IRS Building History

The Site

Prior to the redevelopment of the Federal Triangle, the site of the IRS building was occupied by Washington's first theater. The Washington Theater opened in 1804 and offered a medley of entertainment including song, dance, and magic. It continued in operation until 1820, when a fire destroyed the building.

The property was then purchased by a family of talented Italian immigrants with established reputations as professors of music, dancing, and painting. In 1822 Carusi's Assembly Rooms opened, which played an important role in the city's cultural history as the site for balls, theatrical, musical and literary entertainments, and the occasional political gathering. From 1825 to 1857 a number of Presidential Inaugural balls were held, including those of John Quincy Adams and James Buchanan. In 1872, Carusi's was replaced by a burlesque hall known as the Washington Theater Comique. The building was torn down in the 1930s to make way for Federal Triangle construction.

In addition to the procession of theaters occupying this location, the advent of steamed oysters is associated with Harvey's Oyster Bar, a restaurant located on the site at 11th & Pennsylvania Avenue. Originally specializing in boiled oysters, the staff experimented with steaming in order to quickly serve the large crowds of soldiers during the Civil War. According to stories, steamed oysters were such a success that fifty-foot high piles of oyster shells were said to have littered Pennsylvania Avenue during the war years.


Founded in 1872, the IRS was housed in temporary wood frame structures throughout the early twentieth century. Prone to fires, these buildings greatly impeded the safekeeping of the nation's revenue accounts. In the eight years between 1923 and 1931, 603 fires were recorded in the temporary structures. While none of the fires proved disastrous, it was evident that the creation of a permanent headquarters building was long overdue. Accordingly, the IRS was one of the first buildings approved for construction during the redevelopment of the Federal Triangle.

Authorized in 1926, just one month after approval of the Federal Triangle legislation, the IRS building was designed by architect Louis Simon. The building was occupied 4 years later, on June 1, 1930, having been completed sixteen months ahead of schedule. In addition to a state of the art fire alarm system, it contained 1,400 telephones and a synchronized system of 861 clocks, the largest system of its kind at the time of construction.

Constitution Avenue was envisioned by planners of the Federal Triangle as a grand ceremonial boulevard linking the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Memorial Bridge. Facing Constitution Avenue, the main entrance received the most elaborate decorative treatment. The upper floors of the facade are dominated by a 3-story colonnade with a balustrade separating the Doric columns.The decoration also includes carved limestone eagles and an inscription above the main entrance, which reads: Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society - Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The second phase of building construction took place between 1934 and 1937 in response to the repeal of the 18th Amendment (prohibition) which dramatically increased the workload of the Division of Distilled Spirits. Expanding the original building with a wing running the entire block of 10th Street, the form and architectural details of the IRS extension match those of the original wing.

Unfinished Design

The Federal Triangle master plan originally called for the IRS to occupy the entire block bound by Constitution Avenue, 10th Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, and 12th Street. Another wing was supposed to be built along 12th Street with a curved facade to mirror the design of the Clinton building. This addition would have formed the eastern half of the Circular Plaza envisioned by Triangle planners. To achieve this goal, the Old Post Office building would have been demolished. The success of the early preservation movement in saving the Old Post Office meant that the IRS building was never "completed" although the beginnings of the circular wall can still be seen on its 12th Street facade.

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