Environmental Protection Agency, West Building, Washington, DC

Environmental Protection Agency, West Building

Environmental Protection Agency East and West
Washington, DC

Building History

In the early twentieth century, the area of Washington, D.C., now known as the Federal Triangle was one of the city's most blighted neighborhoods. In an attempt to improve the city, the federally funded Senate Park Commission developed an urban redevelopment plan that incorporated the ideals of the City Beautiful movement. The 1901 McMillan Plan, as it came to be known, proposed that the triangular area between Pennsylvania Avenue, the National Mall, and the Ellipse be developed as an enclave of monumental, classically inspired federal buildings.

Implementation of the seventy-acre Federal Triangle project went unrealized until the passage of the Public Buildings Act of 1926, which authorized $50 million for the construction of new buildings in the District of Columbia. At the urging of the American Institute of Architects, the U.S. Treasury Department turned over principal design responsibilities to a Board of Architectural Consultants, comprised of private architects, who formulated an overall scheme for the Triangle and then divided design tasks for the individual buildings.

Arthur Brown, Jr., (1874-1959) received the responsibility to design a three-part building group facing Constitution Avenue that would house the Interstate Commerce Commission, Departmental Auditorium, and Department of Labor. Brown, a San Francisco-based architect who trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, designed the buildings between 1928 and 1931, and construction was completed in 1934. The Interstate Commerce Commission, which regulated carriers engaged in transportation between states, occupied the east building of the complex until the agency was abolished in 1995. The Department of Labor vacated the west building in 1979, after which it housed the U.S. Custom Service. In 2002, following a major modernization, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took occupancy and the structures became known as EPA East, the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, and EPA West. The complex was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site in 1966.


The three-part building ensemble consisting of EPA East, the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, and EPA West faces Constitution Avenue and is situated between Twelfth and Fourteenth streets in the Federal Triangle of Washington, District of Columbia. Conceived as a whole composition, the buildings in the Federal Triangle possess similar materials, tiled roofs, and an orchestrated rhythm of pavilions and colonnades. The Mellon Auditorium, with its Roman Doric temple front, is the central focus of the grouping and linked to the symmetrical east and west wings by narrow connectors with arched open portals. The complex was intended to be part of a U-shaped group, but while EPA East connects perpendicularly with the Ariel Rios Federal Building, the north arm was never executed.

Intended to be twin buildings, EPA East and West have seven stories plus basement and attic. Faced in Indiana limestone with a steel frame, the buildings have a rectangular plan pierced by central light courts. Each facade is divided horizontally into three horizontal bands. The rusticated base includes the first and second stories, with projecting end pavilions, rectangular windows topped by keystones carved with figural heads, and a central arched entrance. The third through sixth stories comprise the smooth-faced middle section. On the third floor, alternating windows have a balcony and balustraded balconet. The pavilions each have fluted Doric columns, supporting an entablature with a frieze that has alternating triglyphs and metopes carved in twenty-six varying designs. Pediments have elaborately carved sculpture groups representing the activities of the agencies for which the buildings were constructed. The top section includes the set-back seventh floor and is topped by a roof clad in variegated terracotta tile.

The interiors are richly finished with marble floors and limestone walls, aluminum and brass ornamental metal work, wood paneling, vaulted ceilings, murals, and bas relief. Lobbies have coffered plaster ceilings with decorative paint treatment. Requirements of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the first agency to occupy EPA East, influenced the interior design. Bisecting the central first floor corridor, the two-story rotunda has a marble floor with a star design at the center. Eight engaged Doric columns ring the room, supporting a heavy entablature from which ascends a coffered plaster dome lit by an oculus. Two large, nearly identical public hearing rooms flank the rotunda to the east and west, and have oak walls with window and door openings framed by pilasters. The commissioners' bench is of paneled wainscot, and behind it is a canvas mural with a United States map highlighted with trade locations and routes. Other significant spaces include the commissioner's suites with private offices and reception rooms, and the commissioners' conference room on the fourth floor.

Due to the less public aspect of the Labor Department and a decreased need for meeting spaces, the interior of EPA West is simpler than that of its counterpart. However, the executive office suite on the third floor has oak and birch paneled walls and oak parquetry floors with grey marble borders. Designed for the secretary of labor, the ceremonial office has a verde antique marble chimneypiece and high ceiling finished with oak beams.

Significant Events

McMillan Plan proposes development of future Federal Triangle area

Public Buildings Act of 1926 authorizes funding

Three building complex constructed

Pennsylvania Avenue Historic Site listed in the National Register

Department of Labor vacates and U.S. Customs Service occupies building

Interstate Commerce Commission dissolved

EPA occupies building

Building Facts

Constitution Avenue between Twelfth and Fourteenth Streets, Northwest

Arthur Brown, Jr.

