A Timeline of Architecture and Government
Architecture, particularly public architecture, develops in response to a government and its people. Laws, technological advances, symbolic needs, functional requirements, and social aesthetics also exert strong influence. To understand the impact these influences had on architecture provides insights into how and why it changes over time.
The timeline below highlights some of the more important events in the evolution of American architecture as it developed alongside the nation.
1836 - 1869
Construction begins on the U.S. Treasury building. Its construction spans 33 years, and today it is the oldest departmental building in Washington DC. A magnificent example of Greek Revival style, the building has a great impact on the design of other government buildings.
First to be built are the east and center wings, completed in 1842. They are designed by Robert Mills. Additional wings, south and west, are added in 1860 and 1864 respectively. Thomas Ustick Walter is the designer, with input from Ammi B. Young and Isaiah Rogers. The final addition, the north wing, is completed in 1869; Alfred B. Mullett serves as architect.
The Bureau of Construction is established by the Secretary of the Treasury to coordinate and oversee federal design and construction projects.
Ammi B. Young becomes the first architect to be called the “Supervising Architect.” Over time, the bureau becomes known as the Office of the Supervising Architect. Young heads the office until 1861, when the Civil War brings building projects to a halt.
1853 - 1858
1855 - 1858
Alfred B. Mullett is commissioned to design the State, War, and Navy Department Building in Washington, DC. (now the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building).
Built in four stages, the building replaces two existing executive office buildings that stood west of the White House. The south wing (1871-1875) houses the State Department. The east wing (1872-1879) houses the Navy Department. The north (1879-1882), west and center wings (1884-1888) house the War Department.
The financial panic of 1873 leads to a six-year depression in North America and Europe. Many factors converge to trigger the panic: over-expansion of the American railroad system, a plummet in the price of silver, and a run on Wall Street that closes the NY Stock Exchange for 10 days.
The depression affects the federal building program. Second Empire style buildings suddenly seem overly grand and expensive in an era of hard economic times. The less decorative Romanesque Revival style, characterized by massive, rough-textured stone walls, rounded arches, and square towers, becomes popular for federal buildings constructed in the 1880s.
Tarsney Act passes in Congress. It allows the Treasury Department to acquire the services of architects working in private practice. For the first time since the country’s founding, private architects can compete for major federal design assignments.
Ultimately over 30 buildings are built during the life of the Tarsney Act. One of the most iconic buildings constructed under the Tarsney Act is the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in New York City by architect Cass Gilbert.
The success of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893, cements acceptance of Neoclassicism in both architectural and public circles.
Millions of visitors are dazzled by fourteen “great buildings” situated around a huge reflective pool. Because the buildings are “lathered with plaster of Paris, and painted a chalky white, [they were given] the moniker ‘White City.’” The grand scale, symmetry, elaborate ornamentation, and classical details of these buildings soon influence the design of federal buildings. The first large-scale manifestation of the City Beautiful movement, the fair’s impact will transform public architecture for the next fifty years.
James Knox Taylor becomes supervising architect in October. He is the first architect to be chosen under the Civil Service Law. Projects under his tenure adhere to the classical style: monumental entrances, grand public lobbies, facades of white limestone or marble. Taylor holds the office until 1912, five years longer than anyone who came before him. During this time, the Office of the Supervising Architect will grow from a staff of 150 to 251. The number of completed buildings during this time increases by 133 percent.
Private sector begins to embrace modern architectural ideals and new building technologies. Examples include Rockefeller Center (Associated Architects) in New York City and the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building (Howe and Lescaze) in Philadelphia.
During the 1930s, the government embarks on a prolific construction program, and federal buildings throughout the country are planned and executed. Many buildings continue to reflect traditional styles, though they increasingly bear the influences of the early modern movement. Used primarily for government architecture, a new architectural style emerges that effectively straddles classicism and modernism. Simplified neoclassical forms are paired with the stylized designs of the Art Deco style. This new public building style is today alternately known as Stripped Classicism, Starved Classicism—or PWA Modern in recognition of the Public Works Administration that oversaw many such designs.
