RRB Building History

The Site

The Reagan Building stands in an area of Washington once known as Murder Bay; so notorious that people were advised not to cross to the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue after dark. Although a fairly respectable neighborhood in the years immediately following the city's founding, it developed into a shanty town in the mid nineteenth-century.

During the Civil War, the area was called "Hooker's Division" because General Joseph Hooker required all the city's prostitutes to assemble there, presumably for the convenience of his troops. When the war ended, the area became an ethnically mixed working class neighborhood. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, the area was home to numerous saloons and brothels.

In 1914, prostitution was made illegal in Washington and the brothels were closed. The area consisted of a poor, mixed residential- commercial neighborhood until the government acquired the land for construction of the Federal Triangle. Traces of the past still surface from time to time. In the 1980s, an archeological dig unearthed perfume, beer, liquor bottles, combs, and garter hooks from the old saloons and brothels.


During the 1961 Inaugural parade, President John F. Kennedy noted the run-down condition of America's famed Pennsylvania Avenue, the nation's "Main Street". The north side of the street was occupied by cheap hotels, pawn shops, and liquor stores. On the south side, an 11-acre parking lot rudely punctuated a line of neoclassic federal buildings built in the 1920s and 1930s. What was once envisioned as the Grand Plaza of the Federal Triangle had been abandoned when construction was halted during the Depression. President Kennedy's concern led to creation of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation ("PADC"), which transformed the north side of the avenue over the course of the next twenty years. The parking lot remained an eyesore until 1987 when Congress passed the Federal Triangle Development Act authorizing construction of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and International Trade Center.


Architect James Ingo Freed was tasked with the unique challenge of designing a building that needed to stand as a testament to modern architecture and yet remain sympathetic to the neoclassical architecture of the Federal Triangle.

Freed's design contrasts a traditional façade with elements of neoclassical design into a thoroughly modern interior. The façade is clad in limestone from the same Indiana quarry as other Federal Triangle buildings and the red terra cotta tiled roof creates a harmonious skyline for the Triangle. The building's interior is contemporary architecture at its finest. Inside the 14th Street entrance, the eight-story foyer gives way to the building's most dramatic feature, a cone-shaped glass skylight that soars over the 170-foot atrium.

In 1995, Congress voted unanimously to name the building after President Ronald Reagan, who had signed the legislation authorizing its construction. With the dedication of the building on May 5, 1998, the last vacant property between the Capitol and the White House was filled and the work of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation was completed.

President Kennedy's vision of a "Main Street" worthy of America was realized.

Last Reviewed: 2020-09-14