Wilbur Wright Building History

Site History

The Orville and Wilbur Wright Federal Buildings are located on squares 433 and 462 in Southwest, Washington DC. Fronting Independence Avenue across from the Smithsonian Air and Space and Hirshhorn museums, the buildings flank 7th Street, an historic thoroughfare to the DC waterfront and prime mercantile location. Although records are scarce regarding former occupants of the squares, it is known that square 433 was once home to the notorious Williams’ Slave Pen.

Williams’ Pen was one of the most profitable of the dozen slave pens operational in Washington DC in the early to mid-nineteenth century. A three story yellow brick house with outbuildings, the “pen” was set back from the street amidst a grove of trees and considered pleasant looking. In 1846, newly elected Congressman Abraham Lincoln described Williams’ Pen in a speech, stating “a peculiar species of slave trade in the District of Columbia, in connection with which in full view from the windows of the capitol, a sort of negro-livery stable, where droves of negroes were collected, temporarily kept, and finally taken to Southern markets…”

In 1841, a free man of color, Solomon Northrup, was kidnapped and sold as a slave in Washington, DC. While awaiting transport to Louisiana to be resold, he was held for two weeks in Williams’ Slave Pen. He described his surroundings, stating “The building to which the yard was attached was two stories high, fronting on one of the public streets of Washington; its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. A stranger looking at it would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it was the Capitol.

Twelve years later, Northrup was able to reclaim his freedom. In 1853, he published an account of his life as an enslaved man in Louisiana in his book, 12 Years a Slave. This site is significant to Washington’s history as it speaks to the background and setting for the DC emancipation, in 1862, and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Although the buildings have been demolished, the site has rich archeological potential. Williams’ Slave Pen is part of the DC African American Heritage Trail.

Design & Construction

In the early 1960s, the rapid expansion of commercial air travel and the Cold War space race resulted in the growth of both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The expanding workforce for these two agencies was housed in a hodgepodge of small offices and temporary buildings throughout the city, underscoring the need for a centralized headquarters and resulting in the decision to construct two adjacent buildings, Federal Office Buildings 10A and 10B, flanking 7th Street Southwest along Independence Avenue.

Designed by Holabird & Root, together with Carrol, Gristdale, and Van Alen, and Design for Business, the buildings are an excellent example of the International Style. Their reinforced concrete structures are wrapped in a smooth flat facade of glass and marble, conveying a sense of monumentality and giving the buildings a classical feeling, appropriate for their location neighboring the National Mall. The construction of FOB 10A and 10B was part of a concerted attempt to rejuvenate Southwest DC, replacing city slums with monumental federal buildings.

Originally, FAA occupied FOB 10A while NASA was housed in FOB 10B. In 1992, NASA headquarters relocated to another building. Today, FAA occupies both FOB 10A and 10B, which have been named in honor of early American flight pioneers, Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Orville & Wilbur Wright

On April 30, 2004, President George W. Bush signed legislation naming Federal Office Buildings 10A and 10B after the Wright brothers, “the inventors of powered, sustained, and controlled flight.” FOB 10A was named the Orville Wright Federal Building and FOB 10B after Wilbur Wright; a fitting designation that represented not only the tenant agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, but the related architecture of the two buildings. The dedication ceremony was attended by members of the Wright family and one-third-scale replicas of the Wright flyer and Wright glider were hung permanently in the building lobbies.

Raised in Dayton, Ohio, the Wright brothers were skilled mechanics, who began their career building and selling bicycles. From 1900 to 1903, the two brothers repeatedly attempted to construct a heavier-than-air craft. In 1901, the Wright brothers built their first Wright Flyer. Little more than a glider, this initial step was critical in determining the necessary aerodynamics of flight. In 1903, after repeated attempts, Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first men to pilot a powered, controlled, and sustained fixed wing aircraft.

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