Agriculture South Building, Washington, DC
The Department of Agriculture, South Building was designed by the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury, and erected between 1930 and 1936 to provide laboratory and office space. Until the erection of the Pentagon in 1942, the Agriculture South Building was considered the largest office building in the world. With overall base dimensions of 458' x 944', the building has 4,500 rooms, seven miles of corridors, 12 million bricks, and 11,000 miles of structural steel. Despite its enormity, the building was intended to occupy what was clearly a subordinate position both within the Department of Agriculture complex and within the larger realm of the city's monumental core, characterized by a predominance of monumentally scaled public buildings.
The Agriculture South Building grew out of a desire to consolidate in a single complex the myriad functions of the Department of Agriculture. The Administration Building, built in 1928- 1930, and its laboratory wings (1904-1908) had been planned in the early 1900s, as part of the 1902 Senate Park Commission. The site to the south across Independence Avenue from the Administration Building provided a logical extension of the existing USDA complex. Reflecting its location and function, it was important that the design of the South Building be physically separate and distinct, while subordinate to that of the earlier Administration Building. In order to bring its growing laboratory facilities into a modern climate, the Department sought the construction of the South Building as a simple, flexible space which could accommodate huge numbers of rooms for laboratory and office use. Originally termed the Extensible Building, the Agriculture South Building was planned for phased construction. The term "extensible" is an archaic term meaning capable of being extended. The First Phase of construction, 1930-1932, consisted of Wings 4 and 5 and the connecting segments along Independence Avenue and C Street. The Second Phase, begun in 1932 and completed in 1935, included all portions east and west of Phase One, and occurred simultaneously to complete the building. While not technically a Third Phase, construction of the middle portion of Wing 1 was delayed for removal of some existing buildings along 13th Street, and to include the erection of the two pedestrian bridges which link the South and Administration Buildings, but was completed in 1936.
The architectural significance of the Agriculture South Building is derived from several factors. The principal characters in the design and construction were the staff of the Treasury Department's Office of the Supervising Architect. Unlike many other federal buildings of the period, no private architects were involved in the design process. The Office of the Supervising Architect was at the time the world's largest and the predominant force in shaping the direction of Federal architecture in Washington and throughout the nation. Louis A. Simon was Chief of the Architectural Division of the Office of the Supervising Architect from 1905 until 1934 when he became the Supervising Architect. He replaced the layman, James Wetmore, who had held the title of Acting Supervising Architect since 1915. Although his exact role as a designer is uncertain, Simon is credited with responsibility for the design. Simon also designed the Internal Revenue Building (1930-1935), which is the only building within the Federal Triangle complex not designed by architects in private practice.
The building is one of an impressive number of major federal buildings designed in the Stripped Classic style which flourished in the 1930s. The style is alternately referred to as starved classicism, Depression Modern, and WPA Modern. The building's style was influenced by the Office of the Supervising Architect and by the Commission of Fine Arts, which was responsible for reviewing and commenting on plans in the District of Columbia. The style was grounded in a reinterpretation of classical formulas, but also offered a departure from the Beaux Arts and Neoclassical styles of earlier in the century, although it remains identified with components of the Neoclassical style. The style was largely developed by private architects and fostered by a government client, and assumed a strong, if not exclusive, association with Federal architecture. The Stripped Classic style had a major impact in reshaping Washington in the 1930s up to the time of World War II.
Among Washington's Federal Buildings of the period, Agriculture South is of special interest for its unusual variety and application of materials; variegated brick, limestone, glazed terra cotta, and cast and wrought iron occur in combination. The varied use of materials in the Agriculture South Building sets it apart from many other Federal projects of the period and was probably something of an experimental application on a building intended to appear as a subordinate element of an Executive Department building complex.
Interior materials are also somewhat unusually applied; they include a variety of polychrome ceramic floor tile and natural finished wood doors and frames. Except at the Auditorium, and consistent with the precepts of the Stripped Classic style, minimal architectural embellishment was applied at the interior. Although intended as a design with restraint, the system of double-loaded corridors occurring at right angles to the Head House and Tail House, provides almost no diversion from a rigidly orthogonal grid plan, and a seemingly infinite repetition of spaces and details. Even the entrance lobbies are held in check so as not to disrupt the pattern of corridors. Only the Auditorium and Library deviate from this plan by being isolated and projected into two of the courts; the recently constructed cafeteria has been introduced into a third court. As with many other Federal buildings of the period, the interior was designed to permit the future flexibility of spaces and their functions.
While no historical events of singular importance are known to be associated with this building, its broader association with the growth of the Department of Agriculture is significant. Between the two World Wars, Washington was transformed by the rapid growth of the Federal government. The exponential growth of the period may be seen in the population of Federal employees: the 1880 ratio of one government employee for every 502 members of the total population had changed to 1:237 in 1910, and to 1:120 by 1940. The concurrent demand for buildings to house these Federal workers resulted in the vastly scaled building program conducted by the Office of the Supervising Architect. Through the 1950s, the South Building continued to function in the capacity for which it was originally intended; the removal of laboratory functions to the Department's Beltsville, Maryland facility has left the building exclusively occupied by offices.
Of limited technological significance is the pneumatic tube system installed originally for mail delivery. Three "Tube Rooms" were located at each floor, one each at the north ends of Wings 2, 4, and 6, where mail was sorted and distributed.
- Architect: Louis A. Simon
- Construction Date: 1930-1936
- Architectural Style: Neoclassicism
- GSA Building Number: DC0005ZZ
- Landmark Status: National Register Listed