Streets of Washington, written by John DeFerrari, covers some of DC’s most interesting buildings and history. John is the author of Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, published by the History Press, Inc. and also the author of Lost Washington DC.
Mark Twain is said to have called it the ugliest building in America, a sentiment later echoed by President Harry S Truman, who thought it the country’s “greatest monstrosity.” Now, to tear down this monstrosity would be unthinkable. Declared a national historic landmark in 1971, the massive block-long Eisenhower Executive Office Building, as it is now called, is widely cherished as a stunningly exuberant relic from a bygone era that could never be replicated. Whatever has been thought of it across the years, the building achieves architecture’s highest calling, impressing its unique identity relentlessly upon all who witness it and demanding a response.
As long as the federal government has been in Washington, cabinet department office buildings have stood on this site and the corresponding space on the other side of the President’s House. George Washington wanted them here, and under his direction, architect George Hadfield (1763-1826), designed the first two distinguished, federal-style buildings, which were ready for early bureaucrats to occupy when the government moved to Washington in 1800. After the British burned the buildings in 1814, they were reconstructed, and two more matching buildings were added, one on either side, to form a neat and symmetrical Executive Branch campus surrounding the President’s House. On the east side, along 15th Street, stood the State Department to the north and the Treasury Department to the south. To the west, along 17th Street, were the Navy and War Departments.
The War Department building, seen from 17th Street, circa 1870 (author’s collection).
The Treasury building burned (again) in 1833, and in its place a grand, neoclassical palace, designed by Robert Mills (1781-1855), was built in stages between 1836 and 1866. The old State Department building was torn down in 1866 to allow the Treasury Building to be completed, filling the block on the 15th Street side. This left the old War and Navy buildings, which everyone agreed were inadequate, on the west side. A design competition was held in 1845 for a large replacement building, but war with Mexico intervened to prevent any construction. Another design by Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-1877) in the 1850s also went nowhere. As a stopgap measure during the Civil War an additional floor was added to both buildings, but after the war the issue of replacing them again arose. Finally, in 1871, Congress authorized construction of a large new building to house the State, War, and Navy departments. The building was to be “similar in ground plan and dimensions to the Treasury Building,” and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish (1808-1893) was charged with overseeing its construction.
Alfred B. Mullett (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Fish persuaded Supervising Architect of the Treasury Alfred Bult Mullett (1834-1890) to take on the job of designing the large new building, overcoming Mullett’s initial reluctance to add the building to his already heavy workload. In those days the Supervising Architect of the Treasury was responsible for designing most new federal buildings, and Mullett was responsible for numerous courthouses, post offices, and other federal buildings around the country. Born in England, Mullett in 1845 settled with his family in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he got a job with the architectural firm of Isaiah Rogers (1800-1869) in 1857. Rogers moved to Washington in 1861 to be Supervising Architect of the Treasury, and Mullett later joined him there. After Rogers retired in 1865, Mullett was appointed to take his position.
New York City Hall Station (Source: Library of Congress).
The post-war years saw a surge in federal building projects around the country, and Mullett had his hand in many of them. While working in several different styles, Mullett soon settled on the fashionable French Second Empire style, with its prominent mansard roofs, as his preferred idiom. In addition to many lesser works, he designed seven great public building complexes—in Boston, New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Hartford, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. All were large, ornate, Second-Empire style buildings.
Postcard view of the State, War and Navy Building, circa 1905 (author’s collection).
Mullett’s design for the State, War, and Navy Building surpassed all of his other projects. It is a great mountain of grey Maine and Virginia granite, poised proudly as a peacock and decked out with a tour-de-force of Renaissance Revival ornamental detail. While the composition as a whole is unmistakably Victorian, individual elements—columns, capitals, pediments, cornices—can almost all be traced to neoclassical sources. Using his favorite Second Empire architectural vocabulary, Mullett throws so much decoration at us that we can’t possibly take it all in. The principal entrances on each of the building’s four sides are nested in a forest of columns and porticos piled within giant pavilions, creating the subtle and pleasing appearance of porousness and openness—it’s hard to say exactly where the doors and walls are.
Contemporary view of the south entrance (photo by the author).
To the Victorian sensibility, the building’s design is elegant and sophisticated. The Second Empire styling reflects Continental tastes, showing that America not only embraces European sophistication but can vigorously outdo it. The building’s immense proportions—the bewildering array of columns, windows and pediments—serves to convey the authority and power of the U.S. government. Just as the eye cannot possibly take in so much rich décor, so the breadth and richness of America’s presence in the world cannot be fathomed at a glance.
Construction of Alfred Mullett’s masterpiece took 17 years of continuous effort, from 1871 to 1888, and cost over $10 million, an astronomical sum at the time. Mullett resigned as supervising architect in 1874, and others, including Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey (1831-1896), who also oversaw the completion of the Washington Monument, took on the task of finishing the building, which they executed very closely to his original design. The State Department wing, on the south side of the building was constructed first, allowing Sate Department personnel to move in in 1876. Second in line was the Navy Department wing, on the east side of the building, which was begun in 1876. The old War Department building remained in service until 1879, when work began on the north wing. The final west wing, also reserved for the War Department, was started in 1884 and finished four years later. When it was all done, it was the largest office building in the world, with more than 10 acres of floor space, eight grand cantilevered staircases, several large and dramatic skylights, and hundreds of spacious rooms sporting 16-foot ceilings.
