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The First Executive Office Buildings

By Stephen A. Hansen*

An act of Congress on July 16, 1790 provided that, beginning on the first Monday in December 1800, the District of Columbia would become the permanent seat of the federal government and that suitable buildings should be erected for the accommodation of Congress, the President, and the public offices of the government. But on that Monday, December 1, 1800, when the government opened for business in Washington, the Treasury was only public office building to have been built.

Of the 131 federal workers who moved from Philadelphia to Washington, over half of them (69) were housed in the new Treasury building. A twin building for the State Department on the other side of the White House was not completed until 1801, and the Treasury building served as the temporary home to the State Department for three months.


In the spring of 1801, the building for the State Department was complete and on May 2, 1801 staff began the move from temporary offices in six buildings located on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue between 21st and 22nd Streets, NW to the newly completed building that it also shared with the War and Navy Departments.

By 1805, records and files were beginning fill the Treasury building. To better and more safely house them, architect Benjamin Latrobe was hired to design a fireproof repository for the building. In August 1814, when British troops burned the Capitol, White House, and the two executive office buildings, Latrobe’s repository was the only part of the Treasury Building that survived the attack. After British soldiers had already set the building ablaze, they spotted the iron door to the repository. Expecting to find the government’s treasury valuables, a British officer broke into the room through a window only to discover boxes of old files.

Benjamin Latrobe’s 1805 architectural drawing for a fireproof repository for the Treasury Department (photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

After the British invasion, President Madison and the staff of the four departments took up temporary accommodations in nearby residences. White House architect James Hoban was placed in charge of repairing the damaged White House and the two department buildings.

By 1818, space was tighter than ever and Congress provisioned for the erection of two additional buildings, one for the War Department and the other for the Navy Department, similar in appearance to the Treasury and State buildings, but with columned porticos, to be placed to the north of the existing buildings. In 1819, the buildings were complete and the State Department moved to the new building to the northeast of the White House and in front of the Treasury building. The new northwest building became the home of the War Department, and the old southwest building (formerly that of the State Department) became the home of the Navy Department.

1831 view of the second State Department. The original Treasury building can be seen behind, to the right. (image–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

In 1833, the Treasury building was once again engulfed in flames. Late in the evening of March 30, an arsonist set fire to the building hoping to destroy some incriminating pension records. Volunteers saved what records they could, mostly from Latrobe’s repository that, once again, survived the fire. The Treasury offices were relocated to a row of buildings on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, opposite the Willard Hotel. After this fire, the repository became a tool shed for White House grounds keepers. Later, Andrew Jackson had it remodeled into an orangery, which lasted until it was finally torn down in 1857 to make room for the south extension of the Treasury building.

Architect Robert Mills, who was working as a draftsman in the Land Office of the Treasury Department, was asked to prepare a set of drawings of the Treasury building as it was before it burned, with the plan to reconstruct the original building. But, he also submitted drawings for a new, much grander building in the heavier and more imposing Classical Revival style that was ultimately selected for the new Treasury building.

Historical lore says that the location of the next Treasury Department building was chosen by Andrew Jackson who, having a difficult relationship with Congress, impetuously stuck his cane in the ground and said “build it here” where it would block his view of the Capitol. Jackson did play a role in choosing the site for the building, as Robert Mills had suggested other sites as well. But the location of the original Treasury and State Department buildings — part of Pierre L’Enfant’s general plan to physically separate the legislative and executive branches and to place the executive office buildings contiguous to the White House so that the President could be in close proximity to his closest cabinet advisors — was probably also a factor for the site of the new building.

The construction of new Treasury building was finally authorized by Congress in 1836. After construction had begun, the building met with such heavy opposition that a congressional bill in 1838 calling for its demolition was narrowly defeated by a vote of 94-91. By 1839, the east and center wings of the Treasury finally were finished, boasting an impressive colonnade of 30, three-story columns running the length of the east wing along 15th Street. These originally sandstone columns were replaced in 1908 with solid granite columns to match those on the porticos of the building’s north and south extensions. After the Capitol and the White House, the east wing of the Treasury building is the third oldest federally occupied building in Washington, DC.

