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What Once Was

One Last Tempo: Liberty Loan Building

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 By Matthew B. Gilmore*

Temporary Liberty Loan Building

Is the Liberty Loan Building [1] Washington’s last tempo? Well, yes and no, all depending upon your point of view. The General Services Administration touts it as such. Construction was begun during in 1918 before the Armistice, and it was officially designated the “Liberty Loan Temporary Building.”

1918 view from the south of the "L"-shaped the Liberty Loan Temporary Building under construction on the west side of 14th Street SW, just south the Bureau of Engraving and Printing seen behind. photo--General Services Administration.

1918 view from the south of the “L”-shaped the Liberty Loan Temporary Building under construction on the west side of 14th Street SW, just south the Bureau of Engraving and Printing seen behind. photo–General Services Administration.

But even as it was planned and designed, provision was made to convert it to a permanent office structure. Two additional stories were completed in 1928 and the Liberty Loan Building lost its temporary status. But it did, indeed, begin existence as a tempo. [2] A tiny sign announces “Treasury Department,” but the building virtually disappears into the much larger Bureau of Engraving ad Printing; this actually was intentional.

The First Tempos

With the entry of the United States into the World War the federal office space situation in Washington, already dire, surpassed the critical mark. Congress promptly appropriated $2 million for temporary office construction. Colonel Clarence S. Ridley, chief of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, promptly entered into a contract with the George A. Fuller Company, based on the strong recommendation of the Council of National Defense.

So much haste was called for that “Specifications need not be submitted for approval.” [3] George A. Fuller Company was already building offices for the War Industries Board and the Food Administration. The contract was signed by Fuller President Paul Starrett.

Letterhead of the George A. Fuller Company, builder of the first Washington DC War and Navy tempos. 1917. document--National Archives, Record Group 42, Office of Public Buildings and Grounds.

Letterhead of the George A. Fuller Company, builder of the first Washington DC War and Navy tempos. 1917. document–National Archives, Record Group 42, Office of Public Buildings and Grounds.

James Baird, Fuller’s Washington, DC vice president, managed the project. Baird was well-known in construction circles. Along with Starrett, he had supervised the construction of the Flatiron Building in New York City, and in Washington, the ongoing Lincoln Memorial construction, the Arlington Cemetery Memorial Amphitheatre, and the Commodore Hotel (today the Phoenix Park); he would go on to manage the construction of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Freer Gallery.

Col. Clarence S. Ridley, circa 1917. Director of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds from 1917 to 1921photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Col. Clarence S. Ridley, circa 1917. Director of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds from 1917 to 1921photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Ridley too had a distinguished career. He had served as senior military aide to President Wilson and worked with Baird on a number of DC projects, including overseeing construction of the Lincoln Memorial and the Arlington Cemetery Memorial Amphitheater, while managing tempo construction. (His career later took him to the Panama Canal Zone where he served as governor.)

With the $2 million which Congress appropriated, three office buildings (A, B, and C) were built for the Departments of War and Navy on the old railroad right-of-way across the Mall. Architect Col. Horace W. Peaslee designed the complex. He was also destined for a distinguished career, including as architect for Meridian Hill Park.

Stretching from B Street on the north and B Street on the south (today, Constitution and Independence Avenues, respectively), the site incorporated the site of the old Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station which had been demolished 10 years earlier and having been infamous as the site where Charles Guiteau assassinated President Garfield.

But the construction materials used — and lack of a fire suppression system — so alarmed Richard M. Bissell, Sr., [4] of the National Board of Fire Underwriters and president of Hartford Fire Insurance, that he wrote to Secretary of War Newton Baker a rather impassioned letter raising his concerns in response to the official fire risk report. That report, he felt, stated the issues too blandly.

Despite such concerns, Building A was ready for occupancy in January, just three months after the contract had been signed on October 11th. Construction of the other buildings in the group was delayed due to the cold winter weather and was not ready until the spring. It was immediately apparent that the buildings did not provide all the space required for War and Navy office needs.

Circa 1918 postcard view of Building A, the Ordnance Department temporary office building (nNote smokestacks in the background). Formerly the site of the B&P Railroad Station and now the site of the John Russell Pope’s National Gallery of Art. image--courtesy John De Ferrari.