The Diplomatic Reception Room, circa 1890 (author’s collection).
The interior spaces were as elaborately decorated as the exterior. The principal interior designer was Richard von Ezdorf (1848-1926), who appropriately enough had been born in the elegant Palazzi Balbi in Venice to a family of Austrian aristocrats. Ezdorf studied architecture in Germany and Austria and emigrated to the Untied States in 1872; just a year later he was working under Mullett on the State War and Navy Building. Among the building’s most exquisite interior spaces are the Diplomatic Reception Room, which was designed and furnished to impress visiting dignitaries and was considered one of the most elegant rooms in the city in the 1870s and 1880s, and the lavishly decorated Navy Department Library room, designed more as a reception room than a library. More money was spent on this room than on any other in the building, with a dazzling array of finishes that include domestic and imported marbles, onyx, encaustic tiles, and bronze and ornamental ironwork. After the Navy Department moved out of the building in 1918, the room became known as the Indian Treaty Room, although no one seems to know why this happened, as no Indian or other treaties were ever signed in it. Remarkably, it has been virtually unaltered over the years, and it remains one of the building’s most spectacular spaces.
Indian Treaty Room (Source: Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division).
While the building’s extraordinary expense certainly drew detractors, ordinary people tended to marvel at both the immensity and the elegance of the structure. Rand McNally’s 1897 Handy Guide to Washington and the District of Columbia referred to the building as “that towering pile of granite west of the White House, which has been so honestly admired by the populace and so often condemned by the critics.” Tourists frequented the building to see the rich trappings of the Diplomatic Reception Room and to stop in the State Department Library, where they could inspect copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, in what was already a ritual activity for out-of-town visitors. Local residents enjoyed it as well. Boys in winter would run their sleds down the grand staircase on the south side, and President Taft’s Holstein cow, Pauline Wayne, grazed on the lawn in summer.
Sledding on the steps, Dec. 26, 1921 (Source: Library of Congress).
Pauline Wayne grazing on the grounds of the State War and Navy Building, circa 1909 (Source: Library of Congress).
Meanwhile, the building’s explosively temperamental architect, Alfred B. Mullett, did not have an easy life. In 1874 he had quit the post of supervising architect in a huff, because of disagreements with the new Secretary of the treasury, Benjamin H. Bristow. Fifteen years later, after the State, War, and Navy Department Building had finally been completed, he sued the U.S. government for $158,441 for work related to this and several other projects. He argued that his design work for the building had been done in his spare time, since he was fully occupied during regular working hours, and thus the government owed him an architect’s fee for this extra work. By this time he had overextended himself with real estate investments and desperately needed the money. However, the court was unsympathetic with his claims. He received nothing.
Mullett was widely known to have a very volatile personality, and his abrupt resignation from the powerful supervising architect’s position was just one manifestation. He once hauled off and punched a Cincinnati official in the face, right on a downtown city street, for calling him a liar. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase (1808-1873) was quoted as calling him “the little fellow from Cincinnati who explodes at the lowest pressure of any man now living.” Mullett’s mood swings and depression seemed to have run in the family. His brother, Coast Guard Captain Thomas B. Mullett, had suffered from “acute melancholia” and committed suicide in 1887. Only three years later, on October 20, 1890, Alfred followed the same path.
“Weary of a financial struggle that promised to end disastrously and lacking the mental elasticity which keeps mankind in something like an equitable condition, A. B. Mullett, ex-supervising architect of the Treasury, yesterday evening took it upon himself to put an end to his earthly career,” The Evening Star lamented. “For several months he had suffered from fits of depression and, being naturally an extremely nervous man, his ordinarily irritable temperament was not soothed or amended by these later-appearing periods of melancholy.” Mullett had been in an unusually cheerful mood that day, something that his colleagues at work noticed, and he went home around 3:30 in the afternoon. He headed upstairs, telling his wife and daughter that he needed rest. To his wife he suggested, “I think I could drink a little beef tea.” While she went downstairs to prepare it, he secluded himself in his bedroom and shot himself in the head with a revolver.
In detailing the sad circumstances of his death, the Star also praised Mullett’s work, noting that “All Mr. Mullett’s designs were characterized by great artistic beauty, coupled with practical utility.” The reporter admired in particular the “massive and imposing building for the War, Navy and State Departments, which will stand as the greatest monument to his artistic taste and skill.”
