Skip to main content

Architecture and Government

Between 1852 and 1939, under the oversight of the Supervisory Architect of the Treasury, important federal buildings were designed by leading American architects such as Robert Mills, Cass Gilbert and John Russell Pope. The oldest buildings in the inventory (1810) are stately but simple custom houses, post offices, and office buildings constructed of brick and stone. Pre-Civil War monumental public buildings were clad in stone or stucco, with dignified, not richly embellished, facades and elegant interior features such as ornamental iron staircases and groin vaulted ceilings, but minimal public entry space. Eight percent of GSA’s historic public buildings were constructed before 1900.

Dwight Eisenhower Executive Office Building
Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB)
Washington, DC.
Constructed 1871-88; Architect: Alfred B. Mullett

Following the Civil War, as the government sought to reunite a divided populace, the Supervisory Architect constructed grand public buildings intended to express the power, stability, and graciousness of the federal government. The Post Office and Custom House in St. Louis and the State, Navy, and War Building (now the Dwight D. Eisenhower Old Executive Office Building) in Washington DC, both completed in the 1870s, were granite edifices set aloft on high platforms, with column-enriched entrance pavilions and statuary setting them apart from surrounding commercial buildings. Toward the end of the century, sturdy Romanesque post offices and courthouses with campanile towers of rough cut stone, segmental arched entrances, and vast skylit work rooms quickly came into, and went out of, fashion, soon supplanted by classical white monuments popularized by the century’s last World’s Fair.

Most (85%) of GSA’s historic buildings were constructed between 1900 and 1941, years of great progress in technology, civic planning, and American emergence as a leader in western popular culture. The Chicago Exposition of 1893, with classical pavilions glowing in Edison’s new electric lights, spurred the city beautiful movement that substantially shaped the government’s approach to public building until after World War II.

Public buildings after the turn of the century were often planned as part of larger public building complexes, often grouping important civic buildings around landscaped public spaces. Federal public buildings embodied the Beaux Arts design principals of sophisticated proportioning and space planning, with monumental entrances leading to finely finished public lobbies and well proportioned corridors that graciously welcomed citizens visiting the offices of the federal government. Public building facades, most commonly clad in white limestone or marble, faithfully recreated classical and renaissance models associated with the great democracies of Greek and Rome.

Great Depression: Boom Years in Government Construction

Over half of GSA’s historic buildings were constructed during the Great Depression.  During this time, an expanded federal construction program continued to maintain high standards for public building construction. Public building architects began introducing the new esthetic of industrial design, combining classical proportions with streamlined, Art Deco detailing. Integrated into many of these buildings were sculptural details, murals and statuary symbolizing or depicting important civic activities taking place inside. A major legacy of this era is the body of populist civic art commissioned under the Works Progress Administration program. It is a testimony to the durability of these buildings that most of them remain in GSA’s inventory and continue to serve the functions for which they were built.

James T. Foley U.S. Courthouse, Albany, NY
James T. Foley U.S. Courthouse,
Albany, New York.
Constructed 1932-34;
Architect: Gander, Gander, and Gander

President Truman created the General Services Administration in 1949 to oversee the federal government's immense building management and general procurement functions at a same time when the federal government was experiencing tremendous growth. Between 1960 and 1976, GSA undertook more than 700 projects in towns across the United States.

Architects of this era embraced modernist design as more efficient, up to date, and technologically honest. Concerned, however that the caliber of federal construction was declining, in 1962, President Kennedy convened an Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space whose “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” would articulate a new philosophy that continues to guide the design of public buildings today. This initiative called for design that reflected “the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American National government, [placing] emphasis…on the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought.”

Robert Weaver Federal Building, Washington, DC
Robert C. Weaver Federal Building (HUD)
Washington, DC.
Constructed 1965-68; Architect: Marcel Breuer.

When GSA built Modern at its best, it produced strikingly contemporary designs by modern masters – Marcel Breuer’s sweeping Washington DC headquarters building for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Mies van der Rohe’s sleek Federal Center in Chicago and Victor Lundy’s boldly sculptural U.S. Tax Court Building in Washington. However, as the government sought to house legions of federal workers and to achieve the goals of standardization, direct purchase, mass production, and fiscal savings, economy and efficiency were often stronger driving forces than architectural distinction. The majority of buildings GSA constructed prior to and during the period reflect typical office design of their time. Although few GSA modernist buildings meet the National Register criteria of exceptional significance required for buildings under 50 years old, some will become eligible when they reach 50, because of important historic events that have taken place within them, because they represent significant architectural types, or because they will, in time, meet other National Register eligibility criteria.

Design Excellence Program Established

GSA’s Design Excellence Program, established in 1992, is grounded in the philosophy that federal buildings should be symbolic of what government is about, not just places where public business is conducted. Today, as the principal builder for the civilian federal government, GSA’s goal is to shape this legacy and the way people regard their government through its public buildings. Consistent with the Guiding Principals of Federal Architecture, the program encourages design that embodies the finest contemporary American architectural thought and which also reflects regional architectural traditions, to provide high quality, cost-effective, and lasting public buildings for the enjoyment of future generations.

Please see GSA's order of procedures for historic properties ADM 1020.2, dated October 19, 2003, and search the Historic Federal Building Database to learn about all of GSA's historic buildings.

Historic Buildings, Preservation