Circa 1918 postcard view of Building A, the Ordnance Department temporary office building (nNote smokestacks in the background). Formerly the site of the B&P Railroad Station and now the site of the John Russell Pope’s National Gallery of Art. image–courtesy John De Ferrari.

Soon Buildings D, E, and F joined the first three, flanking them east and west. Completing the complex was a power station on the center line of the Mall with two smokestacks neatly framing the sightline to the Washington Monument. All of these buildings shared the “fishbone” layout seen in later permanent federal office buildings, such as the Department of the Interior South Building (now General Services Administration) at 18th and E Streets, NW. The long, narrow wings with many windows provided lots of natural light and air — important in an age before widespread adoption of air conditioning in Washington and elsewhere.

Buildings A, B, and C schematic from ”Reports of District Engineers Accompanying the Annual Report of The Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army for The Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1918.”

Buildings A, B, and C schematic from ”Reports of District Engineers Accompanying the Annual Report of The Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army for The Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1918.”

With those seven buildings, the east end of the Mall was now filled to capacity; building of additional War and Navy Department offices shifted west, past the Washington Monument, to a long stretch of B Street, NW (now Constitution Avenue) from 17th Street west. Here two mammoth buildings were built to house both the Navy Department (which undertook the project) and War Department offices. This was the closest open space left for construction for the two departments which were then sharing cramped space in the State, War, and Navy Building five blocks north at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. [5]

Circa 1918 aerial view of the Navy and Munitions Buildings on B Street, NW. The Lincoln Memorial under construction is visible in the far left background; Heurich Brewery is prominent looking towards what is now Rosslyn. In the triangle north of B Street are temporary offices for civilian agencies and the influenza hospital. photo--John De Ferrari.

Circa 1918 aerial view of the Navy and Munitions Buildings on B Street, NW. The Lincoln Memorial under construction is visible in the far left background; Heurich Brewery is prominent looking towards what is now Rosslyn. In the triangle north of B Street are temporary offices for civilian agencies and the influenza hospital. photo–John De Ferrari.

These buildings would be of a much different character than those which came before: In the contractor’s 1918 pamphlet, “Record of War Activities,” that recorded in great detail its feat in quickly building these huge structures, Turner Construction, explained why a different approach was needed:

“The emergency type of building, namely, of wood, lath and plaster, which had been so extensively used in Washington, was deemed undesirable as there were maps, plans, codes, charts and other papers of vital importance and value to be preserved. The building, therefore, should be fire-proof and panic-proof. Reinforced concrete met the requirements, provided sufficient speed in erection was attainable.”

Construction quickly ran into issues. As noted by Turner, “As soon as excavation was started, however, it became apparent that the character of the soil was such that even the light loads of a three-story building could not be safely placed upon it. . . .” This should not have been surprising – as chronicled two years ago by this writer, 50 years earlier John L. Kidwell had attempted to patent the river-swept cane brakes just west of this site. Creation of new land from the Potomac as West Potomac Park had been completed a few years prior. The challenging site was made stable by driving over 5,000 pilings to support the foundations.

Together the two buildings were touted as the largest office building in the world. According to the justifiably proud contractor, “The combined floor area of the two proposed buildings was 1,885,000 square feet or approximately 42 acres — nearly one and a half times that of the Equitable Building, in New York City, previously known as the largest office building in the world. The exterior walls were nearly four miles in perimeter.” [6]

To the north of B Street were temporary office buildings for a variety of civilian agencies, such as the Food and Fuel Administrations. [7]

Federal Office Space

Throughout the 19th century the federal government in Washington faced a serious continuing office space shortage, reaching a critical point in the 1910s. The founders, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Peter Charles L’Enfant — none of the men responsible for the design of the City of Washington — could have anticipated the continuing post-Civil War expansion of the government.

Federal office locations tended to cluster around the appropriate branch of government initially. The four modest buildings around the White House for State, War, Navy, and Treasury would in time be replaced with two massive buildings. Patent and Post Office each got a prime location in the center of the city. The next great building was the nearby Pension Office, done up in brick rather than marble.

