Explore by Timeline: The Progressive Era (1890-1913)
Supervising Architect Willoughby J. Edbrooke Designs DC Post Office
Appointed Supervising Architect in 1891, Willoughby J. Edbrooke designed the building now known as Washington, DC’s Old Post Office. The construction continued through the terms of five supervising architects, each of whom modified the design.
The Richardsonian Romanesque building was constructed with a fireproof frame of steel and iron, faced with granite. It is the second tallest building in Washington (the tallest is the Washington Monument.)
Passage of the Tarsney Act
Beginning in the 1870s, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) lobbied for the federal government to hold competitions for the design of public buildings. By drawing on the talents of prominent private architects, the AIA argued, the federal architecture program would rise to a higher standard. On February 20, 1893, President Benjamin Harrison signed the Tarsney Act, which authorized the Treasury Department to hold competitions for federal building design.
The actual implementation of the act, however, was delayed for some years, mostly due to reluctance on the part of Treasury officials. AIA responded by exerting its influence on Congress to amend the act. Power ultimately shifted when the Republican Party regained the White House in the election of 1896. In 1897, newly appointed Secretary of the Treasury Lyman J. Gage told the AIA that he would implement the Tarsney Act. Two years later, the AIA moved its headquarters from New York to Washington, which placed it in a better position for future legislative struggles.
Jeremiah O’Rourke Appointed Supervising Architect
Jeremiah O’Rourke became supervising architect in April 1893, succeeding Willoughby J. Edbrooke. Tension with the AIA soon arose due to O’Rourke’s opposition to the recently passed Tarsney Act. He resigned in September 1894. Of all the supervising architects, O’Rourke held the position for the shortest time.
Classicism Prevails at World’s Columbian ExpositionPicturesque styles dominated public building architecture in the years immediately following the Civil War. But the selection of classicism as the theme for the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, signifyed that architects were once again looking to Ancient Rome and Greece for inspiration. Architects trained at France’s Ecole des Beaux Arts led the latest American revival of classical architecture.
William Martin Aiken Fills Position of Supervising ArchitectBuildings produced by the Office of the Supervising Architect during William Martin Aiken’s tenure were mostly classical in style. Like many of his predecessors, Aiken spent only two years in the office.
James Knox Taylor Promoted to Supervising Architect
James Knox Taylor (1857-1929) trained in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Early in his career he formed a partnership with architect Cass Gilbert in St. Paul, Minnesota. By 1895, he was working as a draftsman in the Office of the Supervising Architect, and two years he became the first civil servant to rise to the top position.
Taylor put the Tarsney Act into full use, and under his supervision large public buildings were designed by private architects. Designs for smaller, more modest buildings continued to be produced by Taylor’s office, which he staffed with talented young architects. Taylor enjoyed a relatively long tenure as Supervising Architect. He resigned in 1912.
On April 2, 1898, the U.S. officially declared war on Spain with the hope of securing independence for Cuba and banning the use of Spanish concentration camps on the island. After battles with Spanish fleets in both the Philippines and Cuba, the two capital cities surrendered; the American forces secured Puerto Rico as well.
The Treaty of Paris officially ended the war. Thirteen years later, construction of Puerto Rico’s first significant federal building in San Juan began. The building, completed in 1914, was restored in 1996 and won several awards for historic preservation.
Competition to Design U.S. Custom House in New York
In 1899, Supervising Architect of the Treasury James Knox Taylor invited twenty firms to vie for the most coveted Tarsney Act commission, that for U.S. Custom House in New York. After narrowing the competition to submissions by Cass Gilbert and Carrere and Hastings, the jury chose Gilbert’s Beaux Arts Classicism design.
The striking Beaux Arts U.S. Custom House is a steel-framed, seven-story structure on the south side of Bowling Green at the foot of Broadway. The most significant decorative features on the exterior are Daniel Chester French’s (1850-1931) monumental sculptures representing international commerce. Four female figures of limestone sit on large entrance pedestals and represent America, Asia, Europe, and Africa.
Great Hurricane Hits Galveston
During the deadliest natural disaster in United States history, 8000 people died in the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. The 1861 U.S. Custom House sustained major damage from winds and flooding, but survived the disaster. Survivors used the building as a makeshift hospital in the days immediately following the hurricane.
Although Galveston would never regain its place as a major commercial center, the federal government chose to repair the building. A visual symbol of Galveston’s prosperity before the Civil War, today it houses the Galveston Historical Foundation.
San Francisco Earthquake
On April 18, 1906, an earthquake devastated San Francisco. The U.S. Courthouse and Post Office (now the James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building) and the 1874 U.S. Mint Building were the only buildings south of Market Street to survive the earthquake and resulting fires. While repairs were made, the U.S. Post Office set up collection points around the city with the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office serving as a symbol of hope in the weeks following the earthquake. Restoration was completed in 1910.
Oscar Wenderoth Becomes Supervising Architect
A former draftsman under James Knox Taylor, Oscar Wenderoth (1873-1938) was working in the New York firm of Carrere and Hastings when he was chosen to be supervising architect. He arrived in Washington in July 1912. When the Tarsney Act was repealed a month later, Wenderoth began working on a new solution for utilizing the talents of private architects in public building design.
Wenderoth held the position of supervising architect for less than three years. He resigned and returned to private practice in April 1915.
Tarsney Act Repealed
"One of the deplorable iniquities perpetrated in the last session of Congress was the repeal of the Tarsney act of 1897 . . . . Their only explanation is that the law gave the Secretary of the Treasury too much discretion. As a matter of fact, they had no intelligible reason to give. They dislike art and architects, and there seems no possible outcome of the repeal except to intrust the Supervising Architect of the Treasury the work of designing all public buildings, as was done in the lamentable era of Mullet.”
The New York Times, October 3, 1912
Amidst protests from both the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Treasury Department, Congress repealed the Tarsney Act in August 1912. The AIA viewed this as a backward step, and began lobbying to have it reenacted.
Public Buildings Act
The Public Buildings Act of 1913 created the Public Buildings Commission, which was composed of the secretary of the treasury, the postmaster general, the attorney general, and four members from the House and Senate Public Buildings and Grounds Committees. The Public Building Commission was charged to draft recommendations on standardizing and streamlining the management of public buildings.