Architecture and Government

Between 1852 and 1939, under the oversight of the Office of the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, important federal buildings were designed by leading American architects such as Robert Mills, Cass Gilbert and John Russell Pope. The oldest buildings in GSA's inventory are stately but simple custom houses, post offices, and office buildings constructed of brick and stone. These monumental public buildings possess dignified facades and elegant interior features such as ornamental iron staircases and groin vaulted ceilings, but have minimal public entry space. Eight percent of GSA’s historic public buildings were constructed before 1900.

Dwight Eisenhower Executive Office Building
Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB)
Washington, DC.
Constructed 1871-88; Architect: Alfred B. Mullett

After the Civil War, as the government sought to reunite a divided populace, the Department of the Treasury constructed grand public buildings intended to express the power and stability of the federal government. The State, Navy, and War Building (now the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building) in Washington DC, completed in the 1870s, is a granite edifice set on a high platform, with column-enriched entrance pavilions and statuary. Toward the end of the twentieth century, sturdy Romanesque post offices and courthouses with campanile towers of rough cut stone, segmental arched entrances, and vast sky lit work rooms quickly came into, but then went out of, fashion.

Eighty-five percent of GSA’s historic buildings were constructed between 1900 and 1941, years of great progress in technology, civic planning, and the United States' emergence as a leader in western popular culture. The World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, with classical pavilions glowing in Edison’s new electric lights, spurred the city beautiful movement that substantially shaped the government’s approach to public building until after World War II.

After the turn of the twentieth century, public buildings were often planned as part of larger complexes that groupled important civic buildings around landscaped public spaces. Federal buildings embodied the Beaux Arts design principles of sophisticated proportioning and space planning, with monumental entrances leading to finely finished public lobbies and well proportioned corridors that graciously welcomed citizens visiting the offices of the federal government. White marble and limestone facades faithfully recreated classical and renaissance models associated with the democracies of Greek and Rome.

Great Depression: Boom Years in Government Construction

More than half of GSA’s historic buildings were constructed during the Great Depression. During this time, an expanded federal construction program continued to maintain high standards for public building construction. Architects began introducing the new esthetic of industrial design, combining classical proportions with streamlined, Art Deco detailing. Integrated into many of these buildings were sculptural details, murals and statuary symbolizing or depicting important civic activities taking place inside. A legacy of this era is the body of populist civic art commissioned under New Deal art programs. It is a testimony to the durability of these buildings that many of them remain in GSA’s inventory and continue to serve the functions for which they were built.

James T. Foley U.S. Courthouse, Albany, NY
James T. Foley U.S. Courthouse,
Albany, New York.
Constructed 1932-34;
Architect: Gander, Gander, and Gander

President Harry S. Truman created the U.S. General Services Administration in 1949 to oversee the federal government's immense building management and general procurement functions at a time when the federal government was experiencing tremendous growth. Between 1960 and 1976, GSA undertook more than seven hundred projects in towns across the United States.

Architects of this era embraced modernist design for its efficiency and use of new technology in engineering and building materials. Concerned that the caliber of federal construction was declining, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy convened the Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space, which submitted the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.” These principles called for design that reflected “the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American national government, [placing] emphasis…on the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought,” a philosophy that continues to guide the design of public buildings today.

Robert Weaver Federal Building, Washington, DC
Robert C. Weaver Federal Building (HUD)
Washington, DC.
Constructed 1965-68; Architect: Marcel Breuer.

When GSA built modern at its best, it produced strikingly contemporary designs by modern masters – Marcel Breuer’s sweeping Washington DC headquarters building for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Mies van der Rohe’s sleek Federal Center in Chicago, Illinois, and Victor Lundy’s boldly sculptural U.S. Tax Court Building in Washington DC. However, as the government sought to house legions of federal workers and achieve the goals of standardization, direct purchase, mass production, and fiscal savings, economy and efficiency were often stronger driving forces than architectural distinction. The majority of buildings GSA constructed prior to and during the period reflect typical office design of their time. Although few GSA modernist buildings meet the National Register of Historic Places criteria of exceptional significance, required for buildings under fifty years old, some will become eligible when they reach fifty years of age because of important historic events that have taken place within them, because they represent significant architectural types, or because they will, in time, meet other National Register eligibility criteria.

Design Excellence Program Established

GSA’s Design Excellence program, established in 1992, is grounded in the philosophy that federal buildings should be symbolic of what government is about, not just places where public business is conducted. Today, as the principal builder for the civilian federal government, GSA’s goal is to shape this legacy and the way people regard their government through its public buildings. Consistent with the "Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture," the program encourages design that embodies the finest contemporary American architectural thought, reflects regional architectural traditions, and provides high-quality, cost-effective, and lasting public buildings for the enjoyment of future generations.

Last Reviewed: 2017-11-24