U.S. General Services Administration Building, Washington, DC

Building History

The U.S. General Services Administration Building, originally designed for the U.S. Department of the Interior, was the first truly modern office building constructed by the U.S. Government and served as a model for federal offices through the early 1930s.

New York architect Charles Butler (1871-1953) designed the innovative building in his capacity as consultant to the U.S. Treasury Department's Supervising Architect Oscar Wenderoth (1873-1938). Butler's design, patterned after private office buildings in New York and Washington, DC, allowed for the substantial amount of natural light necessary for the many architects, draftsmen, pressmen, and scientists working in the building. Construction of the restrained Neo-Classical building began in 1915 and was completed in 1917 at a cost of $2,703,494.

The U.S. Department of the Interior occupied the building from 1917 until 1937, a period significant in the department's history. The activities of the National Park Service were conceived in the sixth floor offices of Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane. The U.S. Geological Survey, the largest tenant in the building, determined which public lands would be closed to development and conserved for their mineral and water resources. In 1921-1922 the building was the locus of the "Teapot Dome" scandal involving Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall. Fall was convicted and imprisoned for accepting $400,000 in bribes from oil magnates Harry F. Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny in return for secretly granting them rights to drill for oil on Federal lands. Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, oversaw construction of dams, fully developed the National Park Service to provide recreational needs, and served as the first Federal Administrator of Public Works.

In 1939 the Federal Works Administration (FWA) became the building's primary occupant. FWA activities were subsumed into the newly created U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) in 1949 and the building was renamed the U.S. General Services Administration Building. In 1986 the building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It continues to house GSA including the Public Buildings Service--the largest and most diversified real estate organization in the world.

Architecture

The U.S. General Services Administration Building, the first government building designed for the specific needs of a designated federal department, was the first federal building to use limestone facing and one of the first buildings in Washington, DC constructed of steel framing. It fills the entire city block between E, F, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets.

The site was thought by some Congressional representatives to be a poor location for a major federal building due to its distance from Capitol Hill. One Congressman stated in 1913, "Every time we build one of these buildings, we get them farther and farther out, after a while they will go to the city limits...it is not a good business policy to scatter these buildings everywhere.

The building was designed in an "E-shaped" configuration, creating open courtyards that provided maximum exposure to natural light and cooling breezes for all offices. This design resulted in glass covering fifty percent of the total wall surface on the street elevations and seventy percent of the total wall surface on the courtyard elevations. The facade was originally to have been built of brick, but substantial cost-savings measures undertaken during construction permitted the use of Indiana limestone for all of the building's exterior.

A large building, its exterior is presented without undue ornamentation. The major exterior decorative element is the centrally located F Street entrance. Pilasters and a modillion cornice frame each of the three entry doors on the F Street facade. An eagle carved by Ernest C. Bairstow, a decorative sculptor from Washington, DC, is located over the central opening. Bairstow also provided the designs for the twenty-eight limestone panels in the frieze at the sixth story and the ornamental work on the F Street entrances. The entrance at the southern end of Eighteenth Street is sheltered by an iron and glass marquee overhanging the granite steps and part of a semi-circular driveway. This unusual entrance treatment was designed originally as a private entrance for the Secretary of the Interior, whose suite of offices was directly above on the sixth floor.

This suite on the sixth floor, now used by the GSA Administrator, is the most elaborate space in the building. It includes a private office, a private passage, and a private restroom complete with full bath, as well as a public reception room. Distinguished decorative features in the Administrator's Suite include English oak floor-to-ceiling panels and a relief plaster ceiling. The fireplace of carved French limestone is one of the few working fireplaces remaining in a Federal building in the United States. Beyond this suite, other interior amenities included iced drinking water in the halls, washbasins in each office, and an auditorium, the first such space in a Federal building.

A series of improvements have been made to office spaces to meet the evolving needs of the U.S. Department of Interior, Federal Works Administration, and U.S. General Services Administration. In the 1930s a seventh-floor addition was constructed on the roof and air-conditioning was installed throughout the building. Where necessary, extensive remodeling of original corridors was undertaken.

In 1999 the U.S. General Services Administration initiated a demonstration "First Impressions" project in the lobby and on the building's exterior. The goal of the "First Impressions" program is to change the way people perceive Federal buildings. Initiatives included restoring windows, cleaning exterior masonry, returning public corridors to original paint colors, replicating original corridor lighting, and creating model office space for the twenty-first century.

Significant Events

1915-1917: A federal building designed by architect Charles Butler is constructed for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

1935: The building undergoes alterations with the construction of a seventh floor and the installation of air-conditioning.

1937-1939: The U.S. Department of the Interior vacates the building and the Federal Works Administration becomes the primary tenant.

1949: The U.S. General Services Administration is established, absorbing the activities and offices of the Federal Works Administration.

1986: The U.S. General Services Administration Building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1999-2002: Restoration, rehabilitation, and pilot modernization projects are undertaken through the newly initiated "First Impressions" Program.

Building Facts

Architect: Charles Butler

Construction Dates: 1915-1917

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 1800 F Street, NW

Architectural Style: Neoclassical

Primary Materials: Indiana limestone

Prominent Features: E-shaped plan allowing for open courtyards; Carved stone eagle and limestone panels designed by Ernest C. Bairstow; Oak-paneled Administrator's Suite

U.S. General Services Administration Building, Washington, DC

The GSA Building is a massive office building covering the entire block between E and F Streets and 18th and 19th Streets, NW, in the neighborhood referred to as Foggy Bottom-West End of Washington, DC.. The building measures approximately 400 feet along E and F Streets and 392 feet along 18th and 19th Streets. It is approximately 110 feet in height, rising 86 feet above grade on F Street and 103 feet above grade on E Street, due to the slope of the block. The floor plan of the building resembles the letter "E", with the back at F Street and the wings extending southward. The two light courts are open to the south above the first floor, optimizing the natural light and ventilation for the offices that face into the courts. The building consists of a full basement, ground floor, and first through seventh floors. Within the courts, three structures project from the main building, and a fourth is freestanding. The structural system of the massive office building is a steel frame, and all of the exterior facades are faced in smooth limestone. The street facades are subtly articulated by projecting pavilions. The windows are basic one-over-one wood sash, counterweighted, with fixed upper sash, set in iron frames, except at the seventh story where the frames are wood. Originally the ironwork, including the spandrel panels that separate the windows vertically, was painted a grey color. During the 1990s, the ironwork was painted a cream color, but was restored to its original dark paint color circa 2001. This gave the fenestration a more vertical emphasis, balancing the horizontality of the long facades. The windows are larger at the court elevations than at the exterior facades to provide maximum natural light to the interior court offices. Long double-loaded corridors comprised the main portion of the building, with elevators, toilets, and stairs clustered at the ends of corridors to provide long unbroken stretches of floor space capable of being freely subdivided with partitions. The GSA Building exemplifies the Neoclassical style in its use of simplified Greek details and its large size. The building generally has a broad expanse of plain wall surface without multiple angles and projections; the roof line is level and unbroken by sculptural elements; and the windows have flat lintels and are not segmented or arched. The original design of the building called for a brick faced structure with stone basement and stone cornice. Originally, the brick was to be red. Later, at the urging of the Commission of Fine Arts, a brick in the gray range was selected to lighten the exterior and the courts. When the bid for construction came in at a level far below the appropriated amount, it was decided to face the entire building with limestone. The changes to the drawings were executed by Charles Morris, Chief Designer in the Supervising Architect's Office. This change was supported by Butler in correspondence from France, where he worked for the War Department to plan overseas hospitals after completing his design work for the Interior Department Building. The use of limestone provided a more suitable material for an important government building and gave it a monumental character not originally intended but well-appreciated.