As the federal government continued to expand and take over privately-owned structures the problem multiplied. Congress was concerned about the cost of renting and the agencies were concerned about being scattered across the city. Concurrently, the Senate formed its Parks Commission (known after chairman, Senator James McMillan). Seen as widely influential now, commission staff found it difficult to even scrape together enough money to publish copies of its final eport.

The Commission’s report was never made official in any way, but it served as a guideline for future development of the Mall. In 1907 the federal government contemplated purchasing all the land between Pennsylvania and Maryland Avenues from 6th to 15th Streets.

In 1915 the Public Buildings Commission was created to investigate and prepare an inventory of federal office space in Washington. The Commission noted a succinct Plan of Operations:

“A. A survey of buildings now occupied.

  1. Owned by the Government, including details of space, numbers of occupants, and cost.
  2. Rented by the Government, including details of space, numbers of occupants, and cost.

“B. An estimate of future requirements for buildings for such period as the commission may designate

  1. Those now available.
  2. New buildings needed.
  3. Provision for increase of existing establishments.
  4. Provision for new establishments.

“C. A survey of building sites.

  1. Now owned by the Government, including those now occupied and          those available for future use.
  2. Required for new buildings, showing locations and cost of acquisition.” [8]

Ultimately, the Commission produced a detailed report well over 700 pages long, Public Buildings in the District of Columbia, with an inventory of all the space occupied by federal agencies in Washington. It was, however, already obsolete on publication in 1918 — though some new temporary structures were included; more had been built and not included. The war overtook the methodical work of the Commission and it would not be until the 1920s that a plan for resolving the federal office space issue would be created.

The Last Tempo

Temporary offices now stretched from 4½ Street to 21st Street, interrupted by the Smithsonian, Agriculture and Washington Monument grounds. Nevertheless, still more space was needed.

Composited 1922 aerial view of Washington with the superimposed stars indicating temporary buildings (or site thereof in the case of recently demolished buildings A and B). South of Union Station, at right, are the war housing “Government hotels.” North of B Street at the far left are the civilian agency tempos. image--compiled by author with base image from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Composited 1922 aerial view of Washington with the superimposed stars indicating temporary buildings (or site thereof in the case of recently demolished buildings A and B). South of Union Station, at right, are the war housing “Government hotels.” North of B Street at the far left are the civilian agency tempos. image–compiled by author with base image from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

A request for funds was sent to President Wilson on July 29, 1918 for construction of the Liberty Loan’s temporary home. On receiving the request to allocate the $500,000, President Wilson sent query about the “material and appearance” of the proposed building to the Secretary of the Treasury.

At this point many temporary structures, both offices and housing, had been built (or were planned) in Washington. The character of materials used was becoming less temporary and more permanent as time went by. Would this building be wood, lath, and plaster like Buildings, A, B, and C or concrete like Munitions and Navy? Agency correspondence shows the response quickly went through a number of drafts; it seems to have satisfied the President who approved the request on August 2nd. The materials used would be robust enough to allow the building to be converted into a permanent structure by adding several stories and re-facing it with stone.

Acting Treasury Secretary L.S Rowe to President Wilson, Aug 3, 1918. document--National Archives, Record Group 121, Records of the Public Building Service.

Acting Treasury Secretary L.S Rowe to President Wilson, Aug 3, 1918. document–National Archives, Record Group 121, Records of the Public Building Service.

The “Liberty Loan Temporary Building,” as it was officially designated, was built quickly, on a tight schedule; but even as plans were being drawn correspondence shows that concerns were raised that it simply would not provide enough space. A third wing, connecting the two branches of the L-shaped building, making it into a triangle, was suggested. The Office of the Supervising Architect quickly ruled that out, indicating revising the plans at that late date would cause unacceptable delays. Engineer Sedley Chaplin was put in charge of the construction on September 20th. [9]

Initial ground work had begun on August 22nd by A.C. Moses Construction Company; Faribault Building Corporation built the superstructure. President Wilson signed an executive order waiving the eight-hour day regulations to speed construction (he waived the regulations at least 11 other times). The very tight, two and one-half month construction deadline was a challenge.

The records in the National Archives offer an intriguing picture of the struggle to complete the building on that tight schedule. The contractor fell well behind schedule; not enough skilled labor was available. Even Treasury Secretary McAdoo had to step in and order the contractor not to let any other agency divert workers to another project — and ensure any of those requests be reported. Workers went on strike, attempting to get a 33% wage increase.

