State, War, and Navy Building
July 1875-April 1947

The Department of State had been in the Washington City Orphan Asylum Building for only three years when Congress recognized that, because of the high rent, the inadequate space, and the severe fire hazard,1 new quarters would have to be found for the Department. Consequently, a Commission of six members, including Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, was appointed by Congress in 1869 to recommend a site and submit plans for a new executive office building to house the Department of State.2

The State, War, and Navy Building

At first the Commission planned to locate the new building either at Lafayette Square or at Scott Square (now McPherson Square).3 By February 1870, however, the agreed upon site was west of the White House, a site which was then partially occupied by the buildings of the War and Navy Departments.4

Secretary Fish drafted a bill to this effect. The bill also proposed that the new building, which would house the State, War, and Navy Departments, should be constructed in stages beginning with the south wing in order to avoid interfering with the War and Navy Departments while it was being constructed.5 This would allow these two departments to remain in their buildings until later in the construction when those buildings would have to be razed to make way for the other wings.

Congress did not immediately enact this bill, and President Grant was constrained to emphasize, in his annual message of December 5, 1870, the inadequacy and the hazardous condition of the Orphan Asylum Building and the urgent need of an appropriation for the construction of a new building.6 In response to this entreaty, Congress, on March 3, 1871, appropriated $500,000-the first of 18 appropriations amounting in all to $10,124,500—

“... for the construction, under the direction of the Secretary of State, on the southerly portion of the premises now occupied by the War and Navy Departments, a building which will form the south wing of a building that, when completed, will be similar in the ground plan and dimensions to the Treasury building, and provide accommodations for the State, War, and Navy Departments; the building to be of such kind of stone as may be hereafter determined by the concurrent decision of the committee of public buildings and grounds of the Senate and House of Representatives; three stories in height, with basement and attic, and of fire-proof construction, the plans to be approved by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Secretary of the Navy, before any money is expended under the provisions of this act.”7

The new building was designed by Alfred B. Mullett, Supervising Architect of the Treasury, who was also in charge of constructing the building until December 31, 1874, when he was succeeded by William A. Potter, the new Supervising Architect of the Treasury. From March 3, 1875, to March 3, 1877, Colonel Orville E. Babcock, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, directed construction. He was succeeded by Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey, Corps of Engineers, who saw the building to completion.

Ground was broken for the south wing on June 21, 1871, and the first granite stone was laid on February 2, 1872. This wing was completed in December 1875, although construction on the library apparently continued well into 1876.8

Just before the south wing was completed in the latter part of June 1875, the Department of State began moving in. Secretary Fish mentioned the move in various letters at the time. On June 29 he stated that “for the past week we have been gradually removing Documents & c &c.”9 On July 17 he wrote, “On Monday [July 19] we open shop & transact business in the new Вuilding.”10 Finally, on July 20 he wrote:

“We have just moved into our new State Dept Building. I experience a freedom from the anxiety which the Combustible nature of the old building kept ever present in my mind. We now have a fine, commodious, & elegant building.”11

The move was also mentioned in the Washington Evening Star of June 29, 1875 as follows:

“The work of removing the archives of the Department of State from the hospital building on Fourteenth street to the new building on the southwest corner of Executive Square has already been commenced. At present the workmen are engaged with the bound volumes of newspapers and other bulky documents, but in a few days the whole establishment will be transferred, and the Department will be permanently located in [Page 44] its new and elegant quarters. In many respects the new building is the finest in the United States, and in every way worthy... the uses to which it is to be devoted.”12

At the time of the move, the Department of State was comprised of a total of fifty-five persons, exclusive of engineers, watchmen, firemen, and laborers. The staff consisted of the Secretary, three Assistant Secretaries, the Chief Clerk, six chiefs of bureau, one translator, forty-one clerks, and two messengers.13

Construction continued on the rest of the State, War and Navy Building while the Department was in the south wing. Ground had been broken for the east wing on July 14, 1872, before the south wing was completed.

The War and Navy Departments moved into the east wing immediately after it was ready for occupancy on April 16, 1879. The War Department was located in the northern half and the Navy Department in the southern half as a temporary arrangement pending construction of the north wing.

As soon as the War Department had moved, the old Northwest Executive Building, which had been its home since 1819, was torn down, commencing on May 22, 1879, to make way for the north wing of the new building. The north wing was erected directly on the site of the old building.

