Federal Triangle - Genesis and Design

Genesis and Design

The Senate Park Commission (also known as the "McMillan Commission") was formed by the United States Congress in 1900 to reconcile competing visions for the development of Washington, D.C. and especially the National Mall and nearby areas. The Commission's plan for development, the McMillan Plan, proposed the razing of all residences and other buildings on Lafayette Square and building tall, Neoclassical government office buildings with facades of white marble around the park to house executive branch offices. While the demolition of some nearby buildings occurred (notably the Hay-Adams Houses, Corcoran House, and a portion of the Decatur House grounds), the rapid expansion in the size and number of executive branch agencies in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s made the McMillan Plan's development of Lafayette Square impractical.


Congressional and local support for the redevelopment of Lafayette Square waned significantly. Over the next few years, the President and Congress established several new agencies to supervise the approval, design, and construction of new buildings in the District of Columbia: The Commission of Fine Arts in 1910 (to approve the design of new structures), the Public Buildings Commission in 1916 (to make recommendations regarding the housing of federal agencies and offices), and the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission in 1924 (to oversee planning for the District). In the mid-1910s, Congress appropriated and the government spent $7 million to acquire land on Pennsylvania Avenue NW between 14th and 15th Streets NW and several blocks south. But no demolition or construction was conducted, and the government merely collected rent from the tenants in the area. In 1924, the Public Buildings Commission recommended that a new series of federal office buildings be built near the White House. The plan called for a complex of buildings to be built at "Murder Bay"—a muddy, flood-prone, malaria-ridden, poverty-stricken region lacking in paved roads, sewer system, and running water and almost exclusively home to numerous brothels and an extensive criminal underclass.


Federal Triangle (as the area would be renamed) had its genesis in 1926. An attempt to provide $50 million to fund, among other things, a national archives building and develop federal offices along Pennsylvania Avenue NW was proposed in 1925. The effort saw success in 1926 with the passage by the United States Congress of the Public Buildings Act, which authorized the construction not only of the Federal Triangle complex of buildings but also a new U.S. Supreme Court building opposite the United States Capitol, a major extension of the U.S. Government Printing Office building on North Capitol Street, and significant widening of B Street NW on the north side of the National Mall (eventually renamed Constitution Avenue). However, appropriations were to be made annually, leaving control of the project firmly in Congressional hands. Congress appropriated $50 million ($10 million a year for five years) for construction of these projects in 1927, with half the funds to be spent solely on Federal Triangle. A second appropriation bill provided $25 million for buying up all additional privately-held land in Federal Triangle. On June 5, 1926, the Treasury Department, which had been given authority over the implementation of the building program, announced the Federal Triangle projects (among others) which would move forward and their anticipated cost:

  • A national archives building, with total cost of land and construction to be $6.9 million ($1 million appropriated in fiscal 1927).
  • A new Internal Revenue Bureau building, with total cost of land and construction to be $7.95 million ($1.7 million appropriated in fiscal 1927).
  • A new Department of Commerce building, with total cost of construction to be $10 million ($600,000 appropriated in fiscal 1927).

Treasury officials said the Archives building was their top priority, followed by the Internal Revenue building, two Department of Agriculture projects, and the Commerce building last. At that time, no provision was made to construct a new building for the Department of Justice and no sites were named for construction of the three announced buildings. Preliminary plans for the Commerce building were presented to the Commission on Fine Arts and Public Building Commission in mid-June. On July 7, the Treasury Department and Commission of Fine Arts announced sites and sizes for the three previously-announced structures. The Department of Commerce building would contain 1 million square feet (93,000 square metres) of office space and be sited on the south side of B Street NW (now Constitution Avenue NW) on the National Mall. The Internal Revenue building would contain 650,000 square feet (60,450 square metres) of office space and take up two whole city blocks between 10th and 12th Streets NW and B and C Streets NW (cutting off 11th Street NW). The National Archives would contain 2.3 million square feet (213,900 square metres) of office space, and take up one city block between 12th and 13th Streets NW and B and C Streets NW (cutting off the last block of Ohio Avenue NW). The government owned three of the four plots needed for the Internal Revenue site, but none of the land beneath the proposed Archives building. Purchasing both sites, officials estimated, would cost $700,00 each. Treasury officials also proposed at this time adding a Justice building on Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets NW, and a Labor building (facing 15th Street) between 14th and 15th Streets NW and D Street NW and Ohio Avenue NW. Preliminary plans for these buildings were expected to be presented in three months.

