Lafayette Building, Washington, DC

Building History

In 1938, the Lafayette Building Corporation was established with the purpose of constructing a building at Lafayette and Fifteenth streets in Washington, D.C. The corporation intended to privately develop the building that would then be leased to the federal government, making this an unusual speculative venture. The group retained the Chicago architectural firm Holabird & Root to design the building, which included some of the first uses of underground parking and central air-conditioning in the city. Holabird & Root invited a former employee, Washington architect A.R. Clas, to participate in key components of the design. Clas, who also worked for the federal government before starting his own firm, was likely critical in securing the commission. The architects selected the Stripped Classical style for the design of the Lafayette Building. The cornerstone was laid in 1939 and construction was completed a year later. Architectural Forum praised the design as a good example of "an observance of the classic formula with the elimination of accompanying detail."

While commercial enterprises occupied the street-level retail spaces, finance-related agencies leased the remaining portions of the building. Original tenants included the Federal Loan Agency, Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), RFC Mortgage Company, Disaster Loan Agency, Federal National Mortgage Authority, Export-Import Bank of Washington, and the Elective Home and Farm Authority, all established during the New Deal era. The building is significant for its historical association with both the Federal Loan Agency and the RFC, which were critical agencies involved in financing the mobilization of American industries during World War II. Jesse Holman Jones, who served as the chairman of the RFC until 1939 when he was appointed Federal Loan Administrator, maintained an office in the Lafayette Building, monitoring RFC activities even after he was appointed to the Cabinet as Secretary of Commerce in 1940, a position he retained until his retirement in 1945. Jones was called the second most important man in American government, after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the building is significant for its association with Jones's prominent career.

In 1947, the federal government assumed ownership of the Lafayette Building. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior in 2005.

Architecture

Although developed by a private corporation, the restrained exterior appearance of the Lafayette Building is typical of federal buildings erected during the Great Depression and World War II years, when government officials and architects agreed that elaborate ornamentation on public buildings represented unnecessary costs. Stripped Classical buildings feature little ornamentation and blend classical forms and high-quality materials from earlier eras with Modern design tenets. The Lafayette Building retains a high level of architectural integrity on both the interior and exterior, appearing much as it did upon its completion in 1940.

The Lafayette Building is in a prominent location in Washington, D.C, facing both Lafayette Square and McPherson Park, one block from the White House. It occupies two-thirds of an irregularly shaped block bounded by Vermont Avenue and Fifteenth, I, and H streets and has an unusual footprint that is shaped like a lowercase E. The building is twelve stories in height, with the top two stories set back behind a terraced balcony. A granite retaining wall creates a narrow strip for plantings.

The Lafayette Building's steel frame is encased with concrete and brick, collectively selected by the architects for their fireproof qualities. The first story of the building, which contains retail space, is clad in black granite, while the upper levels are faced with smooth light grey limestone on the street-front elevations. Less costly brick faces the alley and courtyard elevations. Regularly spaced square windows with one-over-one, double-hung configurations dominate all elevations and are slightly recessed to avoid interruption of the wall plane. Bronze is used liberally on the first two stories, forming spandrels that divide the first and second levels, window frames, entrance doors, shop fronts, and select railings. Simple recessed panels at select ends of the building run the full height of the main mass and suggest plain classically inspired pilasters. A parapet wall with a deeply recessed mortar joint tops the tenth story and forms the terrace edge that contains the building's upper two stories.

The principal entrance consists of four pairs of deeply recessed bronze and glass doors centrally located on the Vermont Avenue elevation. Above the entry are tall bronze-framed windows with fixed lights, each surrounded by flush black granite panels and separated by three, two-story granite piers. Projecting limestone frames surround the third-story windows aligned above the entrance.

The architects designed the interior spaces to be reserved yet dramatic. The entrance lobby is both one and two stories in height and forms an irregular polygonal footprint with walls that splay outward. The space is defined by piers sheathed in black Alberene, a type of soapstone, and grey marble covers the walls. Recessed cove lighting illuminates the lobby. The first floor elevator lobbies are lit by a luminous rear wall. The elevator doors have a satin bronze finish with fluted horizontal bands.

Three important rooms directly associated with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) are located on the eleventh and twelfth floors. These rooms convey a feeling of reserved richness, using high quality materials with spare decorative elements. The director's office suite, once occupied by Jesse Holman Jones, features knot pine paneling that is now painted. The board room walls are covered in Appalachian oak paneling, while walnut paneling covers the conference room walls. Floors of all three rooms historically were covered in carpeting.

Other interior spaces employ high-quality materials. Simply elegant, they lack ornate decorative elements.Throughout the interior, walls are clad with polished white Alabama marble panels to a height of seven feet with plaster finishes above. Baseboards and door trim are black Alberene. Floors are covered with cream-colored terrazzo with inset panels and circles of black Alberene and grey terrazzo that mark important corridor junctions. Water fountains set in large, recessed, circular marble panels with Alberene frames are among the most prominent interior features.