Detail from “Liberty Loan Temporary Building” location plan, dated January 31, 1924. Insets show the encroachments into public space (right-of-way for Water Street, SW). photostat--National Archives, RG121, Records of the Public Buildings Service.

Detail from “Liberty Loan Temporary Building” location plan, dated January 31, 1924. Insets show the encroachments into public space (right-of-way for Water Street, SW). photostat–National Archives, RG121, Records of the Public Buildings Service.

The siting of the building itself was imperfect, as it encroached several feet into public space. The end of the war in November did not mean any letup in the work of the Liberty Loan program. In fact, as a request in 1920 for funds to construct a new exit indicated, “The Liberty Loan Temporary Building was originally designed to accommodate 1,200 employees. The increase in the work has been so great, however, that between 1,700 and 1,800 persons are now employed in this building.”

Liberty Loan

What was the “Liberty Loan”?

Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo created the Liberty Loan Bonds program to help finance the war — issued in four series; a fifth was the Victory Loan Bond.  The bonds were usually sold in maturities of 30 years with call provisions for earlier redemptions, although shorter maturities of five to 15 years were also sold. [10] The bonds were recognized (by many) as a “very good investment,” as touted by Armistead Peter, Jr. (of Tudor Place) when he solicited for subscriptions just a few days after the Armistice. [11] In the days before deficit financing of government, bonds were a way to raise money without raising taxes. $21 billion was raised through these bond issues which financed the largest proportion of the $32 billion cost of the war.

Liberty Loan Campaign poster showing a panoramic view of the U.S. Treasury Building from the southeast. graphic--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Liberty Loan Campaign poster showing a panoramic view of the U.S. Treasury Building from the southeast. graphic–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Temporary Housing for War Workers

Office space to accommodate war workers during the day only solved half of the problem: Where would they live outside office hours? Daytime housing of war workers was accomplished with these many temporary buildings, but the crush of incoming war workers overwhelmed Washington’s available rental market. The shortage became so critical that the federal government felt compelled to put resources — money and energy — into alleviating the problem. The United States Housing was created to solve the shortage. In addition to building miles of office space, government contractors began building apartment dwellings on land readily available to the federal government. With the streetcar system already struggling with the passenger load, it was clear the housing needed to be as close as possible to those temporary office buildings.

Work had begun on expanding the United States Capitol Grounds northward to Union Station (and to create what is now Louisiana Avenue), with land already cleared. Here is where the first temporary housing was built. The 13 buildings just south of Union Station are comparatively well-known. More obscure was the cluster of 12 buildings along B Street (now Constitution Avenue) at North Capitol Street immediately west of the Russell Senate Office Building (itself completed just 10 years earlier). Washington architect Waddy B. Wood was responsible for the buildings — designed in a sharp, tidy, neo-classical style with just a hint of ornament.

Detail from 1922 aerial view of Washington with temporary housing indicated by the affixed stars in the center of the image. One cluster sits southwest of Columbus Circle, the other west of Russell Senate Office Building and bisected by North Capitol Street. photo compiled by author with base image from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Detail from 1922 aerial view of Washington with temporary housing indicated by the affixed stars in the center of the image. One cluster sits southwest of Columbus Circle, the other west of Russell Senate Office Building and bisected by North Capitol Street. photo compiled by author with base image from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Had the war continued, more housing that would have been needed had been designed by Wood and contracts let for construction. One of the additional buildings would have also been along B Street but between 21st and 23rd Streets, stretching northward to D Street.

Wood had designed most of the nearby temporary civilian office buildings for both the Food and Fuel Administration agencies, the War Industries Board Council of National Defense, and the War Trade Board. Had the housing been built in that south end of Foggy Bottom the area would have become a virtual Waddy Wood-ville.