The purchase of land delayed the construction program considerably over the next several years. Center Market, designed by architect Adolf Cluss and built in 1872, was the largest of the District of Columbia's markets, serving tens of thousands of people a day at a time when general stores and greengrocers were uncommon in the city. It was also a hub for transportation in the District of Columbia, as the city's trolley lines converged there. At the time it was built, it was the largest food market in the United States—with space for more than a thousand vendors, the city's first cold-storage vaults, its own ice storage facility, and its own artesian well. Center Market, however, occupied two blocks between 7th and 9th Streets NW on the north side of B Street NW. As early as August 1926, planners recognized that relocating Center Market and purchasing land from owners eagerly seeking inflated prices from the federal government would delay the Federal Triangle project significantly. Early negotiations with private landowners in the area collapsed early on when owners demanded exorbitant prices for their properties, and the city and federal government began condemnation proceedings in late August 1926 against owners on B Street NW between 10th and 13th Streets. Federal legislation authorizing expanded, faster condemnation powers for the Federal Triangle areas was sought in November 1926, and passed a month later. Condemnation (under the old eminent domain law) of the final block necessary for the Internal Revenue building began in January 1927. The Commission of Fine Arts placed a ban on all non-federal construction in the area in February 1927. The relocation of Center Market began in July 1927. The final lot for the Internal Revenue site was not condemned and purchased until October 1927. Negotiations for the privately-owned land at the Archives site began in late November 1927. Funds were furnished in February 1928 to buy the Southern Railway building at the southeast corner of 13th Street NW and Pennsvylania Avenue NW, which already housed a number of federal agencies (it was purchased in 1929). After six months, D.C. city officials finally began to consider a new location for Center Market. The new 1926 federal condemnation law was first used in October 1929 to condemn a set of parcels on the south side of D Street NW between 13th and 13½ Streets NW. A second set of parcels (Pennsylvania Avenue NW and B, 12th, and 13th Streets NW) was condemned under the new law in December 1930. The first land for the National Archives (later the Justice Department) building site was not acquired until July 1930 even though the site had been selected for development in November 1926. Center Market was not relocated until early 1931, more than four years after the process began. Additional land for the Justice and Post Office buildings was condemned in March and December 1931. Another major effort had to be made to condemn and remove railroad tracks from Federal Triangle, which had converged on the Center Market site. Although the Treasury Department had ordered the tracks lifted by April 1, 1931, this effort did not begin in earnest until early 1931. Negotiations over the price of the land and equipment broke down in February 1931, and the tracks had still not been removed by January 1932. Delay occurred in obtaining the Post Office land as well. Several parcels of land were not condemned until July 1, 1931—a single day before demolition on adjacent parcels of land began. The land for the Apex Building site was finally obtained through condemnation in July 1931.

The initial Federal Triangle building plan was significantly revised by the Public Buildings Commission in November 1926. President Calvin Coolidge refused in September to permit the Commerce building to be placed on the Mall. A few weeks later, the Commission of Fine Arts decided that the Commerce building should be relocated to 14th and 15th Streets NW, extending from D Street NW to B Street NW (cutting off Ohio Avenue NW and C Street NW). The National Capital Parks and Planning Commission established a committee (composed of William Adams Delano, Milton Bennett Medary, and Frederick Law Olmsted) to study the street plan in the Federal Triangle area and recommend appropriate closures or alterations (if any). While the Public Buildings Commission studied the Commerce site (and even considered halving the size of the building so that two structures could be built along 15th Street), plans for the Archives building were approved and a contract signed for razing of the Internal Revenue site. After these deliberations, the Public Buildings Commission announced on November 17, 1926, that several new buildings would be added and new sites for proposed buildings announced, including:

  • A new Department of Justice building, to be located between Pennsylvania Avenue NW and D Street NW, and 14th and 15th Streets NW.
  • A new "General Supply" building, to be located between 14th and 13th Streets NW between D and C Streets NW.
  • A new Independent Offices building, to be located between 12th and 13th Streets NW and B and C Streets NW (cutting off the last block of Ohio Avenue NW; this was the original proposed site of the National Archives in June 1926).
  • A new Department of Labor building, to be located between 13th and 14th Streets NW and B and C Streets NW.
  • A new General Accounting Office building, to be located between 9th and 10th Streets NW and B and C Streets NW.
  • Moving the Department of Commerce site from the National Mall to between 14th and 15th Streets NW between C and B Streets NW.
  • Moving the National Archives site northward to between 12th and 13th Streets NW and Pennsylvania Avenue NW and C Streets NW (cutting off D Street NW).
  • Retaining the previously announced site of the Internal Revenue building.

The Public Buildings Commission also announced it would build an 1,800-car parking lot next to the Department of Commerce building, and would proceed with construction of the Commerce and Archives first (as they were the top priority). Three months later, the estimates for construction of the Commerce building was increased to $16 million from $10 million and for the Internal Revenue building to $10.5 million from $2.5 million. Work on the Commerce building site was expected to begin by March 31, 1927. Government officials, other experts, and the press believed that the demolition of the District Building and Old Post Office Pavilion and the closure of many streets in the area would occur.

