In the 1900s, as the American government grew well beyond anything the Founding Fathers ever imagined, it became necessary to leave rented private offices and find permanent homes for workers. It was decided to fill the space created between Constitution Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue as the two thoroughfares fanned out to the west from their meeting point at 6th Street with a unified group of important and prominent Federal office buildings.
The result was the 1926 Public Buildings Act, launching the largest public building construction program yet seen in America in a 70-acre swath of capital city ground now know as the Federal Triangle. Secretary of Treasury Andrew W. Mellon and a Board of Architectural Consultants set down guidelines with each board member designing one of the office buildings that would line Pennsylvania Avenue, “America’s Main Street.”
Begun in 1792 on the plan of Pierre L’Enfant as a “Grand Avenue” connecting both the “President’s Palace” and the “Federal House,” Pennsylvania Avenue was a long time coming. Until 1871 when wooden blocks were laid down it was either dusty or muddy as the season demanded. Asphalt did not arrive until 1907 when Theodore Roosevelt was in office.
Streetcars were still running down Pennsylvania Avenue when ground was broken on the Federal Triangle and the promenade was transformed into what George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had in mind 150 years earlier. Our walking tour of the “Pathway of Presidents” will start at a remembrance of the man who kickstarted the whole thing...
Andrew W. Mellon Memorial Fountain
6th Street at Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues, NW
Andrew William Mellon was set up in business by his banker father in western Pennsylvania while still in his teens. His financial interests were in steel, shipbuilding, banking, coal and more. When he was tapped by President Warren Harding to serve as United States Secretary of Treasury in 1921, only John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford paid more federal income tax than Andrew Mellon. Art was his passion and his collection formed the basis of the nearby National Gallery of Art across the way. This three-tiered memorial fountain in his honor was dedicated on May 9, 1952. Otto Eggers was the architect and Sidney Waugh the sculptor and the price tag was $300,000.
WALK WEST ON CONSTITUTION AVENUE.
Federal Trade Commission
6th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was the last to arrive at the Federal Triangle party, in 1937. By that time America had plunged into the Great Depression which resulted in a stripped-down classical design from architects, Bennett, Parsons & Frost from Chicago reflecting the austerity of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. In fact, the building budget was chopped twice before the FTC building came online.
Constitution Avenue between 7th and 9th streets, NW
For its first 150 years America had no place to safeguard historically important records and documents, including such treasures as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Congress ponied up money for a document vault in 1926 and John Russell Pope went to work designing the most decorative ornament on the Federal Triangle, dressed in limestone atop a granite base. Pope outfitted the National Archives with thousands of feet of shelving, reinforced floors and special air filters. It required more than four years to construct after groundbreaking in 1931.
Department of Justice
Constitution Avenue between 9th and 10th streets, NW
One of the first orders of business for the inaugural United States Congress back in 1789 was to create the Office of the Attorney General to “advise the President and occasionally other officials about legal matters.” In 1870 Congress established the U.S. Department of Justice but there was never a home for the legal eagles until the 1930s. Philadelphia architects Clarence C. Zantzinger and Charles L. Borie, Jr., blended classical influences with Art Deco and Greek elements into this block-swallowing house of justice. The building is faced in limestone under a red-tile hipped roof; where bronze was traditionally used in trim and doors, aluminum can be found here.
Internal Revenue Service
1111 Constitution Avenue, NW
The Internal Revenue Service building was the first of the Federal Triangle’s Neoclassical behemoths to go up, completed in the early 1930s. The taxmen work on storied ground - the Carusi’s Assembly Rooms, social halls that once held the inaugural balls of Presidents John Quincy Adams through James Buchanan. This was also the heart of the bawdy section of 19th century Washington called Hooker’s Division, in reference to Civil War Union Army troops who camped nearby under the direction of General Joe Hooker. As estimated 50 saloons and more than 100 brothels conducted tax-free business here with wanton impunity.