Ground was broken for this wing on June 17, 1879, and the wing was completed and ready for occupancy on December 23, 1882. The War Department moved into it from the east wing in February 1883.

Demolition of the old Southwest Executive Building, which had been the home of the Department of State from 1816 to 1819 and which had subsequently housed the Navy Department, was commenced on February 18, 1884, to make way for the west and center wings of the new building. The two wings were ready for occupancy on January 31, 1888.

Construction of the building apparently took longer than expected. Mullet told Secretary Fish in 1873 that the building could be completed in 1881. In fact, it took seven years longer, making a total of seventeen years, from 1871 to 1888, until the entire building was ready for occupancy.14

“Upon its completion, January 31, 1888, it was reputed to be the [Page 45]

This aerial view, taken about 1930, accents the wealth of detail on the state, War, and Navy roof.
largest and finest office building in the world (covering, together with lawns and terraces, more than five acres of ground space),... composed of granite, hand-hewn. The building has five stories exclusive of basement and sub-basement. It has a total floor area of about 10 acres and contains nearly 1 3/4 miles of corridors 12 feet wide. These are paved with alternating 1-foot squares of black slate and white marble set in transversal rows. The eight stairways with steps of gray granite are especially distinctive; of cantilever construction, they swing in a spiral from floor to floor, unsupported by either beams or arches, the end of each step tightly wedged into the wall. The balustrades of intricately designed bronze are topped by a mahogany hand rail. There is very little woodwork in the entire building, the most noteworthy being the solid red mahogany doors two inches thick. The total cost of the building was slightly more than 10 million dollars.”15

The above description is in error concerning the solid mahogany doors. An architectural drawing indicates that some of the doors were made of pine, and in all others only panels were solid mahogany, hung in pine frames with a heavy mahogany veneer.16

Much of the intricate and elaborate designs in the building were the work of Richard von Ezdorf. He was of the Austrian Ezdorfs, and the designs he made appear to have been influenced by the baroque palaces of Austria and Germany. Ezdorf even provided designs for the door knobs, which corresponded to the various Departments occupying the office.17

The south wing of the building had been planned and built for the exclusive use of the Department of State. The Secretary of State had his office on the second floor at the southwest corner of the south wing, and the diplomatic reception room—the scene of the signing of many historic documents—adjoined the Secretary’s office.

Because of increasing pressure for space, the War and Navy Departments moved into the south wing in 1882, as authorized by an act of Congress.18 Congress assigned the fourth and attic floors of that wing to the War Department and three rooms on the first floor and four in the basement (now known as the “ground floor”) to the [Page 46] Navy Department.19 The reassignment took away about 40 percent of the Department of State’s space.

The Diplomatic Reception Room in the State, War, and Navy Building adjoined the Secretary’s office.

As a result, by March 1, 1884, the Department of State was “so cramped for room as to seriously interfere with good executive management.”20 This situation not only went unremedied for the next twenty-two years, but became increasingly acute as the Department grew in number of personnel and in bulk of records during that time.21 Finally, certain bureaus of the Department of State were forced to move from the State, War, and Navy Building to rented quarters.

The first unit of the Department to be squeezed out of the main building— despite subsequent statements otherwise—was the Bureau of Trade Relations.22 It was moved in July 1906 to a suite of four rooms on the top floor of the Rochambeau Apartment House,23 at 815 Connecticut Avenue, where it remained for one year.

The Rochambeau, which was built in 1904, was a seven-story building of gray stone and gray brick located on the east side of Connecticut Avenue between H and I Streets Northwest, just north of the United States Chamber of Commerce Building. The Rochambeau was purchased by the United States Chamber of Commerce in March 1954.24 An office building was built on the site in 1965.

