Switzer Memorial Building (former Railroad Retirement Board) – Washington DC

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The Mary E. Switzer Building was originally built for the Railroad Retirement Board in 1940. The building was constructed in conjunction with the original Social Security headquarters, now the Wilbur J. Cohen building.  The two stand across C street from each other.  They were the first federal buildings constructed south of the Mall.  

The Railroad Retirement Board (RBB), formed in 1934, was a precursor to the Social Security Act in 1935.  Its responsibilities and funds grew with additional legislation in 1935 and 1937, providing taxes to support railway worker pensions.

As plans were underway for the headquarters of Social Security, the RBB appealed for  space of its own; hence, in 1938 Congress appropriated $14.2 million for the construction of two new buildings to house the agencies. The RRB/Switzer building is smaller and its ornamentation is simpler than that of the SSA/Cohen building.

Working under the supervision of the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Louis A. Simon, Charles Z. Klauder of Philadelphia developed the design concept for both buildings. After Klauder’s death in 1938, the Public Buildings Administration of the Federal Works Agency (FWA) finalized the plans. (GSA)

The design of both buildings is a blend of Art Moderne and an abstracted Egyptian Revival.  “Commonly termed Art Moderne, or Depression Modernism, the architecture is influenced by industrial design and characterized by simple geometric forms, clean, sharp setbacks, and the use of sleek and shiny materials. The building’s exterior also contains traces of Egyptian revival; this is achieved by dividing the windows and “pilasters” into pavilions, defined by battered pilasters and cavetto cornices.” (GSA)

The two buildings were some of the first in Washington to feature air conditioning, acoustic ceiling tile, and fluorescent lighting.

Both the Social Security Administration and the Railroad Retirement Board had to give way to the War Department as the first tenants of the twin buildings in 1941. After the war, the buildings passed to the Federal Security Administration (FSA), which included the SSA, Public Health Service and office of Education.  The FSA became the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) in 1953 and the old RRB building became known as HEW-South.

“Neither the Railroad Retirement Board nor Social Security Administration ever occupied their intended headquarter buildings. Regardless of this fact, the building retains a high level of historical significance, with many public spaces, including vestibules, lobbies, and corridors largely intact. The exterior is unchanged.” (GSA)

The building was designated the Mary E. Switzer Memorial Building in 1972, becoming the first federal building to be named for a woman. Switzer was a long-time official in the Department of Health and Human Welfare and retired in 1970 as the highest ranking female bureaucrat in the federal government.

Current occupants of the Switzer building continue to be agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Switzer Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.


Project Details

Federal Cost Local Cost Total Cost Project #'s
14250000 14250000

Source notes



“Capital’s Biggest Building Program Promises A Boon By Spring: Expenditures May Reach $200,000,000,” Washington Post, November 27, 1938. In: Newspaper clippings file, 1935-1942, Record Group 69, Records of the Work Projects Administration, National Archives. 



Project originally submitted by Brent McKee - wpatoday.org on July 6, 2013.
Additional contributions by Richard A Walker.

We welcome contributions of additional information on any New Deal project site.


Location Info

330 C Street, SW
Washington, D.C. 20416

Coordinates: 38.8855, -77.0162

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