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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The Federal Building Program

In its earliest years, the federal government typically rented space in existing buildings to conduct business outside of the capital city. In the first decades of the 19th century, however, the federal government began constructing more buildings to house its operations. Such buildings included custom houses in port cities and marine hospitals for the nation’s seamen. Since the Department of the Treasury collected custom duties and administered the hospital fund for seamen, it naturally assumed responsibility for constructing the buildings to house these operations. Many custom houses built during this period reflected the popular Greek Revival style of architecture. This style reflects design elements found on ancient Greek temples such as the Parthenon to suggest democratic principles.

The Department of the Treasury’s role soon grew to include the construction of other government buildings such as post offices and courthouses for the federal courts.  The Judiciary Act of 1789 had established a three-tiered federal judicial system: 1) 13 district courts (defined by state boundaries), 2) three larger circuit courts (Eastern, Middle, and Southern), and 3) a Supreme Court. These federal courts decided disputes involving rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. The Supreme Court, the highest court in the nation, convened in Washington, D.C., and mainly heard cases appealed from the lower courts. The district and circuit courts handled federal civil and criminal cases and met in the judicial districts located throughout the country. As more states joined the Union, the number of judicial districts increased along with the need for federal courthouses within these districts.

The expansion of the federal government, and the nation’s urban areas, in the 1850s led to the need for more custom houses, post offices, and federal courthouses across the nation. In 1852, the Secretary of the Treasury established the Bureau of Construction to help manage and unify this growing federal building program.  By the end of that year, Ammi B. Young had become the first government architect to be referred to as “Supervising Architect.”  Eventually, the Bureau of Construction came to be called the Supervising Architect’s Office or the Office of the Supervising Architect. Young remained the head designer for all federal buildings under the Treasury Department until 1861 when building projects stopped due to the Civil War.

Following the Civil War, the Supervising Architect’s Office began designing more elaborate federal buildings.  These buildings were meant not only to house government offices, but also to symbolize the power and stability of the federal government.  Alfred B. Mullett became Supervising Architect in 1866 and helped bring attention to the federal building program. Ornate new government buildings in major cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia called to mind the prosperity of the nation. Mullet designed many of these impressive buildings in the grand Second Empire style, a style based on French architecture during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III (1852-1870).

Mullett and his staff also designed federal buildings for many smaller cities such as Raleigh, North Carolina, and Madison, Wisconsin. These buildings often followed standard plans, but still reflected the architectural character of their particular region. Mullett said, “In the preparation of plans, I have been governed by the requirements of the various branches of the public business at each locality, and while avoiding any unnecessary expense or display, I have endeavored to render each building ample for the proper accommodation of the officers for whose use it was intended, and at the same time convenient, durable, and credible to the government."1 Because custom houses and federal courthouses usually were needed in growing urban centers, their construction was seen as a statement of that city’s importance and potential for future prosperity. To the citizens of these cities, federal buildings represented the “latest in architectural style and technology and, symbolically, membership in the Union."2 As symbols of stability, such buildings inspired confidence in the federal government.

The financial panic of 1873 and the depression that followed caused a big change in the federal building program. Second Empire style buildings seemed overly grand and expensive for the hard economic times. The less decorative Romanesque Revival style--characterized by massive, rough-textured stone walls, rounded arches, and square towers--became popular for federal buildings of the 1880s. The federal government continued to expand during this period, and the number of federal employees reached more than 150,000 by the end of the decade. By 1892, the Office of the Supervising Architect maintained almost 300 buildings with nearly 100 more under construction. The Supervising Architect’s Office continued to construct Romanesque Revival style buildings well into the 1890s.

Meanwhile, private architects called for a new style of federal architecture that would reflect the country’s emerging status as a world leader. The American Institute of Architects had argued for years that buildings designed under the Supervising Architect were inferior in design and cost more than buildings by private architects. Missouri Congressman John C. Tarsney agreed with this stance and introduced a bill to allow public buildings to be designed by private architects through design competitions. The Tarsney Act passed in February 1893.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, staged to honor the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America, had a huge impact on public architecture. Most of the nearly 200 buildings constructed to house the exhibits were designed in a style known as Beaux Arts. This style of architecture was taught at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris and was based on the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. In America, Beaux Arts was part of a broader architectural style referred to as Neoclassicism or Classical Revival. The millions of people who visited the fair were dazzled by the gleaming grandeur of what was called the “White City.”  The grand scale, symmetry, elaborate ornamentation, and classical details of these buildings soon influenced the design of federal buildings. Many people now considered Romanesque Revival style buildings to be out-of-date.