Work on all buildings was postponed in May 1927. On May 6, an ad hoc committee composed of Olmsted; Medary; Charles Moore, chair of the Commission on Fine Arts; and Louis E. Simon, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury, recommended relocating the Justice building from 15th Street NW to a lot further east so that traffic congestion at 15th and Pennsylvania might be alleviated. This ad hoc committee met again three days later to not only consider the Justice building relocation but also to consider a plan to create a single building ringing Federal Triangle rather than six to eight individual structures. The Public Buildings Commission considered the same plan on May 16. The Commission on Fine Arts approved relocating the Justice building the following day. However, disagreements among the three planning bodies proved so fundamental that a new Board of Architectural Consultants was created on May 19, 1927, to advise the groups on the development of Federal Triangle. The Board consisted of the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury (Louis E. Simon) and six private architects, including Louis Ayres, Edward H. Bennett, Arthur Brown, Jr., William Adams Delano, Milton Bennett Medary, and John Russell Pope. The Board of Architectural Consultants first met on May 23, at which time it considered a plan to create a single building ringing Federal Triangle rather than six to eight individual structures. As the Board of Architectural Consultants began its deliberations, the Commission on Fine Arts approved a plan to locate the Justice building on the north side of B Street NW between 7th and 9th Streets NW (where Center Market stood). About two weeks later, the Public Buildings Commission approved the single structure plan. This plan envisioned a central plaza (defined by 13th, 14th, B, and D Streets NW) surrounded by a traffic circle, with the buildings lining the exterior of the traffic circle. Few streets would be closed; rather, arches would connect each building to its neighbors (with only 12th Street NW remaining unbridged).

The final design of Federal Triangle began to come together in June 1927. The Board of Architectural Consultants approved the construction of the Commerce and Internal Revenue structures as stand-alone buildings on the sites last proposed in late June. In July, the Board proposed eight buildings, sited as follows:

  • Archives (surrounded by Interstate Commerce on the north, east, and south)
  • Commerce (west side of 15th Street NW between B and D Streets NW)
  • General Accounting (13th, 14th, B, and C Streets NW)
  • Independent Offices (6th, 7th, and B Streets NW and Pennsylvania Avenue NW)
  • Internal Revenue (B, 10th, 12th, and C Streets NW)
  • Interstate Commerce (9th, 10th, and B Streets NW and Pennsylvania Avenue NW)
  • Justice (7th, 9th, and B Streets NW and Pennsylvania Avenue NW)
  • Labor (B, 13th, 14th, and C Streets NW)

The Board did not address the future of the District Building, Old Post Office Pavilion, or Southern Railway Building, but had tentatively agreed to continue with the "Louvre plan" of a ring of buildings joined by arches.

The first design contract for any of the buildings in Federal Triangle was statutorily required by Congress in 1926 as part of the Public Buildings Act. A new headquarters for the Department of Commerce had been proposed in 1912 and a contract for the design work awarded to the architectural firm of York and Sawyer. Although this building was never built, Congress honored the contract and named the firm again as the Commerce building's designer. By March 1927, government officials had already decided that the Commerce building should be 1,000 feet (305 metres) long—making it the then-largest building in the District of Columbia. The May 1927 work moratorium, however, put these plans on hold. In September 1927, the design of the Internal Revenue building was handed over to Louis Simon at the Treasury Department, and the Commission of Fine Arts met to discuss proposed plans for both the Commerce and Internal Revenue buildings. At the same time, the Commission received bids on demolition of existing structures in the Triangle.

After review by the Board of Architectural Consultants, the Public Buildings Commission gave final design approval on November 1, 1927, to the Commerce and Internal Revenue buildings. The previous sizes of both buildings was reaffirmed, as was the "Louvre plan" for a unified ring of buildings surrounding a traffic circle and plaza. The Commission on Fine Arts adopted a requirement that the planned Federal Triangle buildings have a "uniform appearance" and height (six stories), limiting the Board's deliberations. Secretary Mellon imposed a requirement that all the buildings be built in the Neoclassical architectural style. By mid-December 1927, the design of the Archives building had been approved, and the Board of Architectural Consultants was meeting again to study once more the general layout of the Federal Triangle.

