East side, State Department Building
The present Harry S. Truman Federal Building consists of two monumental halves. The first was built under the New Deal for the War Department in 1940-41 (and is still commonly referred to as the War Department building). When the War Department (now Department of Defense) moved across the Potomac to the Pentagon in 1943, the State Department moved in and has remained ever since. The State Department building was renamed the Harry S. Truman Building in 2000.
Consolidating the War Department had become a priority in the lead-up to the Second World War. A second building was envisioned, but not built until the 1950s. In 1938, the Washington Post reported plans for a “pair of office buildings for the War Department (at a cost of $14,250,000).” A 1940 Federal Work Agency (FWA) report said that $10.8 million had been appropriated out of the $26 million authorized for two buildings.
Historically, the Treasury Department was in charge of all federal buildings; the division was called the Public Works Branch from 1933 to 1935, the Public Buildings Branch from 1935 to 1939 and the Public Buildings Administration (PBA) after 1939, when it was moved out of Treasury to the newly formed Federal Works Agency in a major government reorganization. The War Department building was completed under the FWA/PBA. After the Second World War, another reorganization put federal buildings under the General Services Administration (GSA).
The architects for the War Department building were Gilbert Stanley Underwood and William Dewey Foster. They prepared the design in 1938-1939 and construction began in 1940.
The building is described by the GSA:
“Stripped Classical architectural style with Art Moderne elements. The steel-framed building is clad in limestone and rises eight stories above the basement and sub-basement. Because it was designed to be expanded at a later date, it was deliberately asymmetrical. A central spine connects a U-shaped configuration to the east with an E-shaped configuration to the west.
The horizontal delineations of the facade reflect the classical precedents of the architectural style. Cornices and pink granite stringcourses create a base-shaft-capital system. The wings create a series of interior courtyards. The interior courtyard walls are clad in dark granite, emphasizing the transition from base to shaft.”
The War Department building was part of a larger plan by the National Capital Park and Planning Commission in the 1930s to fill the Foggy Bottom area northwest of the National Mall.
The Truman Building is most unwelcoming today. The New Deal section on the east is covered by the more modern section on the west, and it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The classic east facade has a defensive structure blocking the view and a disconcerting amount of armed security staring at anyone trying to admire the building.
“Capital’s Biggest Building Program Promises A Boon By Spring: Expenditures May Reach $200,000,000,” Washington Post, November 27, 1938.
Annual report for Federal Works Agency, FY 1940, p. 83 https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015033187223&view=1up&seq=1
National Archives, Record Group 69, Records of the Work Projects Administration, “Newspaper clippings file, 1935-1942.”
Project originally submitted by Brent McKee - wpatoday.org on July 6, 2013.
Additional contributions by Richard A Walker.
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