Cohen Federal Building - Washington DC
The Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building was built 1938-40 as the home of the Social Security Administration, one of the major new programs of the New Deal. The building was funded and constructed in conjunction with the Railroad Retirement Board headquarters, now the Mary E. Switzer building. The two buildings stand across C street from each other. They were the first federal buildings south of the Mall.
As soon as President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935, planning began for a new headquarters building for the Social Security Administration (SSA). Then, when Congress funded the Railroad Retirement Board’s pension system in 1937, plans came to encompass buildings for both agencies, whose offices were scattered around the District of Columbia.
In 1938, Congress appropriated $14.25 million for the land and construction for the two headquarters buildings. Working under the supervision of the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Louis A. Simon, Philadelphia architect Charles Z. Klauder developed the design concept. After Klauder’s death in 1938, the Public Buildings Administration of the Federal Works Agency (FWA) finalized the plans. Construction was completed in late 1940.
The Social Security/Wilbur Cohen building is the larger and more elegant of the twins. The five-story, rectangular building covers a city block. It has four interior light courts and four light courts fronting both Independence Avenue and C Street. A central spine runs east to west, rising to form a penthouse above the fifth floor. The north-facing, Independence Avenue facade has a central pavilion. To each side, blocks with groups of tall windows deeply recessed between stone piers are topped by a continuous band of fretwork. (GSA)
Klauder’s design is Art Moderne with Egyptian elements. The Independence Avenue entrance is framed by a Prairie Brown granite frontispiece with battered sides and a cavetto cornice, characteristic of the Egyptian Revival style. A dark Carnelian granite panel with relief sculpture tops the double doors. The entrances on C Street and the east and west facades are treated similarly.
Inside the Independence Avenue entrance, the lobby has terrazzo floors and walls clad in marble. The interior contains many elements typical of Art Deco style, such the streamlined curves of the escalators; Greek key motifs on the bronze elevator doors; and angular Art Deco lettering on bulletin boards, directories, and mailboxes.
The building is graced by a magnificent set of social security-themed artworks commissioned by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts: exterior granite bas relief panels by Emma Lou Davis and Henry Kreis and interior murals by Seymour Fogel, Philip Guston, Ethel and Jenne Magafan, and Ben Shahn.
Neither Social Security nor the Railroad Retirement Board ever occupied their intended buildings, which were immediately turned over to the War Department in 1941. After the war, the Federal Security Agency, under which the Social Security Board had been placed in 1939, moved into the building. In 1953, the successor agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, took its place and subsequently became part of the Department of Health and Human Services in 1980.
In 1988, the building was renamed in honor of Wilbur J. Cohen, who was the first employee of the Social Security Board and later served as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.
Today, the Cohen building houses Voice of America, which first occupied space there in 1954, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, and other organizations. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
National Archives, Record Group 69, Records of the Work Projects Administration, “Newspaper clippings file, 1935-1942.” “Capital’s Biggest Building Program Promises A Boon By Spring: Expenditures May Reach $200,000,000,” Washington Post, November 27, 1938.
Project originally submitted by Brent McKee - wpatoday.org on May 11, 2012.
Additional contributions by Richard Walker.
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