Significant Events

1938 Lafayette Building Corporation established

1940 Lafayette Building construction completed

1940-1945 Jesse Holman Jones, Chairman of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, occupies the director's suite

1947 Federal government assumes ownership of the building

2005 Building designated as a National Historic Landmark

Building Facts

Location: 811 Vermont Avenue, NW

Architects: Holabird & Root, A.R. Clas

Construction Dates: 1939-1940

Architectural Style: Stripped Classical

Landmark Status: National Historic Landmark

Primary Materials: Limestone, Granite, and Brick

Prominent Features: Restrained Facade; Early Use of Underground Parking and Central Air Conditioning

Lafayette Building, Washington, DC

The Lafayette Building occupies approximately 2/3 of the city block bordered by I Street to the north, 15th Street to the east, H Street to the south and Vermont Avenue to the west. The building expresses the trapezoidal nature of the plat as well as the pre-existence of the Shoreham Building at the southeast corner of the block. The Lafayette Building's exterior walls are enclosed with brick and faced with limestone. While simple end pilasters are utilized at the Vermont Avenue and 15th Street elevations, the limestone occurs otherwise in single-planar expanses, capped only by a simple raised mould at the eleventh floor terrace. Polished black granite is used in a continuous base around the street elevations, at the principal entrance at Vermont Avenue, the shopfronts on 15th Street, and the garage entrance on H Street. Bronze occurs in the 1st and 2nd story window and door frames, in spandrels between the first and second story windows, and in a railing which occurs at the Vermont Avenue and I Street elevations. Painted steel is used for all window frames above the 3rd floor and for a railing at the 11th floor terrace. Aluminum spandrels are set between the vertically aligned 11th and 12th story windows. The Vermont Avenue, I Street, and 15th Street facades are all symmetrical, as is the narrow, curved elevation at the southwest corner. A classical feeling is created in the use of recessed, spandreled window openings at the 1st and 2nd, and at the 11th and 12th stories, resulting in the adjacent wall areas appearing as structural piers. The 11th and 12th stories are set back from the street facades affording a terraced roof area.

The base plan of the building determined an identical arrangement of corridors which are double-loaded throughout, with the exception of the single-loaded I Street corridor at the 11th and 12th floors. The bulk of the interior spaces are given over to office use; exceptions being the series of eight commercial shops along the 15th Street first-story, the parking garage which occupies the court area of the first-story and basement, and a cafeteria and kitchen. The central part of the 11th story north of the I Street corridor includes the Main and Small Board Rooms and associated ante-rooms. Spatially and stylistically, the Entrance Lobby is the most complex of the interior spaces. With the exception of the entrance lobby and corridors, the Main Board Room is the most significant of the building's interiors. The 2-story room occupies the central portion of the 11th and 12th story set back as it faces McPherson Square.

Lafayette Building, Washington, DC

The Lafayette Building Corporation was incorporated December 30, 1938 for the express purpose of contructing a building at Lafayette and 15th Streets. Apparently, the developer secured the Federal Loan Agency (formerly named the Reconstruction Finance Corporation) as a tenant prior to construction. This agency was established by Congress for the purpose of financing agriculture and commerce, encouraging small business, and promoting employment and production. The agency was to occupy the entire building except the 8 commercial shops on 15th Street. The following agencies occupied the Lafayette Building in 1941: Federal Loan Agency, Reconstuction Finance Corporation, RFC Mortgage Company, Disaster Loan Agency, Federal National Mortgage Authority, Export-Import Bank of Washington, and the Elective Home and Farm Authority.

The Lafayette Building was privately developed with the intent that it be leased to the Federal government. Only finance related agencies originally occupied the building during the years of the Roosevelt administration. The Export-Import bank was an original tenant, and still occupies the building. A unique feature of the building is that it was designed to have street level shops; these spaces remain, but with some changes.

The nationally known firm, Holabird and Root of Chicago, was commissioned to design the Lafayette Building in collaboration with A.R. Clas of D.C. The Holabird and Root firm was established in 1881 by John Holabird's father and was, in 1930, awarded the Gold Medal in Architecture by the Architectural League of New York. Clas had been an associate of Holabird and Root but left to pursue a career in Washington; first, as an employee of the Public Works Administration, then establishing his own firm. Although the project is listed as a Holabird and Root commission, it is generally believed that Clas helped secure the commission for his former employers and that his role in the design process is underestimated.

The Thompson-Starrett Co. of D.C. was general contractor of the project, with A. J. Scullen of D.C. serving as Structural Engineer, and W.K. Karnusky as Mechanical Engineer. The cornerstone was laid in 1939. Little is known of the construction period although it must have progressed rapidly for the building was fully complete and occupied by 1940. An act of the 80th Congress (July 30, 1947) authorized the Federal Works Administration to lease space in the building and makes reference to the government's plans for acquisition of title in 1947.

The historic significance of the building lies primarily in 4 factors: (1) that the construction was a speculative venture privately developed for lease to the Federal government; (2) that it was (and is) the home of finance-related agencies developed during the Roosevelt administration; (3) that it incorporates early examples of central air conditioning and underground parking; (4) and that it fronts on 2 public squares which are major elements of L'Enfant's 1791 plan for the city.

The Lafayette Building is a component of the Fifteenth Street Financial Historic District. It was also determined to be individually eligible for the National Register on 5/27/92 by the DC SHPO.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1940 Original Construction Holabird and Root