Mary E. Switzer Building History
Established in 1934, the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) provides old age assistance for retired railroad employees. The first program of its type in the United States, the RRB is often cited as the predecessor of the Social Security Administration (SSA). Formed just a year later, in 1935, the SSA expanded rapidly, creating an immediate need for new government office space. A joint project was proposed to provide two complimentary buildings in Southwest, Washington, D.C. to house both the SSA and RRB.
The RRB Building, now the Mary E. Switzer Building, was designed as the subsidiary unit within the Social Security and Railroad Retirement complex. Placed behind the SSA building, RRB is smaller and its ornamentation is simpler than that of the SSA building facing Independence Avenue. The design of both buildings is a blend of Art Moderne and an abstracted Egyptian Revival.
Commonly termed Art Moderne, or Depression Modernism, the architecture is influenced by industrial design and characterized by simple geometric forms, clean, sharp setbacks, and the use of sleek and shiny materials. The building’s exterior also contains traces of Egyptian revival; this is achieved by dividing the windows and “pilasters” into pavilions, defined by battered pilasters and cavetto cornices. The Egyptian Revival was one of a number of historical styles that entered the design vocabulary of American architecture in the mid-nineteenth century.
The construction of the RRB embodied not only the transition between revivalist and modern architecture, but also an important change in the federal process of commissioning architecture. For much of the 19th century, government buildings were designed in-house, a process overseen by the Architect of the Treasury. In the early 20th century, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) began to petition the government to back the fledgling industry through the use of private architecture firms. As a first step towards private practice, the design of the RRB and SSA buildings utilized a consulting architect, Charles Z. Klauder, to help design the buildings.
The last Architect of the Treasury, Louis A. Simon, was still involved with the project, dealing with issues such as space allocations, but the architectural appearance of the two buildings, especially the exteriors, were the work of Klauder. A well-known Philadelphian architect, Klauder had a national reputation for his Gothic revival designs of college buildings. He served as executive architect on projects at Princeton, Yale (the Peabody Museum), and the University of Pittsburgh (the Cathedral of Learning and the Heinz Memorial Chapel), in addition to projects at Cornell, Wellesley, and Drew. The SSA/RRB project was to be Klauder’s last. On October 30, 1938, Klauder died while working on final revisions to the complex.
Jumpstarting the redevelopment of Washington D.C.’s southwest quadrant and taking advantage of low real estate assessments in a central part of the city, Square 535 was selected for the Railroad Retirement Building. Composed of 155 privately owned parcels, the site included a church, gas station, public park, and residential housing. Land acquisition was complicated by the many individual transactions, delaying the start of construction by several months. Eventually, all 155 parcels were obtained, with 58 condemned through eminent domain. Demolition of existing buildings began in July 1939.
Requiring 769 tons of steel, the structural design of the SSA and RRB buildings eliminated the need for interior columns in the wings, providing far greater space utilization than had been previously possible in reinforced concrete buildings. The Railroad Retirement Board building is also representative of the government’s readiness in the 1930s to incorporate new technology in government buildings. Central air conditioning, fluorescent lighting and acoustical plaster were all part of the original design. Federal buildings, often forced to close early in the summer months due to extreme heat, were quick to adopt air conditioning. By the time RRB was constructed, A/C had become standard. What made the project unique was the sheer scope of air conditioning installed. Capable of providing 4,200 tons of cooling per day and utilizing 25 miles of tubing in the machines, the project was termed “ [the] largest single refrigeration installation to be made at one time in the history of the air conditioning business.”
The SSA-RRB complex may also have been among the first projects in Washington to employ fluorescent lighting. Fluorescent tubes were introduced by both Westinghouse and the General Electric Company in 1938. At the RRB and SSA buildings, no attempt was made to take advantage of the superior illuminating qualities of fluorescent lighting for offices and file rooms. Instead, fluorescents were used in the SSA for more ceremonial spaces, such as the ceilings over the escalators; in the RRB to provide internal lighting for bookcases in the fifth floor chairman’s conference room; and in both buildings for some backlit signage.
Scheduled for completion on January 1, 1941, the Railroad Retirement Board Building, along with the Social Security Building, were preemptively ordered into wartime service on June 28, 1940 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although the United States had yet to enter World War II, the War Department and National Defense Commission, which were to occupy the building, were rapidly expanding in preparation for possible attack. The open configuration of the two buildings, providing over 1,000,000 square feet of usable office space, was ideal for War Department use.
After World War II, the building was turned over to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and became known as HEW-South. In 1972, the Railroad Retirement Board Building was renamed in honor of Mary E. Switzer, a career civil servant who had joined HEW in 1953. At the time of her retirement from the position of Administrator of the Social and Rehabilitation Service of HEW in 1970, she was the highest ranking woman in the federal government, overseeing an annual budget exceeding $8 billion. The Mary E. Switzer Building was the first federal office building to be named in honor of a woman.
Today, the building is occupied by the Department of Health and Human Services, a successor of HEW. Neither the Railroad Retirement Board nor Social Security Administration ever occupied their intended headquarter buildings. Regardless of this fact, the building retains a high level of historical significance, with many public spaces, including vestibules, lobbies, and corridors largely intact. The exterior is unchanged.