In 1855, Congress approved the enlargement of the Treasury building, adding a new south and west wing. The designs of these wings were provided by Thomas Ustick Walter, architect of the dome of the Capitol building, and were completed in 1864.

The basement for the south wing of the Treasury building being laid in 1855. The old State Department building can be seen on the right. (photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

In 1866, the old State Department building was torn down to make way for the north and final wing of the Treasury Department Building. The north wing, facing Pennsylvania Avenue, was designed by Alfred B. Mullet, Supervising Architect of the Treasury. Mullet would also design the new State, War, and Navy building on the opposite side of the White House (now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and formerly known as the Old Executive Office Building). With the demolition of their building, the State Department was forced to move yet again, this time to the Washington City Orphan Asylum Building where it remained until it relocated in the new building for the State, War, and Navy departments in 1875.

The columned east wing of the Treasury building fronted by the second State Department building, circa 1862. (photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

The north wing of the Treasury building opened with President Ulysses S. Grant’s disastrous inaugural reception on March 4, 1869. The building was barely completed and dust from the stone cutting still filled the air, choking guests and covering them with grit. The cloak room was staffed by illiterate Treasury employees. Not able to read the coat check tags, they ended up throwing all the coats in a heap and leaving. Women either left in the cold without their coats or just took one off the pile. Others spent the night in the building sobbing.

In 1864, under Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s direction, two floors were added to the Old War and Navy buildings to meet the expanding space requirements created by the Civil War. The White House’s telegraph office, which Lincoln often referred to as his “office,” was located on the second floor of the War building. Lincoln would spend endless hours there and sometimes the entire night following activities on the battlefields. By the end of the war, the War Department had spread to over 11 buildings.

Solid granite columns being hoisted into place on the north portico of the Treasury Building, September 16, 1867. (photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

In 1871, Congress appropriated $500,000 to construct a new building for the State, War and Navy departments to the west of the White House on the site of the existing War and Navy buildings. The building was also designed by Supervising Architect of the Treasury Alfred B. Mullett. But unlike Mullett’s

Old War Office circa 1865. In 1864, Under Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s direction, two floors were added to the Old War and Navy buildings with an additional wing to the Navy building. (photo—author’s collection)

use of the Greek Revival style for the north extension of the Treasury building, here he employed the then in vogue and more imposing French Second Empire style, featuring elaborately sculptured facades and high mansard roofs. It was constructed in stages beginning with the south wing in order to avoid interfering with the operation of the War and Navy departments.

1884 view of the Old Navy Department building shortly before it was torn down. The east and south wings of the new State, War, and Navy building are seen behind. (photo–U.S. Department of the Navy)

The south wing of the State, War and Navy building was completed in 1875 and that year the State Department moved into the new building. The War and Navy Departments moved into the east wing immediately after it was finished in 1879. That same year, the Army building was demolished to make way for construction of the north wing of the building. In 1884, the Navy Department building was demolished to make way for the erection of the final center and west wings that were completed in 1888, making it the largest office building in Washington, with nearly 2 miles of corridors. Yet, by the time of its completion, the elaborateFrench Second Empire style was already passé. Mark Twain called it “the ugliest building in America” and later Harry Truman would call it “the greatest monstrosity in America.”

1898 view from the south of the State, Navy, and War building; the Winder Building on 17th Street can be seen in the background on the left. (photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Even with the size of the new building, the separate departments soon needed more space and gradually began to vacate the building. The Navy Department was first to leave in 1918, followed by the War Department in 1938, and finally by the State Department in 1947. In 1949, the building was turned over to the Executive Office of the President and renamed the  Executive Office Building. It continues to house various agencies that comprise the Executive Office, including the White House Office, the Office of the Vice President, the Office of Management and Budget, and the National Security Council.

*Stephen A. Hansen is an historic preservation specialist, Washington DC historian, author of several books and of the Virtual Architectural Archaeology blog.

© 2012 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.