Central Heating Plant, Washington, DC

Central Heating Plant exterior detail

Building History

In April 1931, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced its plan to construct the Central Heating Plant, which would furnish steam to twenty-six federal buildings in Washington. The government stated that special attention would be given to the design of the new structure, and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) would review all plans.

At the turn of the twentieth century, growing concern over the disjointed appearance of the National Mall and the blighted neighborhood surrounding it led to the McMillan Plan of 1901, which, incorporating the ideals of the City Beautiful movement and the L'Enfant Plan of 1791, recommended that Washington's monumental core be redeveloped as an enclave of classically inspired public buildings. Plans went largely unrealized until the Public Buildings Act of 1926 authorized the government to hire private architects and spurred a large-scale building program.

As new federal buildings began rising along the Mall, the need for an efficient heating system became critical. The government selected prominent French-American architect Paul Philippe Cret, who also designed the Organization of American States building and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, to develop plans. Cret met with the CFA throughout 1931 as it reviewed the smokestack height and exterior design. Responding to concerns over his initial design, which included three tall smokestacks that dramatically affected Washington's skyline, Cret incorporated the stacks within the building but allowed them to rise to a height at which fumes would not be objectionable to occupants of nearby buildings.

When the cornerstone was laid on July 7, 1933, the $5.7 million facility was characterized as the largest heating plant in the world. Construction proceeded quickly, and in January 1934 workers delivered the first load of coal to the plant. By 1936, the plant's six boilers were heating seventy-one public buildings. In 1948, the West Heating Plant was constructed in Georgetown to share heat production for federal buildings in Washington. Despite numerous equipment changes, the Central Heating Plant retains its original configuration, materials, and function. In 2007, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


Described by the Works Progress Administration as "a forceful example of functional design" in a 1937 visitors guide to Washington, the Central Heating Plant was hailed for both its architecture and efficiency. Architect Paul Philippe Cret designed the monolithic steel and masonry main building in the Art Deco style, characterized by a stepped facade, linear composition with walls broken into vertical planes by long expanses of recessed windows, and stylized ornamentation.

Located in the northwest corner of a site bounded by Twelfth, Thirteenth, C, and D streets, the six-story variegated buff, brown, and yellow brick building is symmetrically designed with a limestone base. A continuous limestone string course separates the first floor from the upper floors, which contain vertically arranged industrial awning windows. The windows rhythmically break up the expansive elevations on the west, north and south.

Fronting Thirteenth Street, the symmetrical west facade is articulated by a projecting tower and central main entrance. Limestone stairs flanked by rounded limestone cheek walls lead to the entrance sheltered by a streamlined metal overhang. Aluminum-frame sidelights and transom surround double glass doors, and are encased within a rounded limestone frame.

On the first floor, four terracotta panels depict machinery housed within the building: a generator, heat exchanger, blower, and safety valve. A centrally located stack of steel-frame windows extends from the second to the fifth floor. Projecting brick bays framing the windows are flanked by narrow vertical window stacks, which are in turn framed by brick buttresses. Above the central stack of windows, a terracotta stylized panel illustrates the heating plant boiler. A denticulate classicized cornice caps the entrance block. A steel-framed screen wall with a metal panel roof, added in 1973, tops the building.

The secondary elevations contain architectural details similar to those found on the facade, including vertical bays of industrial awning windows alternating with brick buttresses, and a classical cornice. Facing Twelfth Street and obscuring the original east elevation, the 1958 six-story refrigeration plant addition, while designed to echo the original plant, has wider bays and slightly different brick hues.

The Central Heating Plant main building's interior was designed primarily for utilitarian use, and therefore has large mechanical spaces necessary to hold boiler equipment. The first floor lobby and stair hall are accessed from the west, or main, entrance. The lobby is a small, one-story space finished in a brown-veined marble and brown-toned terrazzo floors framed by a black granite border. Original decorative vent covers adorn the east wall of the lobby. Two wooden and glass panel doors lead to the mechanical rooms behind the lobby. A small stair hall located at the north end of the lobby originally led to offices for workers. The stairway is u-shaped and contains original terrazzo treads and a stylized metal balustrade. In the mechanical spaces, steel catwalks run between equipment.