Construction Dates:

Landmark Status:
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site

Architectural Style:
Classical Revival

Primary Material:
Indiana Limestone

Prominent Feature:
Classical facades with Beaux Arts sculpture

The Customs Service Building is a 7 story steel frame, masonry clad structure with a basement and attic. The exterior facades are clad in Indiana limestone and rise sheer for 6 stories. The seventh story is set on a recessed plane, behind a balustraded promenade. The building's outward focus is toward Constitution Avenue and 14th Street. The north elevation is common to the north elevations of the Auditorium and ICC Buildings. The Constitution Avenue or principal facade is 372 feet and 21 bays in length. The classical division of the facade into three horizontal bands consists of: a base section, middle section and top section. The base section includes the 1st and 2nd stories and is distinguished by the rustication of the limestone veneer blocks. At the 1st story 2 semi-circular arched niches flank a massive door with a semi-circular arched glazed upper section. First floor windows have paired 4/4 pane painted steel sash with a fixed transom in 2 halves, each with 4 lights. Second floor windows are paired 4 over 4 pane. The base section terminates at the 3rd floor sill course. The middle section of the building includes the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th stories. The smooth finished limestone walls rise from a 3rd floor base course to an ornate cornice at the 6th story. The 3rd and tallest story is set directly atop the rusticated base, with every other window having a balcony and a heavy architrave. The two end pavilions each have 4 fluted Doric columns rising 45 feet from the 3rd floor to the base of the cornice. The upper section includes a set-back 7th floor and roof. Because of the planar recession, this portion of the elevation was given a simpler treatment with the knowledge that it would be barely visible from the perspective of the street. The smooth surfaced limestone walls of the middle section are repeated here, with no ornamentation.

The 14th Street (west) facade has a much simpler and asymmetrical entrance and two end pavilions that are without pediments. The 11 bay elevation is 246 feet in length and repeats the same tripartite horizontal division as seen at the principal facade.

The driveway court (east) elevation is set close to the west elevation of the Departmental Auditorium Building. The east end of the building is in two sections, the south 2/3 are open to the driveway court while the north 1/3 is, above the third floor, part of a connecting wing providing direct internal linkage with the Auditorium Building.

The north elevation is part of a larger composition in which the north elevations of each component of the 3 part building group are merged into a single, continuous facade.

The enclosed rectangular court includes the 4 elevations of the main portion of the building. The 4 court walls are clad in smooth surfaced limestone at the lower 3 stories and buff colored brick walls at the upper five stories, the latter having limestone sill courses.

On the interior there is a central, rectangular light court, and a double-loaded corridor flanked largely by offices but also by stairs, elevators, toilet rooms and occasional ancillary spaces. The first floor is significant for the elaboration afforded its public entrances. The entrances are part of the horizontal circulation system, leading visitors directly to the corridors. The monumental spaces include the 6 entrances, passenger elevator lobbies, corridors, and main stairs. The third floor is the grandest of the upper floors. Its most distinguishing feature is the executive office suite running the full length of the south end of the building, to either side of an elaborately treated Constitution Avenue corridor.

The U.S. Customs Service Building was designed by Arthur Brown, Jr. of San Francisco between 1926 and 1931 and erected between 1932 and 1934. The building was built as the Department of Labor building, but the tenancy changed to the Customs Service in 1979.

Construction of the building was performed through contracts to various private firms under the direction of the Office of the Supervising Architect, a division of the Department of the Treasury. While many designs for the Federal Triangle buildings were changed or abandoned over time, the design for the Customs Building was changed very little.

The Customs Building is the western building of Brown's 3 building group (Customs, ICC and the Departmental Auditorium), which forms the southern wing of what was intended to be an enormous U-shaped group. The ICC building connects perpendicularly with Delano and Aldrich's New Post Office (now Ariel Rios) building, but the corresponding north arm was never built.

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.

Brown designed the U.S. Customs Building as a commercial office without any special plan arrangement. Aside from the major entrances and circulation spaces, the only space of individual distinction is the Secretary of Labor's Office Suite at the southwest corner of the third floor. The Department of Labor occupied the building beginning January 1, 1935. The carvings on the building were not completed until October, 1936 due to delays and reduction of allocated funds.

The historicial significance of the building lies primarily in its occupation by the Department of Labor. Samuel Gompers, the son of the famous labor leader, orked closely with Brown in determining the spatial requirements of the Department of Labor where he was Chief Clerk. The Chief Clerk's suite remains intact as part of the executive suite which includes the Secretary of Labor's offices. Frances Perkins, the 1st woman appointed to a Cabinet level position, served as Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945 and occupied these offices.

The U.S. Customs Service Building is a component of the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site (National Register #66000865).

Description Architect
1932 1934 Original Construction Arthur Brown, Jr.
Last Reviewed: 2021-08-30