Central Heating Plant History

Site History

The Central Heating Plant is located at 325 13th Street, Southwest on a site bounded by C Street to the north, D Street to the south, 13th Street to the west and 12th Street to the east.  The facility is surrounded on three sides by federal buildings that include the U.S. Department of Agriculture Headquarters and Annex buildings, and the U.S. Printing and Engraving Annex. The facility’s site spans an entire city block and stands adjacent to the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was originally used to bring coal to the plant.

In the early 1930s the federal workforce rapidly expanded, resulting in an explosion in federal construction in Washington DC. In order to meet the heating requirements of these new buildings, the Central Heating Plant was designed to serve as the main heating plant for all federal buildings within Washington DC.  It was the largest heating facility in the United States serving federal buildings and burning approximately 230 tons of coal a day.

In 1948, the construction of the West Heating Plant in Georgetown reduced the role of the Central Heating Plant by taking over responsibility for heating federal buildings in the western section of our Nation’s Capital.

Design & Construction

Located in the heart of Washington’s southwest federal office building district, the building’s industrial purpose was carefully translated by its architect, Paul Philippe Cret into a design compatible with the notable federal buildings which surround it.  The passage of the Shipstead-Luce Act in 1930 required the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) to review the designs of public buildings in Washington bordering public spaces.  

Consequently, the CFA reviewed the height, exterior design, and construction of the Central Heating Plant at several meetings.  Architect Cret formulated a design that incorporated the stacks within the building but allowed them to rise to a height that could carry fumes above the point where they would be objectionable to the workers in the U.S. Department of Agriculture buildings.

Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project

The Federal Writers’ Project was a program established in the United States in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of the New Deal struggle against the Great Depression.  It provided jobs for unemployed writers, editors, and research workers.  The American Guide series, the project’s most important achievement, included state guides.  In particular, the state guides were encyclopedic in scope, combined travel information with essays on geography, history and commerce.   

Below is the entry from The Federal Writers’ Guide to 1930s Washington, D.C.: “The buff-brick Central Heating Plant (ordinarily open 9-4:30 Mon.-Fri.; 9-12 Sat.; closed to the public during national emergency), C and D Streets between 12th and 13th Streets SW., is a forceful example of functional design adapted to the rigid height requirements of the zoning law and the architectural style of Federal buildings.  The outer walls of the structure rise sheer to a setback 92 feet above the street, above which its massive octagonal smokestacks rise 42 feet.  The front façade is broken into vertical planes by a series of longitudinal windows set deep into the wall.  Design by Paul Philippe Cret and completed in 1934, the building and its equipment cost approximately $4,000,000.

The boiler room is a great space finished in buff brick and floored with red quarry tile, in which heat and dust are noticeably absent, and the maze of pipes, the array of gauges and recording instruments, are spotlessly clean.  Six giant furnaces, each five stories high, burning 100,000 tons of coal a year, have auxiliary apparatus for conveying and stoking the coal.  Jets of water under pressure sluice the ashes from the grates into a pit where heavy machinery grinds them into cinders for paths and fills in city parks.  Each boiler is capable of converting 215,000 pounds of water (more than 25,000 gallons) into steam every hour at a pressure of 200 pounds a square inch.  One cold day in January 1937, 15,000,000 pounds of steam were made, representing the conversion of 1,800,000 gallons of water and the consumption of 700 tons of coal.  Although soft coal is used, the smoke is reduced to a steam-like vapor before it escapes—electric precipitators attract the carbon particles to diversion pipes, which convey them to ash bins at the base of the building.”

Last Reviewed 2016-06-30