George Washington Victory Memorial Hall

Plans for 6,104 room temporary housing complex—"Group 3 at 21st and “B” Streets [NW] by Waddy Wood. 1919. This unbuilt project would have rivalled the Union Station/Senate Government Dormitories in size. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Plans for 6,104 room temporary housing complex—”Group 3 at 21st and “B” Streets [NW] by Waddy Wood. 1919. This unbuilt project would have rivalled the Union Station/Senate Government Dormitories in size. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

At the conclusion of the war, one of the first tempos built was the first to go. For several decades Mrs. Henry F. Dimock championed a further memorial to George Washington. A proposed partnership with Columbian University crumbled, but gave the university its new (and current) name. Eventually new plans crystallized into a proposed memorial hall to be sited on the northern end of what was then Armory Square, renamed Henry Park, [12] the area of the Mall between north B Street and south B Street and 6th and 7th Streets. Congress granted the site to Mrs. Dimock’s organization, the George Washington Memorial Association in 1913.

The war intervened and Building A of the first Department of War temporary office complex was situated there. But enough pressure post-war must have been exerted for removal of the tempo because on November 14, 1921, President Harding presided over the cornerstone laying for the memorial hall. But Dimock’s (and the association’s) reach was always greater than their grasp, and the millions of dollars needed to complete the project were never raised. The building never got beyond foundation work. The site is now the location of the west wing of the National Gallery of Art.

Mrs. Henry F. Dimock. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Mrs. Henry F. Dimock. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Tempos—temporary and not so temporary

Another early tempo casualty was the Council of National Defense Building, gone in 1922 and now the site of the DAR’s Constitution Hall. The northern cluster of Government dormitories and hotels at Union Station was demolished in 1930.

To us today, the construction of these flimsy office buildings across on the Mall is a jarring sight and difficult to believe. However, the Mall had not acquired the sacrosanct status it has achieved today. The Senate Park plan (McMillan Commission) had slight legislative standing and its guardian, the Commission of Fine Arts, was just a few years old when the United States entered the war. It is true that two of the Mall’s most significant memorials — Lincoln and Grant, at each end, west and east — were under construction during this time. These two bookended and anchored the continuing (and slow) redevelopment of the Mall, and were a kind of architectural and visual assumption that the entire plan would be implemented and with it the tempos swept away. Some tempos disappeared within just a couple years, the largest lingered over 50 years — giving Washington the cliché that “nothing is so permanent as something ‘temporary’.”

Acknowledgements

I would like the acknowledge the assistance of Emily Eig and Carleigh Hessian, John De Ferrari “Streets of Washington” blog), Wendy Kail (Tudor Place), Kay Fanning (Commission of Fine Arts), and Benjamin Peck.

Footnotes

[1]  At 14th & D Streets, SW.

[2] “Nevertheless, some (including GSA) continue to call it a tempo” (Paul Hodge, “GSA Wants ‘Tempo’ Building Renovated,” Washington Post, January 4, 1979.)

[3] Major Thomas E. Jansen to Colonel C.S. Ridley, Oct 3, 1917. (Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, National Archives RG42).

[4] Bissell’s son, Richard M. Bissell, Jr., would later notoriously lead clandestine operations for the CIA.

[5] Thomas E. Luebke, ed. Palace of State: the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, 2018 (pg.135).

[6] Record of War Activities, Turner Construction Company, 1918. Note: Although functionally replaced by the Pentagon in the course of World War II, these were expanded during that war (and joined by clusters of additional buildings) and only demolished in 1971.

[7] Representative images can be found in Matthew B. Gilmore’s and Joshua A. Olsen’s Foggy Bottom and the West End in Vintage Images. (Arcadia Publishing, 2007, pp. 123-130).

[8] “Public Buildings in The District of Columbia: Report of The Public Buildings Commission”) 1917.

[9] James A. Wetmore, Acting Supervising Architect, to Sedley Chaplin, September 20, 1918. (National Archives, RG121.)

[10] Lawrence D. Schuffman. “The Liberty Loan Bond: 2007 Marks the 90th Anniversary of the First War Bond of the 20th Century.” Financial History, Spring 2007.

[11] Papers of Armistead Peter, Jr., Manuscript 14, Box 73, Folder 3. Armistead Peter, Jr. Diary, November 15, 1918. Tudor Place Historic House and Garden Archive, Washington, D.C.

[12] Henry Park was named after Joseph Henry who served as the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

References and Resources

See resource list published on author’s Washington DC History blog.

Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com. 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.

© 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved.