Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building (SSA), Washington, DC
On August 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, creating a program to provide Americans with continuing income after retirement. Planning for a new headquarters building for the Social Security Board began immediately, and a site in southwest Washington, near the U.S. Capitol, was selected. The Railroad Retirement Board soon requested that its space need also be accommodated, and in 1938, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of two new buildings.
Working under the supervision of the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Louis A. Simon, Charles Z. Klauder developed the design concept for both buildings. After Klauder's death in 1938, the Public Buildings Administration of the Federal Works Agency prepared the final plans.
The chosen site was comprised of more than 150 parcels developed with residences, small businesses, and a playground. Due to complications resulting from acquiring land from many owners, the government awarded the construction contract to McCloskey & Company of Philadelphia before all land negotiations were completed. Nevertheless, partial demolition began in July 1939, and the site was delivered to the contractor the following month, after final land acquisition.
Construction was completed in 1940, but Social Security did not become the first occupant. The threat of war created a need for space for defense agencies, and the building was turned over to the War Department and the National Defense Commission. After the war, the Federal Security Agency, under which the Social Security Board had been placed in 1939, moved into the building. In 1953, the successor agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, part of which became the Department of Health and Human Services in 1980, became the primary tenant. Voice of America, a federally funded broadcaster of news and information, located its headquarters in the Cohen Building in 1954. In 1988, the building was renamed to honor Wilbur J. Cohen, who was the first employee of the Social Security Board and later served as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.
Facing the National Mall in the southwest quadrant of Washington, the monumental Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building represents the government's sweeping endeavor to house agencies expanded or created under the New Deal. The building sits on a rectangular site bounded by Independence Avenue and Fourth, C, and Third streets. Immediately across C Street to the south is the Mary E. Switzer Federal Building, which was constructed for the Railroad Retirement Board in conjunction with the Cohen Building.
Based in Philadelphia, consulting architect Charles Z. Klauder had a national reputation for his Gothic Revival designs at campuses including University of Pittsburgh and Yale. In designing the Cohen Building, Klauder melded historic references to nineteenth-century revivalism with modernistic forms popular in pre-World War II architecture. While the resulting building has details referencing both the Egyptian Revival and Art Deco styles, it also exhibits the symmetry and classical arrangement commonly found in government buildings of this era, and referred to as Stripped Classicism.
Klauder's preliminary plans depicted a "fishbone" building with a long central corridor and many projecting wings. Responding to concerns of the Commission of Fine Arts, which felt that the facade should be in keeping with its monumental neighbors across the mall, Klauder developed plans for a more uniform architectural treatment. Faced in buff Indiana limestone, the five-story, rectangular building has four interior light courts and four light courts fronting Independence Avenue and C Street. A central spine runs east to west, uniting the sections of the building, and rises to form a penthouse above the fifth floor. The north-facing, Independence Avenue facade has a central pavilion, with the main entrance framed by a Prairie Brown granite frontispiece with battered sides and a cavetto cornice, characteristic of the Egyptian Revival style. A dark Carnelian granite panel with relief sculpture tops the double doors, which are flanked by two side entrances. To each side of the pavilion, blocks with groups of tall windows deeply recessed between stone piers are topped by a continuous band of fretwork. Piers support the entablature of open light courts on each side of these blocks. Flanking wings at the ends of the facade are similarly treated, with large windows surrounded by battered pilasters and a cavetto cornice, alluding to a pylon, or gateway to an Egyptian temple.
The C Street elevation is almost identical to the facade, with the exception of pressed Norman brick cladding on the upper walls, instead of limestone. Also similar in composition, the limestone-sheathed east and west elevations have single, central entrances with limestone surrounds.
The Independence Avenue entrance opens into a narrow vestibule separated from the lobby by a glazed screen. The richly finished lobby has terrazzo floors and walls clad in mottled beige Granox Tavernelle marble. The interior contains many geometric forms typical of the Art Deco style, such the streamlined curves of the escalators; horizontal banks of Greek key motifs on polished bronze elevator doors; and bulletin boards, directories, and mailboxes with angular Art Deco lettering. Other significant spaces include the board room, administrative offices, private dining room, and hearing room.
The Section of Fine Arts, a New Deal art program, commissioned exterior sculptures and interior murals. For the spaces over the four central entrances, artists Emma Lou Davis and Henry Kreis each created two granite bas relief panels with social security themes. On the interior, scenes of American life and family are represented in murals by Seymour Fogel, Philip Guston, Ethel and Jenne Magafan, and Ben Shahn.
Social Security Act passed
Building rededicated in honor of Wilbur J. Cohen
Building listed in National Register of Historic Places
330 Independence Avenue SW
Charles Z. Klauder
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Egyptian Revival and Stripped Classicism
Limestone and granite
New Deal murals and sculpture
Classical facade with Egyptian Revival details
The Health & Human Services Building, historically known as the Cohen Building, is located
on the south side of Independence Avenue, and fills the block between Independence Avenue
and C Street, and 3rd and 4th Streets, SW. The building, and its companion across the
street, were constructed for the Social Security Board and Railroad Retirement Board in 1939.