Commencing July 1, 1907, the Department rented, at the rate of $2,860 a year, the premises at 522 Seventeenth Street Northwest,25 an old, three-story, red-brick house on the northwest corner of Seventeenth Street and New York Avenue which for many years formed part of the Allies Inn. It has since been torn down to make way for an office building. The Bureau of Trade Relations moved into this building from the Rochambeau in July 1907.26 Either then or a little later, the Bureau of Citizenship (previously the Passport Bureau) moved from the main building into this building,27 and in 1909 the Office of the Solicitor also moved there from the main building.28

The Department of State rented the house at 522 Seventeenth Street until January 31, 1912,29 when it rented instead the Blair-Lee House, at 1653 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, for the annual sum of $5,500.30 This spacious brick house, which was built just before the Civil War31 and which consists of three stories plus basement and attic, stands on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue east of Seventeenth Street, between the Renwick Art Gallery Building and the Blair House and opposite the north front of the Old Executive Office Building (State, War, and Navy Building).

Other buildings in which the Department occupied space between 1909 and 1918 were the Union Trust Company Building, on the southwest corner of Fifteenth and H Streets Northwest; the old Knickerbocker Hotel Building, at 1703 New York Avenue Northwest; and the Lenman Building, at 1423 New York Avenue Northwest, a five-story commercial structure which has since been razed and replaced by an extension to the National Savings and Trust Company Building, located on the northeast corner of Fifteenth Street and New York Avenue Northwest.32

The Navy Department left the State, War, and Navy Building for new quarters in July 1918, and all the bureaus and offices of the Department of State were reunited in that building in the latter part of that year. The State, War, and Navy Building continued to accommodate the entire Department of State from 1918 until 1936.

On July 3, 1930 Congress changed the name of the building to “Department of State Building.”33 This followed the departure of most of the War Department—final removal, excepting only the office of the General of the Armies of the United States, came in 1938—to the Munitions Building on Constitution Avenue.

Again, however, the building grew overcrowded, and another exodus to outlying buildings became necessary. This exodus began in 1936 with the removal of the Treaty Division, the Visa Division, and the Translating [Page 47] Bureau to the Winder Building.

State’s Library in 1901 held more than 60,000 volumes and the Declaration of Independence. The document had been removed from public display at the time of this photo and a facsimile exhibited in the main floor cabinet.

This old office building, of painted brick, located on the northwest corner of Seventeenth and F Streets Northwest and consisting of five stories and basement, was erected in 1847-1848 by William H. Winder, Jr., a private citizen—not, as often stated, by General William H. Winder (1775-1824). The Government rented the building from Winder from the time of its completion until 1854, when Congress, by a provision of an act approved on August 4 of that year, authorized its purchase by the Secretary of War for the sum of $200,000.34

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 caused a rapid increase in the personnel of the Department of State, and as a consequence the problem of space became further intensified. In 1940, with a total of about 1,020 employees, the Department occupied rooms in the Winder Building and also in the Hill Building,35 on the southeast corner of Seventeenth and I Streets, Northwest. In 1941, with personnel totaling about 1,600, offices of the Department overflowed into the Metropolitan Club Annex Building, at 1712 H Street Northwest; the American Institute of Architects Building, perhaps better known as the “Octagon House,” on the northeast corner of Eighteenth Street and New York Avenue Northwest; the Commerce Department Building, on Fourteenth Street between E Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest; and the apartment building at 515 Twenty-second Street Northwest (now State Annex 2).36

Growth of the Department continued through the war years, and personnel totaled about 3,600 by early 1945. The transfer of certain agencies to the Department of State at the end of the war further increased the personnel in the latter part of 1945 to about 7,200. These 7,200 employees were housed in forty-seven buildings scattered throughout Washington. This condition continued until about May 1946, when, through consolidation of organizational units and reduction in force, the number of buildings was cut to twenty-nine.

Meanwhile, plans were being developed for removal of the Department to new quarters,37 and in 1947 the Department of State left the building at Seventeenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest. From this building in the historic second-floor office directly above the south entrance, twenty-four Secretaries of State, from Hamilton Fish to General George C. Marshall, had directed the foreign relations of the United States.

