wings but wall treatment of rusticated limestone. On the elevations of the projecting pavilions, the middle section is marked by rusticated limestone cladding and two pairs of semi-engaged, fluted Ionic columns which support the entablature.

The Pennsylvania Avenue facade is related in detailing to the six bays of the north end of the 12th Street elevation. This elevation is 17 bays wide, with the three easternmost bays at 12th Street marked by a projecting portico. The base part contains a two-story arch flanked by rectangular first and second floor openings identical to those on the rest of the facade. The arch contains the entrance to the Benjamin Franklin U.S. Post Office. The three central stories of the pavilion are marked by four fluted Doric columns which support a Doric frieze and triangular pediment. The tympanum contains another high relief sculptural group. The rest of this elevation has a two-story rusticated limestone base, with rectangular window openings in both stories. The third through fifth floors of the north elevation are set off by a cornice and balustrade and are articulated by Doric pilasters between each bay. A Doric entablature and balustrade cap the middle horizontal section of the wall.

Detailing on the 13th Street (west) elevation is similar but not as varied as that on 12th Street. At each end of the semi-circle is a projecting pedimented three bay wide pavilion. The two-story limestone base is dominated by a central entrance door flanked by large rectangular windows on the ground level. Above the second floor, a flat belt course and balustrade define the base of the colossal order which forms a colonnade around the entire semi-circle. Four marble fluted Doric columns rise three stories to support the Doric entablature and pediment above. The Doric entablature at the top of the colonnade extends across the entire facade. The west semi-circle is 21 bays long and similar in walls and window treatment to the pavilions at each end. Three arches rise through both floors of the base, decorated with rusticated voussoirs and keystones with sculptured heads. The belt course defining the top of the base is carved with the names of past Postmaster Generals.

The central arcade joining the east and west elevations is articulated with nine groin vaults supported on limestone columns and pilasters. Two doorways to the north and south provide access into major spaces of the building via sets of granite steps flanked by cast bronze torcheres.

Ariel Rios Federal Building, Washington, DC

The U.S. Post Office was one of the first executive departments created in the federal government; it moved from New York to DC in 1800. Beginning with a three story house, the Post Office Department was located in at least five locations in Washington, including the 1890s Old Post Office building, which still stands within the Federal Triangle. By the 1920s this building was becoming obsolete; postal receipts rose dramatically each year, and the number of services offered increased as well. In spite of the need for such a structure a new U.S. Post Office building wasn't included in the original Federal Triangle plans. The site later assigned to the U.S. Post Office was initially designated as "independent offices". General plans for this building were in keeping with the Federal Triangle architectural theme, and in February 1930 the "independent offices" building site became the U.S. Post Office Department buildings.

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 1930s through 1950s. The new buildings were 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 New U.S. Post Office Building was designed by the New York firm of Delano and Aldrich in 1931. The specific design was the matter of some debate between the Board of Architectural consultants and the Commission of Fine Arts. However, a plan was finally approved in March of 1930 and construction progressed rapidly and without major incident.

President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone on September 25, 1932, to officially mark the start of construction and in celebration of the 143rd anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Postal Service. At the same time Postmaster General Walter F. Brown designated the 1st floor postal facilities as the Benjamin Franklin Postal Station; the station is still in operation today. By April 1934, two months ahead of schedule, the building was complete. Approximately 4000 persons attended the dedication ceremony on June 11, 1934. The New U.S. Post Office, currently named the Ariel Rios Federal Building, is a component of the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1931 1935 Original Construction Delano and Aldrich
1935 Wood and glass office partitions installed W&J Sloane
1936 Exterior carving completed Edgar Walters
9999 Original phone booths converted to janitor closets unknown
9999 Elevator cabs and doors replaced at lobbies unknown
9999 Office space created from sourtside rooms, 1st flr unknown
9999 Suspended acoustical ceilings installed, some area unknown
9999 Installation of bird deterrent system unknown
9999 Closure of 3 of the 6 entrances at 1st floor unknown
9999 New landscaping at Constitution and 12th St. unknown