James Knox Taylor became Supervising Architect in October 1897. Federal buildings during his tenure embraced the classical style and boasted monumental entrances and grand public lobbies to welcome citizens to the offices of the federal government. Facades were typically covered in white limestone or marble and featured classical details such as columns. This style was fitting as it called to mind the great democracies of Greece and Rome and “bespoke the power, influence, and self assurance of a nation on the brink of world leadership."3

In August 1912, Congress repealed the Tarsney Act. Only about 30 of more than 400 buildings had been designed according to its provisions. The act benefited a few private architectural firms, but the federal government still had to employ a large number of architects in the Supervising Architect’s Office. By 1913, the Supervising Architect’s Office had 253 employees in Washington and 103 in the field.4 Classical architecture was well established as the most common style for public buildings. Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh stated: “Our Federal Government is the largest builder of buildings ever known in the world…; and the fact that it builds in every part of our great country gives it an unexampled influence upon the architectural art of the entire people…. The Government, therefore, enjoys in its building operations a tremendous opportunity for good, in the judgment of all who regard architecture as one of the important factors of the higher civilization."5

World War I halted the federal building program temporarily, but business returned to normal in the years following the war. By 1930, however, the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression gripped the country. The purpose of the federal building program shifted as it became a tool to provide jobs to out-of-work construction workers, artists, and others. In 1933, as part of a government reorganization under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Supervising Architect’s Office was renamed the Public Works Branch. In 1939, as the nation began focusing on preparations for war, the Public Works Branch was taken out of the Treasury Department and became part of the new Federal Works Agency. During World War II, the Federal Works Agency focused on meeting wartime demands for temporary office space, hospitals, and dormitories. 

In 1948, President Harry Truman appointed a commission to report on ways to improve the process for supplying federal agencies with workspace, goods, and services. As a result of the commission’s findings, Truman established the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) in 1949. The functions of the Federal Works Agency were placed under GSA’s Public Buildings Service (PBS). Eventually, it was decided that all PBS projects would be designed by private architects. In the 1950s, the title Supervising Architect became "assistant commissioner" for design and construction. Today the position is referred to as Chief Architect.

GSA’s Public Buildings Service took over responsibility for federal workspaces, including many historic buildings that served as courthouses, custom houses, and post offices. (The U.S. Postal Service manages many historic buildings that were designed and functioned specifically as post offices.) In 1976, Congress passed legislation encouraging GSA to utilize space in these older federal buildings. This set the tone for GSA’s efforts to preserve the character of historic buildings while ensuring that they meet the modern needs of the federal government. By preserving and continuing to use historic federal buildings, GSA upholds the proud tradition of the federal building program and provides citizens with a tangible reminder of their community’s past.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why did the Treasury Department assume responsibility for the federal building program?  

2. What types of buildings did the Supervising Architect’s Office design and build? Why were these buildings necessary? What other roles did these buildings serve aside from providing space for government operations?

3. Describe some of the architectural styles used by the Supervising Architect’s Office and explain why each was deemed appropriate for government buildings at the time.

4. How would you paraphrase the Treasury Secretary MacVeagh’s quote about the impact of the department’s building program?

5. When and why was GSA established? What is the role of the Public Buildings Service?

6. Do you think it is important to preserve and utilize historic federal buildings? Explain your answer.

Reading 1 was adapted from Lois Craig, The Federal Presence: Architecture, Politics, and Symbols in United States Government Building (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1978);  Antoinette J. Lee, Architects to the Nation: The Rise and Decline of the Supervising Architect’s Office (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000);  Darrell Hevenor Smith, The Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury: Its History, Activities, and Organization (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1923); U.S. General Services Administration, Re-Dedication of the Pioneer Courthouse [Brochure] (Portland, Oregon, 2005); and U.S. General Services Administration, “Historic Buildings,”

1U.S. General Services Administration, Re-Dedication of the Pioneer Courthouse [Brochure] (Portland, Oregon, 2005).
2Lois Craig, The Federal Presence: Architecture, Politics, and Symbols in United States Government Building (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1978), 163.
3Antoinette J. Lee, Architects to the Nation: The Rise and Decline of the Supervising Architect’s Office (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 9.
4
Lois Craig, The Federal Presence, 99.
5
Annual Report on the State of the Finances, 1912. As cited in Darrell Hevenor Smith, The Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury: Its History, Activities, and Organization (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1923), 30.

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