The building has been criticized as “A horrible example of... ‘American ironic,’”38 praised when there have been attempts to tear it down:

“The proposal to replace the Executive Office Building with another functional building is a bit like suggesting that the Egyptians tear down their unsightly pyramids and replace them with modern efficient tombstones.”39 But, as another source describes it: “The building became a period piece and a symbol. But, even more, its very flamboyance—with porticoes and pillars, with mansards and peaks, with ironwork sculpture, with tier on tier of architectural orders—has been recognized as a vital part of the Washington memory.”40

  1. MS. Department of State, 5 Reports of bureau Officer’s memorandum of James Fenner Lee, cited in the previous chapter.
  2. Actually, as early as the 1830s and 1840s proposals had been submitted for new executive office buildings. Some of these plans even resembled those that were eventually accepted many years later. See Executive Office Building, General Services Administration Historical Study No. 3 (Washington, revised September 1970) [Hereinafter referred to as Executive Office Building.]
  3. House Executive Document No. 71, 41st Cong., 2d Sess. (serial 1417), p.1.
  4. MS. Department of State, Miscellaneous Letters, February 1870, pt. 2.
  5. MS. Department of State, 10 Repot Book, p. 268; and pp. 278-279, letter of February 25, 1870, and enclosure.
  6. Richardson, Messages and Papers of the Presidents, VII, 106.
  7. 16 Stat. 494.
  8. MS. Department of State, Accounts Records, New Department, Ledger, 1871-1883, p. 116.
  9. MS. Library of Congress, Papers of Hamilton Fish, Letter Copy Book, February 25-October 28, 1875, p. 290.
  10. Ibid., June 26, 1875-May 4, 1876, p. 22.
  11. Ibid., February 25-October 28, 1875, p. 344.
  12. This item was reprinted in the Washington Chronicle of June 30, 1875.
  13. MS. Department of State, Accounts Records, Pay Roll, 1874-1875, July 31, 1875.
  14. The foregoing account of the erection of the State, War, and Navy Building is based on House Executive Document No. 337, 50th Cong., 1st Sess. (serial 2561), pp. 2-3; and Executive Office Building, op. cit., pp. 32-39.
  15. E. Wilder Spaulding and George V. Blue, The Department of State of the United States, rev. edition (Washington, 1936), pp. 49-50.
  16. Executive Office Building, op. cit., p. 48.
  17. Ibid., pp. 49-53.
  18. 22 Stat. 256.
  19. MS. Department of State, 5 Reports of Bureau Officers, above cited memorandum of James Fenner Lee, annex A.
  20. Ibid., annex B.
  21. See Senate Document No. 155, 65th Cong., 2d Sess. (serial 7315), pp. 80-84.
  22. The statement, which has appeared in print, that the Passport Bureau was moved out of the main building prior to the removal of the Bureau of Trade Relations, is incorrect. Gaillard Hunt, who, as Chief of the Passport Bureau from 1903 until 1909, was in a position to know, records in his book on the Department of State that the “first bureau to go was the Bureau of Trade Relations” (pp. 419-430); and the Department’s accounts records bear out Hunt’s statement. For a biographical sketch of Gaillard Hunt, see Dictionary of American Biography, IX, 385
  23. MS. Department of State, Accounts Records, Bill Book, 1907, p. 153. “Homes of the Department of State, X,” in The American Foreign Service Journal (Washington, 1924—), VIII, 9, 40, January 1931.
  24. Washington Evening Star, March 24, 1954.
  25. MS. Department of State, Accounts Records, Bill Book, 1908, p. 357; 1909, p. 294; 1910, p. 398; 1911, p. 266; 1912, p. 352.
  26. Ibid., 1908, pp. 148, 154.
  27. Ibid., 1908, p. 154; 1909, pp. 137, 146, 155; 1910, p. 91.
  28. Ibid., 1910, p. 91.
  29. Ibid., 1912, p. 352.
  30. Ibid., 1912, p. 352; 1913, pp. 360-361.
  31. Katharine E. Crane, Blair House Past and Present; an Account of Its Life and Times in the City of Washington (Washington, 1945), p. 13.
  32. “Homes of the Department of State, X,” pp. 9, 40.
  33. 46 Stat. 907.
  34. 10 Stat. 554. See also Senate Executive Document No. 38, 30th Cong., 2d Sess. (serial 532); House Report No. 102, 32d Cong., 1st Sess. (serial 656); House Report No. 193, 33d Cong., 1st Sess. (serial 743).
  35. Department of State Telephone Directory October 1940, pp. 6-5.
  36. Ibid., October 1941, p. vii.
  37. The Department of State Bulletin, X VII, 1035-1036, November 30, 1947.
  38. Statement by Thomas Hastings quoted in Executive Office Building, op. cit., p. 88.
  39. Statement by unidentified source quoted in ibid., p. 89.
  40. Ibid.