A Still Uncertain Fate for DC’s Manly Art Deco Landmark

Regular readers of these pages know not only of my deep appreciation for the muscular Art Deco of the Federal Trade Commission building here in Washington, but also of my enthusiasm for the idea of the National Gallery of Art expanding to take over the building. The National Gallery is currently housed in two structures on The National Mall, across the street from the FTC headquarters: the original or West Building by John Russell Pope, completed in 1941, and the East Building by I.M. Pei, completed in 1978. Congressman John Mica (R-Fla.) has been pushing for a number of years now for not only the expansion of the National Gallery into this space, but also for the relocation of the FTC to a larger, more modern space suited to the contemporary needs of the agency, which among its duties investigates deceptive and fraudulent commercial practices, reviews corporate mergers, and encourages competition. The present FTC headquarters, a 1930’s interpretation of Greek and Roman elements known as the “Apex Building”, is a great structure, a kind of masculine, industrialized and pared-down classicism that one can imagine a present-day King Leonidas of Sparta using as a palace.

Last week at a House of Representatives Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, Congressman Mica stated that the transfer of the building to the National Gallery and the finding of a new home for the FTC is of supreme importance to him. He noted that “I have no other priority for the balance of my tenure in Congress.” As the Chairman of the overall Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is not only the largest committee in Congress but that which this subcommittee falls under, Mica’s is quite a statement.

As a man who for many years has shown a determination to bring about the reform and fiscally sensible expansion of America’s presently poor system of passenger rail, known as Amtrak, as well as improvements to commuter transit and renovation of the existing infrastructure, Mica is not someone who shies away from the spade and backhoe. On the arts front, he serves as a Trustee of The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and sponsors an art competition among his younger constituents for display at the Capitol every year. Mica is someone who clearly sees the Nation’s Capital as a place where many of the ideas and ideals of urban planning can bear fruit, and serve as models for the rest of the country.

So what’s the problem here? In the now-Republican-controlled House, certainly Mica can get this transfer done, and has introduced and re-introduced legislation mandating that the building be transferred to the National Gallery. Yet the FTC itself has always resisted, as indeed have some local Democrats, including D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. As I am not particularly interested in her opinions on any subject whatsoever, I suggest that you ignore her (I always do.)

The FTC does not want to leave its current building, where it has been housed since 1938, for what seems a rather curious, emotional reason for an agency which deals with economic matters. In 1937 when FDR laid the cornerstone for the FTC headquarters, he gave an address in which he stated, “May this permanent home of the Federal Trade Commission stand for all time as a symbol of the purpose of the government to insist on a greater application of the golden rule to the conduct of corporations and business enterprises in their relationship to the body politic.” This is the primary justification for the FTC not leaving the building, even though as it happens the FTC already has several satellite offices elsewhere around the city.

This situation seemingly puts the FTC in a bit of a quandary, but their position should also give us something of a clue as to their probable motivations. When someone tells you that they are unwilling to move but they need more space, that is an indication to those who can read between the lines that plans for an addition may be in the works. However in this case, it seems impossible to fathom exactly where the FTC would be able to construct such an addition.

The block on which the FTC building sits has no room for expansion, and the surrounding blocks are already filled. To the immediate west of the FTC is the National Archives, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, among other treasures, are housed; there can be no legitimate suggestion that they will be moving anywhere. To the south stands the iconic West Building of the National Gallery of Art. To the north is a very broad stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, with both a large, modern office block and an historic Victorian bank building on the opposite side, all fully occupied. To the east is a very small triangle-shaped park with a fountain, but one so impractical as a building site that it would barely hold a Cape Cod, let alone an expanded office block.

Given these physical limitations, the FTC cannot mean to suggest that it intends to build at its site. Rather, what I suspect it wants is to build a large hive of sorts for its worker bees, somewhere else in the city, while keeping its executive-level staff at the more prestigious Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters, which are not only a grander space but closer to the action on Capitol Hill, The White House, etc. Human beings are easily prone to becoming snobbish creatures, even in a republic. If you have worked your way up in your organization to a position of some influence, one of the perks of success is to have a nice office in a nice part of town.

Using FDR’s words as a justification however, rings hollow on closer inspection. The FTC was created in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson; not by Franklin Roosevelt. It was originally housed in a building on D Street beginning around 1915, which served as its headquarters until the building was destroyed by a fire in 1930. Afterward the FTC had to shuffle around a bit, until the construction of the present building. By 1938, the agency came into residence at a large, solid building in the center of town, which meant that it could settle in and do what bureaucracies always do: expand in size and scope.

