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Federal Triangle

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The Federal Triangle is a coherent grouping of public buildings that joins the Capitol grounds with those of the White House. Composed of nine distinct monumental structures spread over a flat land surface, the triangle area reverberates with the design lessons of Pierre Charles L'Enfant and Daniel H. Burnham. Two of the structures were constructed during the period from 1890 to 1910 and the remainder between 1926 and 1938. The two earlier buildings, the Old Post Office and the District Building, represent tentative attempts to establish a public building enclave in the area. The seven later buildings, all housing major federal government agencies and bureaus, reflect the fulfillment of a long-anticipated grouping of public buildings.

The Federal Triangle is located on a slice of land formed in the shape of a right triangle. It is bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue (the hypotenuse), Constitution Avenue (the long leg), and 15th Street (the short leg). While the Federal Triangle project dates primarily from the twentieth century, the area's development has deep roots in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Located near the turning basin of the Washington City Canal at 8th Street, the area was home to the sprawling Center Market and light industry. Its proximity to the center of the city as it developed between the Capitol and the White House also made it a focus of commercial development. However, its tendency to flood and its poor drainage relegated it to marginal commercial enterprises, while department stores and affluent establishments were located on higher ground along F and G streets.

The Corps of Engineers' reclamation of the Potomac Flats and the filling in of the canal signaled a new era for the area. Although soil and drainage problems lingered well into the twentieth century, the federal government indicated a willingness to invest in the area. The Romanesque Revival Post Office Building (see FT01) was constructed during the 1890s along Pennsylvania Avenue at 12th Street. While it did not usher in a grand scheme for the triangle area, the Post Office anticipated other federal government buildings in the future. The McMillan Commission Plan of 1901–1902 recommended the triangle area for a grouping of municipal buildings, the result of which would “assert the individuality of the District of Columbia.” The plan presented a loose arrangement of low-rise monumental buildings as an illustration of what might develop. Later in that decade, the District Building (see FT02) was constructed at 14th Street facing Pennsylvania Avenue and housed the three federally appointed district commissioners and their staffs.

Ultimately the land within the triangle area proved too valuable for municipal functions, and the Municipal Center later developed around Old City Hall. In 1910, the Treasury Department sponsored a limited competition for the stretch of land bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue, 15th Street, Constitution Avenue, and 14th Street. The competition called for designs for three buildings, to house the departments of State, Justice, and Commerce and Labor. The winning designs were not implemented, but their Beaux-Arts and grouped character were harbingers of the Federal Triangle project.

The Public Buildings Act of 1926 set in motion plans for the Federal Triangle. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon hired Edward H. Bennett of the Chicago firm of Bennett, Parsons and Frost as his personal architectural advisor on the project. Bennett had been associated with Daniel H. Burnham on the City Beautiful plans for San Francisco in 1905 and for Chicago in 1908–1909. Bennett organized a board of architectural consultants, each member of which was assigned the design of one of the buildings. Louis Ayres of the New York City firm of York and Sawyer designed the Department of Commerce Building (see FT03); Arthur Brown, Jr., of San Francisco the Department of Labor, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Departmental Auditorium (see FT04); William A. Delano of the New York City firm of Delano and Aldrich the new building for the post office (see FT05); Milton B. Medary of the Philadelphia firm of Zantzinger, Borie and Medary the Justice Department Building (see FT07); Louis A. Simon of the Treasury Department's Office of the Supervising Architect the Internal Revenue Service Building (see FT06); John Russell Pope of New York City the National Archives (see FT08); and Bennett the Federal Trade Commission Building (see FT09). The project, which flourished with the full support of the Executive Branch and Congress between 1926 and 1933, merely survived to near completion during the Roosevelt administration.

The effort Bennett oversaw was based on a comprehensive plan that addressed functional requirements of federal agencies and bureaus, city planning, architecture, landscape design, and decorative arts. It also spoke to the symbolic role of a harmonious ensemble of monumental buildings in inspiring the respect of the nation for federal government institutions.

At the time Congress approved plans for the Federal Triangle project, federal offices were spread throughout the central city in rented quarters. The simultaneous need of several federal government agencies and bureaus for new buildings set the stage for an entire group of public edifices. The grouping of functions promoted greater efficiency in communication among employees and between agencies and bureaus. Housing employees in government-owned buildings promised long-term savings in leasing costs. The grouping of buildings also provided an opportunity to create a monumental design effect unparalleled in the development of the capital city.

In the history of city planning in the United States, the Federal Triangle was one of the last City Beautiful plans in the nation. At the time it was initiated, the project found universal support among architects, planners, and politicians. By the time it was completed, the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression and attitudes toward planning and architecture had changed. By 1938, the Federal Triangle was viewed as passé and out of touch with the realities of the living city. Antipathy toward the Federal Triangle lingered well into the 1970s. During the past decade, a renewed interest in Beaux-Arts architecture and City Beautiful planning has reclaimed projects like the Federal Triangle from the heap of discarded planning ideas.

The design of the Federal Triangle bespeaks a range of design influences, from the treatment of large and monumental buildings such as the Louvre in Paris to the architecture of Rome and the grouping of governmental buildings at Whitehall in London. The Federal Triangle project also reflects the 1920s interpretation of the architectural and planning traditions of the city itself, particularly those of its first half century, from 1790 to 1840. Its plan placed a classical stamp on this section of the city and, while monumental in character, was subordinate to the Capitol and White House. As the project was implemented in the 1930s, Beaux-Arts Classicism gave way to an infusion of Art Deco and depression-era art.

An elaborate landscape plan tied together the buildings in the complex and organized the major structures around two great open spaces, the Grand Plaza and 12th Street. The plan also opened interiors with courtyards and gardens. As the project neared completion, however, the demands of the automobile compromised the landscape plan by transforming the Grand Plaza and some courtyards into parking lots and allocating other courtyards for entrances to underground parking.

The attention paid to decorative detail throughout the complex was an indication of the intended public uses of the buildings. The building exteriors were adorned with decorative sculpture and mottos. The building lobbies were lavish, intended to impress and instill awe in visitors. In the 1930s, art programs of the depression era left their mark on the buildings in murals and sculpture.

Through a comprehensive plan and consistency in building materials, design, and scale, the Federal Triangle buildings achieve a harmony of character unmatched by the Legislative Group around the Capitol or the Executive Group around the White House. The nearly full implementation of the Federal Triangle plan was a product of agreement among design professionals regarding the plan and unqualified political support during the project's early years. Unlike City Beautiful plans in other cities, which were only partially realized, the Federal Triangle is a mature exhibit of that movement's aspirations.

Writing Credits

Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee

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