The plan is rectangular, 547'-2" along Independence Avenue and C Street x 340'-10" along
3rd and 4th Streets. It rises five storeys, plus has a sixth story penthouse/recreational area
and a basement or Ground Floor. The building has four internal courts and four exterior
courts which open onto the perimeter of the building. The main roof is flat; the courtyard
roofs have a shallow pitch gable; and the roof over the Hearing Room is a barrel vault.
Stylistically, the Social Security Building is part of the modern movement of the first half of the
twentieth century, while harking back to the revivalism of the nineteenth century. In the
Historic Structure Report, the exterior design of the building is described initially as Egyptian
Revival, although it is further explained as part of the modern movement variously known as
Art Moderne, Depression Modern, or Starved Classicism. Influenced by industrial design, the
style is characterized by block-like massing of simple geometric forms, planar wall surfaces,
clean, sharp setbacks, and the use of sleek and shiny materials.
The Social Security and Railroad Retirement Buildings are characteristic, and at the same
time somewhat unusual, examples of the style. The arrangement of their facades is
symmetrical and the buildings make their architectural statement through the bold and simple
massing of rectangular forms, rather than through applied ornament. As in the contemporary
War Department Building, now part of the State Department in Washington, D.C., or the 1937
United States Mint in San Francisco, the facade is articulated in a classical manner. This is
achieved by creating the effect of pilasters by the disposition of deeply recessed, vertically
ganged windows resting on a solid ground floor in the same plane as the pilasters. In the
case of the Social Security Building, the reference to the past is Egyptian rather than Roman
Egyptian Revival flourished in America in the mid-19th century, and experienced a second
Revival in the 1920s to take advantage of the decorative potential of concrete. The Health &
Human Services Building exhibits subtle references to the Egyptian Revival style. All of the
exterior elevations have an applied cornce detail that suggests an Egyptian gorge, a
characteristic cornice consisting of a large cavetto, but without vertical leaves to embellish it,
and without a roll molding below it. Instead there is a frieze band in the pattern of a Greek
Key placed discontinuously in sections all around the building's perimeter. While the stone
and brick surrounds at the vertically ganged windows do not actually narrow, their verticality
provides an illusion of a taper, and the pilasters flanking the pavilions are battered The only
free-standing columns on the building are the piers supporting the continuous frieze across
the openings of the exterior courts, and the battered pilasters are repeated at the side
elevations of the open courts.
The interior of the buildings falls more clearly into Art Moderne stylistic characteristics without
historical reference. Decorative effects are achieved through the use of clear, geometric
forms - circles, squares, rectangles, and cones. Rectilinear forms with hard, clean edges are
played off against curved forms. Sharp contrasts in the color of materials and shiny, smooth-
textured materials are also important. In the Social Security Building, this is especially evident
at the crossing of the main first floor corridors, where the swooping curves of the escalators
descend into a space defined by partial walls and square piers. The yellow and white bronze
of the escalators contrasts with the equally shiny dark green marble of the corridor walls. Also
typical of Art Moderne are the geometric forms of such elements as the bulletin and directory
boards, water fountains, clocks, signage, and hardware.
The walls at the Independence Avenue, and 3rd, and 4th Street elevations, and the courts
opening to the north, are all Indiana limestone. The walls at C Street and the courts opening
to the south are a combination of buff brick and limestone. Since completion of the HSR in
1990, all of the windows appear to have been replaced, as the report describes them as
painted steel frame in poor condition, but visual survey found them to be dark bronze
anodized aluminum. The pane configuration and operation is the same as the original
windows, with awnings above the first floor and casements at the basement and first floor.
Each elevation has a set of first floor entry doors into the primary corridors, with a bas-relief
sculpture in granite above the doors, and framed by projecting surrounds of limestone.
The general configuration of the interior follows a plan determined by the series of courtyards,
both exterior and interior, and double-loaded corridors that surround them. From the 2nd
through 5th floors, the central portion of the building forms a square block, linked to wings at
the east and west ends of the building. The four interior courts divide the central block into
cross axes and perimeter wings. An east-west service spine and corridor 103'-2" wide
connects the building's wings and forms the penthouse at the 6th level. At the 1st and ground
levels, the plan is less defined without the courts, although most of the areas are served by
the same pattern of double-loaded corridors as found above.
The Health & Human Services Building, historically known as the Social Security Building, was
constructed as part of a major campaign during the 1930s to erect buildings to house the
expanding Federal government. During the early years of the Roosevelt administration,
construction activity included completion of the Federal Triangle, expansion of the Department
of Agriculture into the Agriculture South Building, and construction of the new Interior Building.
In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to push his five- and ten-year plans for new
government buildings to house the growing number of workers hired to service the New Deal
agencies. This building to house Social Security was constructed under this program before
World War II intervened with construction activity.
