Wilbur J. Cohen Building History

Social Security Administration

The Social Security Administration, originally known as the Social Security Board (SSB), was created during the Great Depression as a key component of the second New Deal legislation. While FDR focused initial New Deal efforts on relief and recovery from immediate impacts of the Depression, the second New Deal focused on longer lasting government programs and reform.

In 1938, as a new headquarters building for the Social Security Board was being planned, prominent artists were commissioned to decorate the interior public spaces of the building. Ben Shahn's concept for his murals, The Meaning of Social Security originated from the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, giving pictorial form to the President's June 8, 1934 address to Congress during the debate on the Social Security legislation: "This security for the individual and for the family concerns itself primarily with three factors. People want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive works; and they want some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated from this man-made work of ours."

The Social Security Act was passed on August 14, 1935 as part of the New Deal program of sweeping social reforms that responded to the economic crisis of the Great Depression. Shahn’s Social Security mural vividly captures the ambitions of the New Deal programs and also serves as an example of government efforts to extend patronage to the arts in the 1930s.

Design & Construction

On August 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, creating a program to provide Americans with continuing income after retirement. Planning for a new headquarters building for the Social Security Board began immediately, and a site in Southwest Washington, near the U.S. Capitol, was selected. The Railroad Retirement Board soon requested that its space need also be accommodated, and in 1938, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of two new federal buildings.

Charles Z. Klauder, a Philadelphia based architect with a national reputation for Gothic Revival architecture, designed the building. Klauder’s intent for the design was to reference both the Egyptian Revival and Art Deco styles. In addition, the building exhibits characteristics of Stripped Classicism, such as the formal symmetry and classical arrangement commonly found in government buildings of the era. The front of the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building, which faces Independence Avenue and the National Mall, is sheathed in a buff limestone. A less expensive yellow brick with limestone trim was used to clad the rest of the building. The building’s interior is predominately utilitarian; however, the first floor includes bronze art deco decoration and green marble cladding. Tours of the building are available through Voice of America.

Wilbur J. Cohen

In 1988, the Social Security Building was renamed in honor of Wilbur Joseph Cohen (1913- 87), a famous government official and public affairs educator. Cohen had a long career in government, working in 1934-35 at the Committee for Economic Security, then moving to the Social Security Administration where he stayed until 1956. Except for brief periods in academia, he continued government work at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) until 1969, when he returned to teaching. He was the author of numerous books and articles on social security, social policy issues and the New Deal.

The peak of Cohen’s government service came during the Johnson Administration when he served as Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). At HEW, Cohen was instrumental in enactment of the Medicare program in 1965. In addition to being a government official and educator, he was a political and policy advocate, working to expand social welfare programs.

Last Reviewed: 2020-09-16