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What Once Was

“Dignified, restrained, and well-proportioned”: the Making of the District of Columbia Municipal Building

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Matthew B. Gilmore*

Recently Mayor Bowser was quoted saying, “Sometimes people exaggerate, but it’s probably the worst building in our entire portfolio,” referring to the Metropolitan Police Headquarters in the Henry J. Daly Building. This is quite a comedown from its heyday when it first opened. “A dignified, restrained, and well-proportioned unit” was how the Washington Board of Trade described the new Municipal Building (as it was formally named) in 1942, awarding citations to its architect, Municipal Architect Nathan Wyeth, and builder D.M.W Contracting.

The May 4, 1941 Evening Star announced that District agencies would soon be moving into the new “City Hall” which would open for business on May 19th. On May 18th the headline read “Police will occupy air-conditioned quarters today” and the lead “Washington’s police headquarters neared the close of its biggest moving day in more than 10 years today as criminal records were trundled half a block to the new Municipal Center where police will hold forth in plush air-conditioned suites.”

Plans to move other agencies into the building were frustrated by the War Department occupation of half the space. It had been a very long, 15 year journey for District officials to get this building built. Today it is known as simply Police Headquarters or the Henry J. Daly Building or 300 Indiana Avenue.

1941 View of the Municipal Building. photo--Peter Sefton, Municipal Building nomination to Historic Preservation Review Board.

1941 View of the Municipal Building. photo–Peter Sefton, Municipal Building nomination to Historic Preservation Review Board.

Its fate today remains unknown. While continuing to suffer from critical deferred maintenance, options have been discussed for several years — news reports or rumors of some property swap deal have swirled since 2012 — but nothing new has been made public. In seemingly unrelated news much has been made of late of the deadness of Pennsylvania Avenue east of the White House (“the nation’s main street”) spawning ongoing planning efforts led by the National Capital Planning Commission, as outlined in its “Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative” to enliven (“curate”) it.

From the news reports and the planning proposals one might not know that these two things are intimately linked historically. The whirlwind of redevelopment that swept through the District’s old downtown scoured away historic structures from the Avenue and eddied and bubbled up the Daly Building, a mere fragment of what was originally a much larger plan.

It begins with the District’s “Old City Hall” sitting atop the bluff which falls sharply away down what was 4½ Street. Begun in 1820 and completed in 1849, this building designed by George Hadfield deserves its own story. But it serves as our point of departure as the first permanent home of the City of Washington government. Heavily subsidized by the federal government, the building was never adequate to serve the District government and all the other uses wedged inside.

1863 wood engraving rendering showing how Washington’s Old City Hall would look. image--Van Vranken, Illustrated News. April 16, 1853.

1863 wood engraving rendering showing how Washington’s Old City Hall would look. image–Van Vranken, Illustrated News. April 16, 1853.

The first attempt at a replacement would have had gorgeous pride of place – centrally — at the junction of Pennsylvania and Louisiana Avenues in front of the new Center Market. That was the deal made by Alexander  Shepherd and the Center Market Company in 1871. The market itself was originally supposed to be full up front and center at that junction but was, rather. built further south, backing up against B Street (now Constitution Avenue). With that space vacant and available, the company offered it to the new District government, and received a handsome reduction in their required payment to the city poor fund.

Nothing substantial was ever built in that space, which is still designated Market Square on street signs. In 1885 Francis V. Greene, Chief Assistant to the Engineer Commissioner, suggested a very utilitarian building on the vacant Pennsylvania Avenue site. (For more on Greene, see “Washington Goes Wireless,” The InTowner, October 2015.)

There was a much more grand proposal in 1892 for a new municipal building, but never built. The rendering below shows a similarity in massing and design to contemporary buildings of the time like the Library of Congress, Old Post Office, and the State, War, and Navy Building and predates the neoclassicism of the École des Beaux-Arts soon to come and dominate federal architecture in Washington.

1892 elevation drawing by Municipal Architect John B. Brady of proposed Municipal Building. illus.--Evening Star. January 19, 1892.

1892 elevation drawing by Municipal Architect John B. Brady of proposed Municipal Building. illus.–Evening Star. January 19, 1892.

The next gust of change for center city Washington came with the Senate Park Commission (McMillan) plan. The urban renewal proposed by this plan is much different than what actually did happen.

The urban fabric bounded by Maine and Missouri Avenues was swept away and the Mall enlarged. The south side of Pennsylvania Avenue was designated for _municipal_ purposes — not all of them governmental, as the Center Market or a replacement was still envisioned for this area. Progress toward doing something with the south side of Pennsylvania was glacial. But, knowing this intention, the location of the core home of the District government at the District (now Wilson) Building makes much more sense. Begun in 1904, it was opened in 1908. Rather than being misplaced and isolated at the edge of the “Federal Triangle” the District Building was the initiation of the (suggested) “muncipalization” of the south side of the Avenue. That process, however, went no further.

District Building as seen from the roof of the Willard Hotel, with the then Southern Railway and Post Office Department buildings in the distance; in the foreground, statue of Governor Shepherd. photo--National photo Company collection, courtesy Library of Congress.

District Building as seen from the roof of the Willard Hotel, with the then Southern Railway and Post Office Department buildings in the distance; in the foreground, statue of Governor Shepherd. photo–National photo Company collection, courtesy Library of Congress.

The agencies today (or formerly) housed in the Federal Triangle had been originally destined to encircle Lafayette Square (perhaps a Federal Doughnut), according to the Park Commission plan. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is an example of the architectural style planned — in fact, is much like that actually built in the Triangle. Rather than disrupt the urban fabric ringing Lafayette Square, in 1926, the Federal Building Act took over the stalled renewal of the south side of the Avenue, displacing potential municipal uses.

A committee appointed in spring 1927 focused on John Marshall Place as the appropriate alternative site for the new District government office center. This began the 15-year odyssey of the creation of the Daly Building. The process involved the District Commissioners and the Municipal Architect, two federal review agencies — the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) and the National Capital Park and Planning Commission (NCPPC) — and those providing funds, the Public Works Administration, and Congress (and others behind the scenes), with interruptions provided by the Great Depression.

The first hurdle was location, then design. The CFA reviewed plans submitted by Municipal Architect Albert L. Harris on May 28, 1927.

August 1926 portrait of DC Board of Commissioners President Proctor L. Dougherty, who served from 1926 to 1930. photo--courtesy, Library of Congress.

August 1926 portrait of DC Board of Commissioners President Proctor L. Dougherty, who served from 1926 to 1930. photo–courtesy, Library of Congress.

In September of 1927. as reported by the Evening Star on the 16th, the District Commissioners met with the Commission of Fine Arts to initiate discussion of the proposed new Municipal Center for the four blocks (or six — the CFA encouraged including blocks fronting 7th Street) south of the Old City Hall, on either side of 4½ Street. The District Commissioners suggested that there be three buildings initially — municipal building on the southeast square, courts on the southwest square, police headquarters on the northwest square (now the site of the Moultrie Courthouse), with the northeast square (site of the Municipal Center actually built) left undeveloped.

Document listing of what offices would have occupied the administration building in the initial Municipal Center plan. photostat--courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Document listing of what offices would have occupied the administration building in the initial Municipal Center plan. photostat–courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Document listing of what offices would have occupied the second and third buildings in the initial Municipal Center plan. Photostat--courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Document listing of what offices would have occupied the second and third buildings in the initial Municipal Center plan. Photostat–courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

The Star, in its September 29, 1927 issue, supported the development of the monumental set of buildings as equals to and counterparts of those comprising the Federal Triangle. Throughout, planning the potential location remained substantially the same — a few plans would have shifted the entire complex into Judiciary Square.

It may seem surprising that the CFA wanted District government offices to feature prominently on Pennsylvania Avenue (a “national” site for many). It was, in fact, part of a larger design. The CFA was writing to Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon at this same time about the “clean up” of the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue which would result from the construction of the Federal Triangle. Cleaning up the north side was also a goal. The CFA was also at work to suppress the construction of commercial show windows projecting into public space along the Avenue.

1927 Municipal Center Plan developed by Municipal Architect Albert L. Harris. drawing--courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

1927 Municipal Center Plan developed by Municipal Architect Albert L. Harris. drawing–courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

By December 1927 the CFA gave their general approval of the Municipal Center plans. A number of variants were considered, including one with a tower.

Municipal Architect Harris’ alternative 1927 Municipal Center Plan showing a tower. drawing--courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Municipal Architect Harris’ alternative 1927 Municipal Center Plan showing a tower. drawing–courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

In 1928 the National Capital Park and Planning Commission (NCPPC) — predecessor to today’s National Capital Planning Commission — nudged the District Commissioners to begin land acquisition for the municipal center. During April of 1929 Assistant Engineer Commissioner Layson Atkins lobbied for a fiscal kickstart to the center project. Atkins knew intimately the office space needs for the District government, serving as superintendent of the District Building. Funding remained a problem — in 1930 it was suggested that he federal government lend $15,000,000.

Central plaza as envisioned in Harris’ 1928 Municipal Center Plan. drawing--courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Central plaza as envisioned in Harris’ 1928 Municipal Center Plan. drawing–courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

While funding stalled the architects noodled about with modified designs. In 1930 a huge plaza extending from the foot of the proposed center across the Mall to Maryland Avenue was proposed. “The Commission, after consideration of the elements involved, felt that there was no good reason Mr. Harris should change the plan heretofore approved for the Municipal Center. . . .” (CFA Minutes, January 17, 1930).

1931 Municipal Center plan with extended plaza across the Mall to Maryland Avenue, SW. photo--Peter Sefton, Municipal Building nomination to Historic Preservation Review Board.

1931 Municipal Center plan with extended plaza across the Mall to Maryland Avenue, SW. photo–Peter Sefton, Municipal Building nomination to Historic Preservation Review Board.

On July 1, 1930 a revised set of plans were approved but the project languished due to the lack of funding.

1931 Municipal Center plan. rendering--courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

1931 Municipal Center plan. rendering–courtesy U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

Engineer Commissioner John C. Gotwals (1930-‘37) now undertook the project, publicly hoping in 1933 that Public Works Administration (PWA) funds could be made available to begin the first unit of the project. Similar hopes were raised in 1934. Revisions to the “program” of the municipal center continued. The public library was added, as a two-phase project. NCPPC, which opposed the closing of C Street, worked with Municipal Architect Albert L. Harris. Nathan Wyeth replaced Harris as Municipal Architect in 1933.

In 1934, District Commissioner Melvin Hazen (1933-‘41) called for a reduction in the size of the project, cutting it from four squares to the two fronting Old City Hall. On November 11, 1934 the Evening Star reported on three options of entirely new building plans for the scaled-down project. A year earlier Commission Hazen had taken office with a pledge to move the project forward. One of the options was to continue with the four squares location but built smaller, simpler buildings, capable of future expansion.

On February 23, 1935, yet another new plan was submitted. This time the southern squares along Pennsylvania Avenue would be excluded from the project and now be sold to the federal government to develop. The planned Municipal Administration Building was moved north, to the site between C Street to the south and Indiana Avenue to the north where it was eventually constructed.

A far more radical idea was to shift the architectural program north into Judiciary Square, and tear down the then considered unfashionable Pension Building (now the National Building Museum) and use that site for the new District Building. Municipal Architect Wyeth favored the plan, designs for which were submitted by architects Gilbert Rodier and Louis Justement. In addition, the District government would reoccupy the Old City Hall. The CFA, however, was not happy with the changes and withheld approval. The loss of park space by building new court buildings in Judiciary Square was discouraged. By May 1935 CFA gave its blessing to the new courts buildings.

In 1936 Public Works Administration (PWA) funds had still not materialized. The CFA reiterated and strengthened its unhappiness with the Municipal Center project giving up its Pennsylvania Avenue frontage. The importance of District government was noted, and the intriguing potential of a future District Commissioner being included in the Cabinet mentioned.

In 1937 another new plan was devised by Municipal Architect Wyeth. It spanned the squares and John Marshall Place, blocking the vista from the Hadfield Old City Hall south. The CFA considered “. . . the blocking of John Marshall Place[is] . . . nothing short of an act of vandalism that would bring continued reprobation on its perpetrators.” (Charles Moore to Nathan Wyeth April 9, 1937; CFA minutes.)

As reported in the September 4, 1938 Evening Star, the PWA allotted $5,700 million for construction of the Municipal Center, and on the same day a headline in the Washington Post proclaimed “District’s Municipal Center Now Raised from Realm of Myth.” But the plans for spanning John Marshall Place had not changed and the CFA continued to disapprove; however, Wyeth had taken his plans to the NCPPC for approval without informing NCPPC of CFAs disapproval. Telegrams were exchanged between commission chairmen, and much maneuvering went on behind the scenes. Later that month, on the 29th, Wyeth and the NCPPC backed down and two buildings rather than one were approved by CFA and jointly with NCPPC. By November 19th Wyeth was presenting models and plans for NCPPC approval.

Eleven months later, on August 27, 1939, the Washington Post featured a headline announcing “Police Expect New Home to Be Amongst Best; Municipal Center Quarters Will Have Latest Innovations.” Details on the new amenities included the crime lab, document room, ballistics chamber, riot gear (including tear gas), holding cells, interrogation rooms, “huge gymnasium”, parking garage, and fireproof storage for valuable police records It would be welcome change from the Civil War-era, 462 Indiana Avenue, about which a congressman was quoted, “It’s the worst structure I’ve ever seen.”

Construction was underway by February 1939 and District government employees moved in 1941. Despite all the years of planning, only this one of the original four proposed buildings would be built as part of the Municipal Center. Surface parking lots covered much of the remaining area. An administration building for the Public Library was built on Pennsylvania Avenue (the rest of the planned new central library building was never funded and ultimately replaced by Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library).

The Employment Security Building, constructed between 1961 and 1963 on 6th Street between Pennsylvania and C Street, was razed in 2003 to make way for the Newseum. The Moultrie Courthouse at 6th Street and Indiana Avenue was built in 1978 on the square west of the Municipal Building; its east wing, constructed in 2005, was designed to echo and complement its neighbor — and does it successfully. The area is complete with the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse built in 1949 and the Canadian Embassy built in 1989 -– each fronting Pennsylvania Avenue and flanking opposite sides of John Marshall Place.

Municipal Center Area Detail from 1941 National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s report, “Development of the Central Area west and east of the Capitol Washington DC 1941.” map--courtesy Library of Congress.

Municipal Center Area Detail from 1941 National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s report, “Development of the Central Area west and east of the Capitol Washington DC 1941.” map–courtesy Library of Congress.

 

Caption detail from 1941 National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s map. courtesy Library of Congress.

Caption detail from 1941 National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s map. courtesy Library of Congress.

The eventual razing of structures to make way for the Municipal Center wiped out four blocks of some of the oldest portion of Washington City. In the neighboring 200 and 300 blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue, the expansion of the Capitol grounds forced the relocation of Chinatown to H Street. The Pennsylvania Avenue thus created, lined with grand government buildings, lacks an appeal to tourists from the Mall, government employees after hours, and is distinct from the life and fabric of the city.

Map depicting redevelopment of downtown/center city Washington, including the Municipal Center plan, Federal Triangle, and extension of Capitol Grounds. drawing over the Public Buildings Commission’s "The Mall and Vicinity 1917" map--courtesy author’s collection.

Map depicting redevelopment of downtown/center city Washington, including the Municipal Center plan, Federal Triangle, and extension of Capitol Grounds. drawing over the Public Buildings Commission’s “The Mall and Vicinity 1917” map–courtesy author’s collection.

 

Special thanks to Kathryn Fanning, Historian of the Commission of Fine Arts for her assistance. For even more detail on the creation of the Municipal Building, consult Peter Sefton’s Municipal Center nomination to the Historic Preservation Review Board.

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com; he is also on the Board of Directors of Humanities DC. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.

 

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