Originally constructed as and called the Social Security Building, it was renamed in 1988 for
Wilbur Joseph Cohen (1913-1987), a government official and public affairs educator. Cohen
had a long career in government, working in 1934-35 at the Committee for Economic Security,
then moving to the Social Security Administration where he stayed until 1956. Except for brief
periods in academia, he continued government work at HEW until 1969, when he returned to
teaching. He was the author of numerous books and articles on social security, social policy
issues, and the New Deal. The building currently is known as the Health & Human Services
Building, and is referred to as such throughout this text.
Significance of the Health & Human Services Building is presented in the HSR as it relates to
National Register Eligibility, specifically Criteria A and C. Criterion A applies to properties that
are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of
our country. The Health & Human Services Building, which originally housed the Social
Security Administration, is significant because of its impact on broad patterns of American
history, because of its reflection of race relations during the 1930s, and because of its role in
city planning for the District of Columbia.
The site selected for the Social Security and Railroad Retirement Buildings has significance as
a part of the coordinated effort of the 1920s and 1930s for planning the location of
government buildings within the District of Columbia. With the completion of planning for the
Federal Triangle, attention turned to two other areas, the Northwest Rectangle, where the new
Department of Interior and the War Department were located, and the southwest quadrant of
Washington. Location in this latter area was a key component in the area's development for
government purposes. Housing was available in the area at lower rates than in the more
expensive northwest section; the area was removed from the more congested traffic areas of
the northwest and parking was more available; and the project would stimulate development
in the southwest, thus better balancing the growth of the city. Based on its research, the HSR
makes the conclusion that a large number of federal employees occupying the Social Security
Building were African American. Examination of the building's floor plans, which show an
excessively large number of toilet rooms, suggests that the facilities were segregated.
Government buildings in Washington were still segregated in 1938-40, and they would remain
so officially until an executive order of Harry S. Truman. Even so, much of the interior art
work commissioned for the building portrayed good race relations, with whites and blacks
working side by side or at play together.
The Health & Human Services Building also meets Criterion C for eligibility because it
embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type and period, and represents the last work of a
prominent architect known for his skill in melding historical references with modern
Primary responsibility for the design and construction of the Social Security Building lay with
the Public Buildings Administration of the Federal Works Agency. The federal architectural
office functioned as a unit within the Treasury Department run by the Supervising Architect.
The office was empowered to contract with private firms for the design of public buildings, but
chose to do so by hiring outside architects as consultants. Charles Z. Klauder was selected
as consulting architect for the Social Security Building, and the design was his. With his
practice based in Philadelphia, Klauder's chief reputation was as a designer of educational
building, particularly in the Gothic style. Probably his best known building is the Cathedral of
Learning at the University of Pittsburgh begun in 1928, an Art Deco skyscraper in Gothic
clothing. Klauder's skill in melding modernistic forms with historical references is well
illustrated in the exterior of the Social Security and Railroad Retirement Buildings, which were
his last buildings. In them he combined highly abstract, blocky massing with simplified
Egyptian motifs. Charles Z. Klauder died on October 30, 1938, two years before construction
of the Social Security Building was completed.
Final drawings for the Social Security Building were produced by the Public Buildings
Administration. Supervising Architect Louis A. Simon played a key role in design decisions
and, with Klauder, presented the plans to the two main reviewing agencies, the Commission of
Fine Arts and the National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Simon received his
training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, practiced for a few years in Baltimore,
and joined the Office of the Supervising Architect in 1896. In 1905, he was named Chief of
the Architectural Division. Although he did not become Supervising Architect until 1934, he
basically exercised the power of that position after 1915, because James Wetmore, who held
the title of Acting Supervising Architect, was a layman. Simon served as Supervising Architect
until 1941, when he was appointed to the position of Consulting Architect to the Public
Buildings Administration, finally retiring in 1944. Louis A. Simon died in 1958.
In addition to its architectural role, the Public Buildings Administration was responsible for
supervision after the construction contracts were let. At that point, control shifted from the
Office of the Supervising Architect to the Office of the Supervising Engineer. Neal A. Melick
held the title of Supervising Engineer throughout the construction of the Social Security
Building. The General Services Administration was established in 1949 and assumed the
functions of the Public Buildings Administration, which then became known as the Public
The building also incorporates advances in building technology that were state-of-the-art for its
time. Central air conditioning, fluorescent lighting, and acoustical plaster were all part of its
original design. By the time the Social Security Building was constructed, air conditioning of
federal buildings in Washington was standard practice; however, it was the largest of the
buildings in which it had been installed before World War II. More innovative was the
extensive use of acoustic plaster. Perfected in 1933, it was not manufactured in quantity until
the later years of the decade. Finally, the Social Security Building may have been among the
first in Washington to employ fluorescent lighting. No attempt was made to take advantage of
its superior illuminating qualities for file rooms and offices; instead, fluorescents were used in
more ceremonial spaces, such as the ceilings over the escalators and some backlit signage of
the first floor corridors.
As part of the interior existing conditions survey presented in the Historic Structure Report,
symbols are used to designate historic significance of the spaces described, either as
recurring spaces or at specific locations. This documentation has tried to be consistent with
the findings of the HSR, while simplifying the spaces included within the zone designations.