Yet what did Franklin Roosevelt mean by saying that this building was to be the “permanent” home of the agency? Did he mean that literally? Or was it – as I suspect it was – a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the FTC had, for lack of a better term, been living out of a suitcase ever since the 1930 fire destroyed its original home? These are questions that need to be asked, both regarding the future of this magnificent building as well as how the agency itself sees its own mission. Can it not serve its duty to the American people by consolidating its efforts elsewhere in the city?

One also wonders what FDR would have thought about the expansion of the FTC and the National Gallery in one fell swoop. Given his joy in creating more and more federal government organizations whenever possible, and his love of construction projects, I think FDR would actually chide the FTC for failing to take advantage of the opportunity to not only grow but also to either build or renovate a huge new building as part of that growth. At the same time, FDR – who was President when the National Gallery was first created and then built – would no doubt appreciate the expansion of that institution, as well as the thriftiness of repurposing an old building to new use.

Whatever the real motivation for the agency’s intransigence, the future of the FTC’s present headquarters is likely going to remain a question mark for some time. For the present most tourists and visitors to the Mall and Federal Triangle can only appreciate it from the outside. My personal preference would be to tear down the National Gallery’s leaky, wastefully designed I.M. Pei building and try something else. As this is unlikely to happen, it stands to reason that of the buildings in its immediate vicinity, the FTC’s is the only existing structure which can serve the needs of the National Gallery for the next several decades.

“Man Controlling Trade” by Michael Lantz,
Federal Trade Commission, Washington DC

Georgetown’s Art Deco Landmark

Washington is a city which, regardless of who happens to be in power, has always been fairly conservative in its architectural choices, both for public and private spaces. Government buildings tend to be either classical, or utilitarian. Office complexes, due to building height restrictions, are often little more than what has come to be known as the K Street box. And while the odd heiress might build some extravagant home for herself, the residence will generally follow universally acceptable ideas of what a mansion ought to look like.

The city’s planning authorities are also notoriously difficult to deal with, because there are often many layers of bureaucracy one must wade through in order to obtain the proper permits. Just because you happen to get your proposal over one hurdle does not necessarily mean you will clear the next; the local neighborhood council and the National Capital Planning Commission may love your design, but the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts may send you back to the drawing board. It is not a surprise, given the local architectural climate and the often-complicated process required to get something built, that it has taken until now for a fashionable architect such as Frank Gehry to get something approved, awful as it may be.

In the early part of the 20th century, when matters were a bit looser and historic preservation was not yet fully a part of the national consciousness, it might in theory have been easier to be a trendy architect in D.C., except for the fact that Congress had vastly greater powers of control over the District. Congress, at least at that time, was not prone to come under the influence of hipsters. As a result, unlike in other major American cities, Washington does not have a great deal of good Art Nouveau or Art Deco architecture.

Truthfully, Art Nouveau was never quite as popular in the U.S. as it was in European cities such as Barcelona, Vienna, Paris, and Prague. Art Deco however, is an important element of style in many places, such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami. One can hardly imagine the streetscapes and neighborhoods of such places as Midtown Manhattan or South Beach without the very distinctive lines and curves of the Art Deco period.

However, there are a few Art Deco gems dotting the Washington landscape, and not surprisingly many of these tend to have been created for industrial uses. One of the best examples of this is the old Hecht’s Warehouse on New York Avenue, in the N.E. quadrant of the city. Today the Washington Business Journal is reporting that the site has fallen victim to the mortgage crisis, much as Georgetown Park and other proposed developments or redevelopments in the city have done, leaving the future of this very pleasing building uncertain.

Another late Art Deco structure a bit closer to home for the Courtier is the West Heating Plant, located on 29th Street NW in Georgetown near the Four Seasons Hotel. This federally-owned building was designed by William Dewey Foster, and constructed between 1946-1948; it was dedicated by President Truman upon completion and is now a National Historic Landmark. It stands like a great curving monolith of brick and glass near where the C&O Canal empties into the Potomac River at Georgetown Harbor.

There have been rumors that the Feds intend to sell or raze the building at some point, and over the years the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission has gone back and forth about advocating the removal of the plant. It would be hard to imagine that a Federally-designated historic structure would be torn down voluntarily for the sake of increased parkland. Certainly its outbuildings could go, and the main building remain, giving us not only more green space but also an interesting structure to work with.

Although the plant is rather incongruous both in style and scale with Georgetown’s mass of Federal and Victorian buildings, its location in the old industrial district and its (to my eye) very pleasing but simple exterior lines mean that it does not dominate the entire village. Perhaps when it comes to the end of its useful life, the government will consider turning it to a purpose for which grand old power plants such as this seem eminently suitable: a modern and contemporary art gallery. And by-the-by, the Courtier would love to have a tour of the interior at some point, should any of his readers know the powers that be at the GSA.

Such a great building, here featured by another village blogger