Yet Mullett’s effusive creations increasingly were reviled. Many of his great public buildings, including the magnificent City Hall Station in New York, were torn down, leaving the State War and Navy Building as one of the few survivors. Gradually all three of State War and Navy’s tenants outgrew their space and were happy to move out. The Navy Department left in 1918, preferring hideous (but spacious) temporary buildings on the Mall to their former elegant headquarters. The War Department followed in 1938 and the State Department in 1947—all of them decamping to much plainer, boxier spaces. White House offices began taking over the vacant space in 1939, and in 1949 the building was officially turned over to the Executive Office of the President and renamed the Executive Office Building.
Imbued with the reactionary neoclassical conservatism of the early 20th century, federal bureaucrats twice tried to reclothe Mullett’s masterpiece in tidy neoclassical garb. An urban legend had developed that Mullett’s design violated Congressional direction to create a building that matched the Treasury on the other side of the White House. There is no historical basis to the claim, but in 1917 distinguished neoclassical architect John Russell Pope (1874-1937) first sketched a plan to re-skin the structure to look more like the Treasury at the request of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which he had just joined. By the late 1920s, another distinguished Washington architect, Waddy B. Wood (1869-1944), developed more detailed plans to make the building—which indeed had a footprint almost identical to the Treasury’s—look just like it. Wood caught the attention of Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, who liked the idea, which quickly gained traction around the city. In 1929 Charles Moore (1855-1942), previously clerk to the McMillan Commission in 1902 and an early chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, endorsed Wood’s plan to remodel the “ridiculous architectural creation of former Supervising Architect Mullett,” observing that
Both President Hoover and Secretary Mellon have inveighed publicly against the State, War and Navy Building as an architectural monstrosity; but it may not be beyond redemption. The architect Charles McKim used to say that he could do a great deal with the edifice if he only had a rake! Secretary Mellon has a design that would remake it into what Congress supposed it was going to be—a counterpart of the Treasury.
Everyone thought it was a wonderful idea; with the new Federal Triangle buildings going up on Pennsylvania Avenue, the whole of federal Washington could have the same homogenous imperial look. In 1930 Congress happily authorized $3 million to carry out the transformation, but the job proved more complex than it had originally appeared, and the true costs were not clear. With other Depression-driven priorities at hand, Congress withdrew the authorization.
Architectural detail (Source: Historic American Buildings Survey)
But the old State, War and Navy building was not out of jeopardy yet. In the 1950s and early 1960s further vitriol was heaped on it for its supposed ungainliness and inefficiency. In 1962 famed New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable observed that the structure, which had “reared its huge bulk in 1888,” was one of several grand Victorian creations that had changed the city for the worse and remained as colossal cultural inconveniences: “Red brick and gray granite replaced white stone and marble in a succession of massive monuments that most Washingtonians would like to tear down or wish away. Too large and ungainly to be ignored, they are treated rather like architectural skeletons in the national cultural closet.”
This attitude was clearly shared by the President’s Advisory Commission on Presidential Office Space, which recommended in 1957 that the State War and Navy Building be torn down and replaced with a new White House office building. The commission sheepishly suggested that “In view of the recognized faults and deficiencies in the design, location and condition [of the building]… its demolition appears to some to be an advantage.” Notably, the equivocal tone of the recommendation marked an acknowledgement that views were beginning to change and that tearing down grand old buildings like this one was not something everybody agreed on any more. The commission’s proposal was opposed in Congress, and in the end attention shifted toward supplementing the building with new construction to the north of the White House on Lafayette Square. Still, old attitudes died hard. One day in April 1958, former president Harry S Truman was taking a stroll about town with a group of newspaper reporters, and the group passed by the old Executive Office Building. Truman, chuckling, remarked: “They’ve been trying to tear this down for 20 years. But I don’t want it torn down. I think it’s the greatest monstrosity in America.”
In 1971 the Old Executive Office Building, as it was called at this point, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That same year Don’t Tear It Down, which eventually became the D.C. Preservation League, was founded to save the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue. Preservation was finally gaining traction. At last, in the early 1980s, the General Services Administration began a concerted effort to restore and rehabilitate Mullett’s masterpiece, an effort that has been going on in stages ever since. Architecture critic Benjamin Forgey pointed out that this was “one of the Reagan administration’s few laudable acts in the domain of architecture.” Limited tours of the structure began in 1985, the first offered since before World War II, although they would prove to be short-lived.
View of the building from 17th Street (photo by the author).
Renamed the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in 1997, the building today houses a variety of White House offices, is closely guarded, and no longer offers public tours. It has been a long time since young boys sledded down its staircases in the winter, but thankfully it’s been nearly as long since federal planners last tried to tear down this grand old lady.
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Sources for this article included: Executive Office of the President, The Old Executive Office Building A Victorian Masterpiece (1984); General Services Administration, Executive Office Building (1964); James M. Goode, Capital Losses (2003); Ernest Ingersoll, Handy Guide to Washington and the District of Columbia (1897); Sara Amy Leach, ed., Capital IA: Industrial Archeology of Washington, D.C. (2001); Charles Moore, Washington Past and Present (1929); Pamela Scott & Antoinette J. Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (1993); and numerous newspaper articles.