Mechanical equipment has been continually repaired and replaced since the plant opened in 1934. While still capable of running on coal, the plant now runs on natural gas and uses oil only as an emergency fuel source. The two remaining original boilers were significantly modified during the mid-1990s and converted to firing of natural gas and distillate fuel oil. Today, the plant services about one hundred Washington buildings.

Significant Events

Treasury Department announces plan to construct Central Heating Plant

Assistant Secretary of the Treasury L.M. Roberts lays cornerstone
Plant operations begin the next year

January 1937
WPA records daily plant statistics: 15 million pounds of steam produced from 1.8 million gallons of water and 700 tons of coal

West Heating Plant constructed in Northwest Washington to share heat production with Central Heating Plant

Refrigeration plant addition constructed

Central Heating Plant listed in National Register of Historic Places

Building Facts

Location: 325 Thirteenth Street SW

Architect: Paul Philippe Cret

Construction Dates: 1933-1934

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Architectural Style: Art Deco

Primary Materials: Brick, limestone, and steel

Prominent Features:
Stepped, variegated brick facade with tall industrial awning windows and buttresses
Terracotta sculptural panels with stylized depictions of plant machinery

Central Heating Plant exterior detail

The Central Heating Plant is located in Square 297 which is bounded by 12th and 13th and C and D Streets, S.W., in Washington, D.C. The building is surrounded on three sides by Federal buildings including the Department of Agriculture and Annex Buildings, and the U.S. Printing and Engraving Annex. The building is sited adjacent to the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The building occupies the northwest corner of the lot. The building is a 6-story, monolithic steel and masonry building, basically rectangular in plan. Built in the industrial Art Deco style, the building's design relies upon the interaction of large cubic masses for architectural effect. The main block of the building, the cooling tower, the entrance, the walled coal yard, and the metal screen wall all read as discrete yet related units. The facades are articulated by long vertical openings of metal, awning industrial windows alternated with brick buttressing. Tension created through the careful proportioning of solid to void enlivens the classically regular rhythm of the fenestration. The industrial impact of the building is somewhat softened through the architect's execution of pattern and surface enrichment. Materials, elements and treatment are introduced that minimize the bold massing of the composition. The variegated buff, brown and yellow brick, the classicized cornice in patterned brickwork on the main block of the building, the bold denticulate cornice on the entrance block, the buttresses, the decorative sculptured panels, and the garden-like screen wall around the coal yard all work together to project a certain gentility which harmonizes with surrounding Federal office buildings. The west or main elevation fronts 13th Street. The west elevation is centered by the main entrance and a double width stack of vertical windows. Brick projecting bays frame the central windows and two flanking single-width side windows. The main portal is located atop a flight of limestone stairs. The metal double-doors of the principal entry are framed by rounded limestone surrounds, and topped by a streamlined metal marquee. Two terra cotta, sculptured panels on either side of the entrance depict machinery housed within the building - a generator, heat exchanger, blower and safety valve. An abstracted detail of the boiler is sculpted in the panel which tops the entrance block. The eastern segments of the north and east elevations date to the large 1957 addition of a refrigeration plant. Although, designed to be perceived as part of the original heating plant, the bays are wider than those of the original, and the brick does not quite match the original. A central truck entry on the eastern elevation mimics the main entrance on the western elevation, in location and design. A one-story screen wall encloses the coal yard and fuel storage tanks, and forms the southern elevations of the building. A line in the brick marks the original screen wall height prior to the refrigeration plant addition. The main lobby and stair hall maintains its original configuration, details and materials. Two wood and glass paneled doors on either side of a bronze "cornerstone" plaque lead to the mechanical floors immediately behind the lobby. Marble walls and terrazzo floors in brown tones provide the decorative elements in the lobby. A turned metal balustrade and terrazzo treads ornaments the stair on the northern side of the lobby, leading to the second floor offices. The interior of the huge building presents the appearance of the engine room of a gigantic steamship. Constructed with capacity for six boilers, steam is furnished to buildings as far away as the Pension Office Building at 5th and G Streets at least a mile from the Central Heating Plant boilers. Three steam pipe mains, two of 18-inch diameter and one of 12-inch diameter carry the steam from the plant. The mechanical equipment throughout the heating plant has been continually updated, repaired and replaced since 1933. Improved technology has warranted more modern machinery, and made other equipment obsolete. Only two original boilers remain, which are presently being reconfigured to meet contemporary standards.