U.S. General Services Administration Building, Washington, DC

The General Services Building, historically known as the Interior Building or Interior Department Offices, was designed originally to house the bureaus of the Interior Department that dealt with land matters - the Geological Survey, the Office of Indian Affairs, the Reclamation Service, the Bureau of Mines, and the General Land Office. The Pension Office and the Patent Office, then also under the Interior Department, were not accommodated in this building. Completed in 1917, the present GSA Central Building was the first truly modern office building, as opposed to a monumental or purely utilitarian structure, built by the federal government. The building occupies the entire block between E and F Streets and 18th and 19th Streets, NW, in Washington, DC.. Measuring approximately 400' along E and F Streets and 392' along 18th and 19th Streets, the building contains a full basement, ground story, and 1st through 7th stories, the last of which was added in 1935. It rises 86' above grade along F Street and 103' above grade along E Street, due to the slope of the block.

The GSA Building is significant in three areas relating to the National Register criteria for evaluation. Criterion A deals with significant events associated with the building. The building served as headquarters for the Department of the Interior during two of its most important decades, 1917-1937, after which it moved into the new Interior Building across the street to the south. The National Park Service was essentially born in this building, being established as a bureau of the Department of the Interior by act of Congress in 1916 to correlate the administration and development of the national park and monument areas. The U.S. Geological Survey was the largest tenant in the former Interior Building. The building's library housed its large and unique geological collection as well as the George Frederick Kunz collection of gems. The Press Room, designed as a separate building accessible only through the basement projecting into the east light court, housed the huge color presses on which were printed the topographic maps produced by the Survey. The results of Survey studies determined which public lands should be closed to development to conserve mineral and water resources, which could be used for grazing and farming, and, after the severe droughts of the 1930s, which lands should be closed to even these activities. These patterns of use had a great impact on the economic development of the middle and western states in particular. Thus, the years during which the Department of the Interior occupied this building were important years to both the Department and the nation. Policy and actions formulated in this building are still influencing American life today.

The building was occupied by two Secretaries of the Interior, Albert Fall and Harold Ickes, who played significant roles in American history, satisfying Criterion B for National Register nomination. Albert B. Fall, a central figure in the "Teapot Dome" scandal of 1921-22, was convicted and imprisoned for accepting $400,000 in bribes from oil magnates Harry F. Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny. In return for the money he secretly granted them rights to drill for oil in Wyoming and California on public lands which had been set aside as Naval oil reserves. By the time Fall went to prison in 1931, the implications of his corrupt actions, the complexities of the government investigations, and the extended court trial combined to impress the scandal on the public consciousness and made the name Teapot Dome synonymous with government corruption. A more positive role was played by Harold L. Ickes, who served as Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman from 1933-46. As Secretary for a record 13 years, he oversaw construction of the Shasta, Friant, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee dams, fully developed the National Park Service to provide for the recreation needs of the nation, and served as the first federal administrator of public works, which expanded the construction industry and furnished employment during the Depression years.

The GSA Building was a refinement of the federal office building tradition, executed in a restrained Neoclassical style. Designed as a modern office building, the former Interior Building embodies the distinctive characteristics of its type, thus meeting Criterion C. Those characteristics included devoting a minimum of interior space to purely ceremonial public areas, such as grand lobbies or enclosed central light courts. Previous federal buildings, such as the Pension Building (1883) and the Old Post Office building (1899) on Pennsylvania Avenue were designed with large light courts. The GSA Building, however, with its E-shaped plan of three wings containing double-loaded corridors, allowed natural light to reach all workers and maximized the use of the square block site. The design of the GSA Building was patterned after office buildings constructed in Washington, DC.. and New York City, rather than after other federal buildings in the capital city or elsewhere. As a prototype, it served as a model for the design of subsequent structures to house federal government functions through the late 1930s. In its design, the building was intended to be a first class office structure, complete with its own iced drinking water system in the halls and wash basins in each office. It was one of the early federal government buildings to be clad in limestone, and it was notable for its size.