Interstate Commerce Commission
12th Street and Constitution Avenue
San Francisco architect Arthur Brown who shepherded many landmarks to completion in the City By The Bay designed this group of three buildings for the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Customs Department and the Andrew J. Mellon Departmental Auditorium in 1932. The ICC was abolished in 1995 and this is now the home of the Environmental Protection Agency that was created by Richard Nixon via executive order in 1970.
Department of the Treasury
14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Arthur Brown kept at it and did the work on the five-story Department of Treasury. A two-story rusticated basement and a series of corner porticoes add visual interest to the monumental facade.
TURN RIGHT ON 15TH STREET.
Herbert C. Hoover Building
Constitution Avenue, NW; 14th Street, NW; 15th Street, NW; E Street, NW
Built in 1932 for the Department of Commerce, this was the largest office building in America when completed. Its facade along 15th Street stretched three city blocks and was longer than three football fields. Total floorspace exceeded 1,000,000 feet on its seven stories. Scored walls and pedimented windows offer an Italianate flavor to the giant structure. In addition to housing the Department of Commerce, the Hoover Building also houses the White House Visitors Center at the northwest corner, and the National Aquarium in the basement.
TURN RIGHT ON PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE.
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
This marble-faced Beaux Arts confection predates the Federal Triangle, raised between 1904–1908 as the District Building that contained the government of the District of Columbia. Walter Cope and John Stewardson of Philadelphia drew up the plans and it eventually took the name of long-term District politico, John A. Wilson. As the federal government’s role expanded and the District’s power receded, so to did the building’s maintenance. After a period of vacancy in the 1990s the building picked up a much-needed facelift and government employees once again stream through its Corinthian columns.
Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Ronald Reagan, champion of small government has second-largest federal office building in Washington named for him. At the time it was built, the Ronald Reagan Building carried the biggest construction tab ever picked up by the American taxpayers - $768 million. The parking garage is the town’s largest. It requires an acre of glass to cover the interior 170-foot atrium.
Ariel Rios Federal Building
12th Street, NW, between Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues
One way Franklin Roosevelt tried to ease unemployment during the Depression of the 1930s was to build thousands of post offices across the country, attempting to provide every community with a building of distinction. An army of New Deal artists were deployed to decorate the interiors with locally relevant murals. This building, constructed between 1931 and 1935, housed the U.S. Department of the Post Office and boast 25 murals of its own. The semi-circle formed by the building’s curve on its eastern façade was to be mirrored by a similarly curved façade in a building planned across the street where resided the hulking former post office. The Building Commission eagerly wanted the Victorian pile gone but long-fought preservation battles staved off the wrecking ball and left the circle broken.
Old Post Office Pavilion
12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Pennsylvania Avenue became Washington’s first downtown street with shops, markets, and a financial district growing along it during the 19th century. However, at the end of the 19th century, and continuing into the 20th century, the Avenue became an eyesore to local residents with tattoo parlors, rooming houses, and cheap hotels lining the street. An early attempt at improving Pennsylvania Avenue occurred when Congress authorized the construction of a new combined Post Office Department and City Post Office building at 12th St. and the Avenue in 1892. Designed in the Romanesque Revival style by Willoughby J. Edbrooke, the building was completed in 1899, and its 315-foot tall clock tower remains an Avenue landmark today thanks to a citizens protest that saved it.
Evening Star Building
1101 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
This stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue was known as Newspaper Row when this handsome Beaux Arts style office was erected in 1898. Captain Joseph Borrows Tate put out the first issues of the Daily Evening Star in December of 1852but by 1855 had sold complete ownership to William Douglas Wallach, an engineering surveyor turned newspaperman. Wallach built the Star into a formidable voice in Washington before dispensing of the paper in 1867. There were many versions of the Star name before it folded as the Washington Star in 1981; 57 of its 129 years were spent here.
J. Edgar Hoover Building
935 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
From its inception in 1908 as the Bureau of Investigation until 1975, the Federal Bureau of Investigation worked out of the Department of Justice Building. When it got its first building it was a study in the stark form known as Brutalism, delivered from the architectural shop of Charles F. Murphy and Associates out of Chicago. The entire was constructed from poured concrete.
TURN LEFT ON 10TH STREET.
