GSA Headquarters Building History
Square 143, bound by 18th, 19th, E and F streets northwest, was almost entirely undeveloped prior to federal government purchase in 1906. Predominately occupied by park land, the square was originally intended for a proposed Hall of Records (National Archives). The location was seen as ideal for record storage, due to its “far western” location; most federal buildings of this era were centrally located between the White House and Capitol.
In 1910, when the site was proposed to instead house the rapidly expanding Department of the Interior, the Foggy Bottom neighborhood was in the midst of transformation. Originally composed primarily of low-level residential buildings, George Washington University joined the neighborhood in 1912 and began constructing larger academic buildings. Also nearby, the Organization of American States and the Corcoran Gallery were undertaking new monumental buildings along 17th Street NW.
Many objected to the selection of a site to the west of the White House, including members of Congress and the U.S. Commission of Fine Art (CFA). The Secretary of CFA, in deference to the McMillian Plan of 1902, noted that the square was well outside the major sites selected for federal buildings and represented an “invasion of a residential area by a major federal building.” Members of Congress, who made frequent visits to the executive departments on behalf of their constituents, objected that the site was too far west of the Capitol-White House axis to make it easily accessible.
The land, however, was already owned by the federal government, making it cheaper to house the Department of Interior there than elsewhere in the city. Although it was initially feared that the building would be an outlier from the core of centrally located federal buildings, the area surrounding Square 143 soon welcomed additional federal agencies during the rapid expansion of the federal government during World War I. Today, this enclave of federal buildings is referred to as the Northwest Rectangle.
Design & Construction
The Public Buildings Act of 1913 authorized the construction of a “fireproof building of modern office type of architecture” to accommodate the previously dispersed bureaus of the Department of the Interior. What resulted was a new model of utilitarian federal office building, with minimal ornamentation, the requirements for which were determined by the types of technical work undertaken by the department.
For the Department of the Interior building, the design was based on three requirements: 1. Maximum light for draftsmen, engravers, microscopists, and other specialists; 2. A substantial basement for working collections, printing presses, and publications; 3. Floor space free from vibrations for chemical and physical laboratories. The building features 3,522 windows, over 50% of the façade, to ensure that all office space is well lit.
Original design work for the building was undertaken by the Architect of Treasury in 1910. However, the design was eventually contracted to architect Charles Butler, making it one of the first government buildings to employ a private architect. Constructed between July 1915 and June 1917, the original design of the building called for a red brick faced structure with a stone basement and cornice. When the bid for construction came in far below the appropriated amount, it was decided to face the entire building with limestone.
Notably, the soil removed during the excavation of the building's basement was transported by a makeshift rail line to the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial, then also under construction. The excavated dirt was used as fill for the swampy site on which the Memorial was constructed.
Perhaps prominent Washingtonian architect Appleton P. Clark described the building best in his 1930 essay, History of Architecture, as “a modern office building with a coating of classical form which is not allowed to interfere with the practicality of the building.”
Built to accommodate bureaus of the Department of the Interior dealing with matters of land use, including the Geological Survey, the Office of Indian Affairs, the Reclamation Service, the General Land Office, and the Bureau of Mines, the GSA Headquarters Building hosted the Department of the Interior from 1917 to 1937, at which time the new Interior headquarters building was constructed just to the south of the old building, across E street.
Shortly after Interior vacated the building, the Federal Works Agency took up occupancy, where they stayed until the agency was folded into the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). GSA has been headquartered in the building since its creation in 1949.
During the Department of Interior’s tenure, several important events occurred, including the development of the modern National Park Service under Secretary Harold Ickes. However, the building is most famous for its association with the Teapot Dome Scandal. From 1920 to 1923, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall took bribes, aiding several oil companies in their attempt to control valuable naval oil reserves, including the Teapot Dome oil preserve in Wyoming.