The location of the former Interior Building outside the monumental groupings around the White House and the Mall was considered undesirable at the time it was constructed. In the short term, the shifting of the working population to the west caused dramatic changes in commuting and shopping patterns. It was predicted that this shift would isolate the Capitol and widen the gulf between the executive and legislative groups, as well as to create congestion in an area that had been devoted to small buildings of a semi-public nature. In the long term, however, this was not borne out. The GSA Building represented the Federal government's initial foothold in the Foggy Bottom-West End area, aside from the old Naval Observatory site on 23rd Street. Later to come were the present Interior Department Building (1937), the State Department Building, and the Federal Reserve complex. As if to reinforce the convenient location of this area, high-rise office buildings and apartment houses were built. The area also became the center for the location and expansion of institutions, such as the George Washington University, the World Bank, the National Academy of Sciences, and the International Monetary Fund. The location served to encourage further federal government expansion in the area through the 1970s.

The intended design of the building was unlike anything which the Supervising Architect's Office had handled. Most of the work undertaken by the Office in the early twentieth century was devoted to small post offices located in cities and towns across the country. Because of the requirements of this building, the 1913 Act authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to secure outside technical services without regard for civil service regulations. Had the design commenced before 1912, private architects might have been invited to submit competitive designs under the provisions of the Tarsney Act of 1893; in 1912, the Tarsney Act was repealed. After that, private architects were hired only if legislation authorizing the building stipulated such employment. A restriction in the legislation required the selected architect to take up temporary residence in Washington on a salaried basis for preparation of the plans.

Oscar Wenderoth, the Supervising Architect of the Treasury from 1912 to 1915, received his training in Philadelphia and moved to Washington in 1897 to work in the Supervising Architect's Office. After resigning in 1915, he went on to work for architectural firms in Chicago and New York, and was succeeded by lawyer James A. Wetmore who served as Acting Supervising Architect from 1915 to 1934. Wenderoth devoted two months to searching for an architect for the Department of the Interior building before selecting Charles Butler of the New York firm of Butler & Rodman. It was under the general guidance of Wenderoth that Butler produced the designs for the building. Butler was educated at Columbia University and the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and practiced architecture from 1899 to 1922 in partnership with Cary S. Rodman. He was best known for his designs for hospitals, such as Children's Hospital at Johns Hopkins University, and wrote several publications on hospital design. After Wenderoth's departure in 1915, the finishing touches, as well as the redesign of the building facing from brick to limestone, were executed by Charles Morris, Chief Designer in the Supervising Architect's Office. The construction was superintended by C.P.S. Garwood from the New York office of James Gamble Rogers.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1915 1917 Original Construction Butler, Charles, Des. Architect
1934 New Addition, 7th Floor E Street Elevation
1935 Provide A/C and alter Corridor Ceilings
1965 Miscellaneous Interior GSA Painting
1968 Exterior Painting
1969 Renovations to Commissioner's Office
1970 Miscellaneous Exterior Repairs
1970 Elevator Renovation
1970 Improve Electrical System
1972 Exterior Lighting Phase V, Group A
1990 Trim and ironwork painted current dark green
1990 ADA upgrade at main (F Street) entrance, including new ramp & handrails
1990 Restored French doors, windows. Made windows throughout building operable
1993 Auditorium paint scheme restored to original 1917 colors
1994 1995 Corridors on 2nd through 6th Floors repainted, doors restored
1995 Auditorium carpeted, stage floor replaced, ADA lift at stage installed
1996 Terracotta tile decking at 7th Floor Terrace replaced
1998 1999 Demonstration Office Area
1999 GSA demonstrated a First Impressions project at lobby & building's exterior
1999 First Impressions Photographic Survey completed by George Kanellos
2001 Installed custom-made Security Guard Booths at E Street driveway entries
2001 2001 Exterior painting
2002 Central Cafe updated
2002 Purchased conference table and chairs for Administrator's Suite
2003 Upper portion of gate added to existing gates at East Court entry drive
2004 Bollards at East and West Court entry drives installed
2005 Chillers replaced
2007 3300 corridor renovation completed. 1917 original ceiling height restored
2008 Restored copper and glass marquee at 18 Street entrance for administrator
2008 Plaster work and repainting of the Auditorium damaged by water infiltration