Central Heating Plant exterior detail

The Central Heating Plant in Washington, D.C. was designed by the architect Paul Philippe Cret for the Procurement Division of the U.S. Treasury Department. The project was managed by James A. Wetmore, Acting Supervising Architect and Louis Simon, architect, both of the Procurement Division. The cornerstone was laid in 1933, construction was completed and the plant commenced operation in 1934. The work of an important American architect whose aesthetic philosophies significantly affected Federal design, and as a carefully conceived and well-executed example of the Art Deco style, the Central Heating Plant is a significant representation of American
industrial design from the 1930s.

The building was designed to serve as the main heating plant for all Federal buildings within Washington, D.C. At the cost of $5,749,000, it was the largest heating facility in the United States serving 22 Federal buildings and burning approximately 230 tons of coal a day. The facility's siting at the northwest portion of its lot, left the remaining land area available for coal storage and for future extensions of the building. The addition of the Refrigeration Plant to the east of the main heating plant building was completed in 1957. In 1948, the construction of the West Heating Plant reduced the role of the Central Heating Plant by taking over responsibility for heating Federal buildings in the western section of Washington, D.C. Today, the facility works in conjunction with the West Heating Plant to provide heat for the majority of Federal Buildings in the Nations Capital.

The Central Heating Plant is designed in an industrial Art Deco style, which features streamlined brick walls, patterned brickwork, and decorative sculptural panels. The building's exterior walls are brick with tall industrial type windows. Its essential components include a
main building to house the boilers and adjunct mechanical equipment; the refrigeration plant addition; a coal-receiving building; an enclosed yard for coal and fuel storage; and pipes and tunnels for steam distribution.

Located in the heart of Washington's Federal office building district, the building's industrial purpose was carefully translated by its architect into a design compatible with the notable Federal buildings which surround it. The passage of the Shipstead-Luce Act in 1930, required the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) to review the designs of public buildings in Washington bordering public spaces. Consequently, the CFA reviewed the height, exterior design, and construction of the Central Heating Plant at several meetings in 1931. Architect Cret
submitted numerous plans and made several presentations in the effort to gain CFA approval. His original design included three smokestacks above the roof, dramatically effecting the city's skyline. The primary concern of the CFA was the aesthetic appearance of the smokestacks rising above the roof. Consequently, Cret formulated a design that incorporated the stacks within the building but allowed them to rise to a height that could carry fumes above the point where they would be objectionable to the workers in the Agriculture Building. Upon approval of the design, CFA Chairman Charles Moore wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon that the CFA was "so well satisfied with the main features of the location and design of the Heating Plant..." (December 18, 1931). The successful completion
of Cret's design is seen in its selection by a panel of architects as a distinguished representative of Government architecture for the decade of 1927 to 1936.

The Central Heating Plant has been subject to numerous changes in equipment over the last sixty years. Four of the original six boilers have been replaced, and the plant has moved from a coal-based fuel source to one capable of running on coal, oil or natural gas. The construction of the Refrigeration Plant obscures the view of the original east elevation.

The building was listed as an individual landmark within the District of Columbia's Inventory of Historic Sites in 1975. The building is eligible, but is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Description Architect
1933 1934 Original Construction Paul Cret
1957 East Extension (Refrigeration Plant Addition) Karsunky, Weller & Gooch
Last Reviewed: 2017-09-29