Congress passes the Historic Sites Act, which “declares that it is a national policy to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States.”
The act creates programs for the research, inventory, and organization of historic sites.
1938 – 1943
Congress passes the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs it into law. President Roosevelt then issues Executive Order 7034, establishing the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA seeks to provide employment to the millions of unemployed Americans.
Among many undertakings, the WPA provides funding for myriad public building projects, including courthouses, airports, and federal office buildings. These are partially funded by state and local governments, which provide 10-30% of the funding.
Federal Property and Administrative Services Act passes. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) is created, which includes the Public Buildings Service, the division responsible for the design, construction, and management of federal buildings.
The act authorizes the employment of private architects for public building projects once again.
1951 - 1952
1961 - 1962
President John F. Kennedy creates Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space. “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” issued, encouraging the “finest contemporary American architectural thought” for designs of new federal buildings. It also advocates the inclusion of fine arts, preferably by living American artists, where appropriate.
Daniel P. Moynihan, senator from New York, is given credit for the ideas in the report, which become a “touchstone” for discussion of federal buildings.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy spends the first years of her husband’s presidency restoring splendor and history to the White House. On February 14, 1962, "A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy” airs on CBS. An estimated 56 million Americans tune in to see her talk about White House history and the need for historic preservation.
Later that same year, Mrs. Kennedy begins to bring her position and considerable powers of persuasion to bear to save Lafayette Square’s row houses from the wrecker’s ball. She writes to GSA Administrator Bernard L. Boutin, asking him to “[preserve] the 19th Century feeling of Lafayette Square” and that she “so strongly feels that the White House should give the example in preserving our nation’s past.”
The integration of art in public buildings is recognized by the Kennedy administration, as a priority, with a focus on sculpture and murals.
Construction completed on early phase of the Federal Center in Chicago; it eventually consists of three buildings: John C. Kluczynski Federal Building; Loop Station Post Office; and Everett M. Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.
The simple, well-proportioned steel and glass design epitomizes the minimalist architectural approach favored by its architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, considered one of the greatest architects of the 20th century.
President Lyndon B. Johnson initiates the Program for Beautification of Federal Buildings with the objective of improving the appearance of federal buildings and their grounds.
President Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson are instrumental in passing the Highway Beautification Act in 1965. It places restrictions on billboard advertising and fosters aesthetic consideration of landscapes along America’s highway system.
Construction begins on the U.S. Tax Court in Washington, DC. The building is a direct result of the "Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture" issued by the Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space at the request of President John F. Kennedy in 1962.
The Modernist design by master architect Victor Lundy is hailed as an example of “genuine classicism.” Watch the Center for Historic Buildings' documentary: Victor Lundy: Sculptor of Space.
National Environmental Policy Act passes. Energy conservation becomes a priority for federal buildings.
GSA establishes the Art in Architecture program, recognizing the importance of public art in federal buildings.
The program commissions American artists to create publicly scaled and permanently installed works of art for federal buildings across the nation. GSA allocates one-half of one percent of the estimated construction costs of new buildings and the modernization of existing buildings to commission artists.
Two federal buildings incorporating energy conservation technology are constructed:
- U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building in Willliamsport, PA; Architect: Burns & Loewe
- Norris Cotton Federal Building in Manchester, NH; Architect: Isaak & Isaak.
Public Buildings Cooperative Use Act passes. It encourages the location of commercial, cultural, educational and recreational facilities and activities within public buildings.
Commercial and service-related uses are allowed in federal buildings in an effort to revitalize downtowns.
GSA Design Awards established, recognizing high-quality federal design. The Design Awards celebrate the accomplishments of architects, engineers, landscape architects, urban planners, interior designers, artists, conservationists, and preservationists who create and safeguard the nation's landmarks.
Americans with Disabilities Act passes. President George H.W. Bush holds the largest signing ceremony in history on the south lawn of the White House. This landmark civil rights legislation not only makes discrimination against people with disabilities illegal, but also establishes the Standards for Accessible Design (amended again in 2010).
These standards and technical specifications provide a framework for making buildings accessible to people with disabilities. They also include detailed guidance for making historic buildings accessible.