511 10th Street, NW
This three-story brick structure moved from the obscurity of one of John T. Ford’s theater properties into American infamy on the night of April 14, 1865, while the President Abraham Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln were attending a performance of the play, Our American Cousin. Actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth burst into the presidential box and committed the first presidential assassination in the country’s history. The National Park Service acquired the theater, that began life in 1833 as the First Baptist Church, in 1933. Today only the exterior walls remain from the 19th century theater and the entire interior has been reconstructed to recreate its appearance on the night of the assassination.
516 10th Street, NW
The Petersen House is the house where Lincoln died. At the time of Lincoln’s death, the house across from Ford’s Theater was owned by William A. Petersen, a German tailor. Petersen constructed the plain, red brick three-story and basement townhouse in 1849. The National Park Service acquired the house in 1933, and has maintained it as a historic house museum, recreating the scene at the time of Lincoln’s death.
RETURN TO PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE AND TURN LEFT.
U.S. Navy Memorial
701 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Machinations to honor America’s seamen from the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and the Merchant Marine during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, a Navy man himself. Dedication of the Memorial designed by the New York firm of Conklin Rossant took place on October 13, 1987, the 212th birthday of the United States Navy. Memorial Plaza includes the moving depiction of The Lone Sailor by Stanly Bleifield and a replica of the world’s oceans in granite with markers commemorating American naval actions. The plaza was later joined by the Naval Heritage Center and the Memorial’s Visitor Center in twin buildings.
Pennsylvania Avenue, between 7th and 9th streets, NW
Although there are no longer markets -and it’s not square - there once were vendors here along “America’s Main Street.” The guy on the horse is General Winfield Scott, executed by Henry Jackson Ellicott. It was dedicated in 1896 in a ceremony attended by every major official in Washington, honoring one of 15 officers who received the thanks of Congress for his service at Gettysburg. Hancock defused a Confederate assault on Union lines in Pennsylvania, despite being shot from his horse. Hancock’s try for the presidency in 1880 fell short by only 10,000 votes.
7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
The Temperance Fountain was donated to the city in 1882 by Henry D. Cogswell, a San Francisco dentist who specialized in false teeth, made his fortune in real estate and mining, and wanted Americans to drink water instead of liquor. One way, he proselytized, to curb drunkenness was to provide easy access to a sip of cool drinking water so he paid for fountains across the country. The fountain has four stone columns supporting a canopy on whose sides the words “Faith,” “Hope,” “Charity,” and “Temperance” are chiseled. Atop this canopy is a life-sized bronze heron.
National Bank of Washington
301 7th Street, NW
Here is a glimpse of Market Square from Victorian Washington. Architect James G. Hill borrowed elements of the Henry Hobson Richardson’s interpretation of the Romanesque style with rough-faced stone, powerful entry arch and roof gables for this three-story vault in 1889. The National Bank of Washington took its first deposits in 1809 and almost made it to the 21st century before liquidating in 1990. It kept headquarters here until 1954.
625-633 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
This building is actually three structures built at different times. The Brady Building (in the back) housed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady’s studio until 1873, while the twin-towered front was the Central National Bank and the twin-towered portion of the building is now the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women. For many years it housed the Apex Liquor store, which, to the ironic amusement of passersby, showcased a statue to temperance out front.
601 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
The Canadian Embassy had long been a fixture on Embassy Row in the DuPont Circle neighborhood but in the 1970s a much expanded consulate went looking for a new home. In a controversial decision Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau ignored four finalists chosen by a selection committee, and gave the design job to his longtime friend, Arthur Erickson. Erickson, of Vancouver, has been acclaimed as Canada’s greatest architect and he capped his long career with the creation of this embassy. His building proved no less controversial than the architect selection derby. Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey called it “a mighty battleship of a building.” Others were not so sanguine. An article on Forbes.com in 2002 named the embassy one of the world’s “10 ugliest buildings.” Canada, with whom we share the world’s longest international border at over 5,500 miles, is the first, and so far only nation, to build an embassy so close to the U.S. Capitol.
RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE POINT OF THE FEDERAL TRIANGLE.