By March 1928, newspapers had reported that the Commerce and Internal Revenue buildings would be constructed first, followed by the Archives, then Justice, and then a newly-added Post Office building. Plans continued for the demolition of the District Building and Southern Railway headquarters (although the latter would be the last to be razed, as it would be used as temporary office space for displaced federal workers). Although the Commerce building plans (a 1,051-foot (320 m)-long building with 1,000,000 square feet (93,000 m2) of office space, the largest office building in the world) had stabilized by March 1928, some designers suggested that both 15th and 14th Streets NW be submerged in tunnels beneath the structure. About the same time, the Internal Revenue building's square footage was reduced by almost a quarter to 500,000 square feet (46,500 square metres). In July, Congress appropriated $210,000 for design work for the Independent Offices, Interstate Commerce, Justice, and Labor buildings, and Secretary Mellon altered the work schedule yet again to focus on these structures. The Board of Architectural Consultants met to consider ways in which the construction program might be sped up, and devised plans to have four approved buildings (Commerce, Internal Revenue, Justice and Labor) completed by 1932. By October 1928, the Board of Architectural Consultants had agreed with prior decisions that no office building should be constructed on the National Mall, and that this space should be reserved for museums.

Plans for the eastern apex of Federal Triangle, however, were complicated by an ongoing effort to create a George Washington Memorial. A George Washington Memorial Association was organized in 1898 to establish in the District of Columbia a university bearing Washington's name. Efforts to do so were unsuccessful, but in 1904 the Association signed an agreement with D.C.-based Columbian University to change its name to George Washington University and build a large memorial hall on the university's campus. Plans for the memorial hall did not move forward, however, so the Association joined with the Smithsonian Institution to build a similar structure on the former site of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad's Pennsylvania Station. A design competition was held in 1914, and architects chosen. The cornerstone was laid in 1921, and some of the foundation and a marble stairway built on a plot of land across B Street NW (where the National Gallery of Art sits today) in 1924. In 1929, even as the Federal Triangle project was moving forward, the George Washington Memorial Association was conducting fund-raising for the construction of the building at the proposed National Archives site. Press reports, however, indicated that the building had already been displaced from the Apex building site. The fund-raising effort eventually failed, and the foundation and stairs were razed in 1937 to make way for the National Gallery of Art.

Two major changes to the complex came in early 1930. The Board and other planning groups had long agreed to site the Justice Department building on the block bounded by 7th, 9th, and B Streets NW and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. But this plan changed in March 1930. Architect John Russell Pope made a proposal to have the Justice and Archives switch sites so that the Justice building would have more space. Although the change would entail major design alterations in both buildings, Secretary Mellon favored the idea. The Commission on Fine Arts approved the plan, and Mellon met with the Board of Architectural Consultants in late March 1930 to discuss the idea. Although this initial meeting left the issue unresolved, the Board later agreed to Mellon's wishes in April and the two buildings switched plots. At the end of April, President Hoover asked Congress to appropriate $10.3 million (the most yet) to build a new Post Office Department building between 12th and 13th Streets NW, from Pennsylvania Avenue NW south to C Street NW.

Architectural models of the proposed Federal Triangle development were unveiled in late April 1929. Design work on the Independent Offices, Justice, and Labor buildings also began at that time. After these models were unveiled, however, the Board once more made changes to the Federal Triangle construction plan to reflect the March and April changes made by Hoover and Mellon. Now only seven large structures were planned, and assigned to the following Board members for design:

  • Apex Building (formerly the Independent Offices building, and now assigned to house the United States Coast Guard) - Bennett
  • Commerce Department building - Ayers (of the firm York and Sawyer)
  • Internal Revenue Service building - Simon
  • Justice Department building - Medary
  • Labor Department/Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) building, and Departmental Auditorium - Brown
  • National Archives building - Pope
  • Post Office Department building - Delano

Parking and traffic issues proved immensely vexing for the planners of Federal Triangle. The original L'Enfant Plan setting out the streets of the District of Columbia still existed in the Federal Triangle area. Both C Street NW and D Street NW still ran from 15th Street NW to 15th Street NE. Ohio Avenue NW ran in a northwest-southeast line from the intersection of D and 15th Streets NW to the intersection of B and 12th Streets NW (soon to be renamed as Constitution Avenue NW and 12th Street NW). Louisiana Avenue NW still ran in a southwest-northeast direction from 10th and B Streets NW to 7th and D Streets NW (along what is currently the diagonal portion Indiana Avenue NW). The McMillan Plan was developed before the widespread use of the automobile, and now the Board of Architectural Consultants had to decide how to accommodate the "horseless carriage" while also making Federal Triangle pedestrian-friendly. The Board began studying traffic issues in late 1927. A major study of parking needs and solutions was conducted in 1931, and traffic and parking patterns assessed again after the Department of Commerce building opened in early 1932. To achieve some of the traffic and parking goals, the east-west streets and diagonal avenues were eliminated, leaving only the north-south streets through the area, and 12th and 9th Streets NW were submerged in tunnels beneath the National Mall. In the first major change to the Board's "final" plans, the Grand Plaza was abandoned in favor of a parking lot. The Board considered a number of other solutions to the need to accommodate the more than 7,500 cars expected to arrive every day (including an underground bus terminal and underground parking garage under the Grand Plaza), but in the end only approved a small number of underground parking spaces beneath the Apex Building.

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