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While concerts, gallery exhibits, dance recitals, theater productions, and other events around the District are canceled as part of the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, architecture still stands. Looking at buildings might be one of the last physical-distancing-appropriate forms of entertainment in the city. So, here’s an architecture review of a building that City Paper missed when it was first finished.
The end of the Civil War unleashed a voracious appetite for consumption in America, and the French were ready to feed it. The progressive architectural style of the Second Empire suited the pent-up demand in the United States, post-calamity, for mansions, museums, theaters, and other bourgeois urban affectations. At the same time that French culture was sweeping American department stores and standing up new museums, British bureaucracy served as a model for rebuilding the nation from its foundations.
The Old Executive Office Building, now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, whose construction was started in 1871, combined French soft power with British hard power. The largest building in Washington by the time it was completed in 1888, it housed the growing Departments of State, War, and the Navy. The Old Executive Office Building marked a shift in America’s ambition to stand shoulder to shoulder with the powers of the Old World. Yet the face of this effort—the Second Empire style—was doomed to be short lived, and forever linked with corruption.
“It expresses a moment in the 1870s when you have a growing idea of the government bureaucracy coupled with a momentary cultural moment of opulence,” says Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, describing the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, whose history he has chronicled in a monograph, Palace of State.
The Old Executive Office Building is not a faithful copy of Second Empire style. For that, look to the Renwick Gallery (designed originally, in 1858, to house the Corcoran Gallery of Art). Instead, the Old Executive Office Building was an extension of American power with the veneer of French sophistication. It was principally designed by Alfred Mullett, the supervising architect of the Treasury Department as of the end of the Civil War. Mullett was a hot-tempered, talented, and despotic figure whose fortunes rose and fell with the wave of Second Empire buildings in America.
In terms of its architecture, the Old Executive Office Building is thick. The building’s stout granite walls were built to withstand an inferno. Its understated detailing arguably takes a back seat to its sturdy construction. Cast iron sculptures and cornices run along the slate mansard roofs, and window frames and interior decorative elements also contribute to its fireproofing. Inside, white marble and black limestone line nearly two miles of hallways. Construction took nearly two decades.
The Old Executive Office Building’s most distinctive features—its tiered porticos and colonnades—give it the appearance of a palace. Yet the exterior is nowhere near as fussy as its European counterparts, or even the Renwick Gallery across the street. Paired Doric and Ionic columns emphasize line and order. The building’s restraint perhaps reflects a federal priority on steady craftsmanship over artisanal flourish. The building doesn’t lack decadence, however: The Indian Treaty Room, with its bronze scones and gold-leaf ornamentation, is still one of the richest rooms in D.C. Far from dour, the plum-colored mansard roofs and gray-green granite walls give the Old Executive Office Building the look of a wedding cake with sour-cream icing.
The Old Executive Office Building came after the Treasury Department building, a project completed in stages by Mullett and his predecessors, some of whom he antagonized. At one point Mullett called the Treasury an “unworthy sham,” according to the architectural historian Lawrence Wodehouse. (Decades later, architects tried twice to reclad the building to make it look more like Treasury, but both campaigns failed.) Mullett made a lot of enemies, and his combative style did him few favors.
The State–War–Navy building arguably undid its architect. By the time its construction was underway, Mullett’s office was linked to a scandal associated with the so-called Granite Ring, a consortium of quarry companies in Maine that bought off senators in order to rig bids for federal projects. It’s not clear that Mullett himself was ever involved with the Granite Ring, but the scandal ultimately consumed him and his successors in office.
“The Second Empire style is known as the General [Ulysses S.] Grant style to some,” Luebke says. “Inevitably, there’s some association between that architectural expression and that administration.”
Mullett was forced to resign his post under the weight of growing public scrutiny. Out of office, he fought to regain his reputation as well as financial compensation he said he was due for the State–War–Navy building. His trial against the government dragged on for a decade and a half. After he lost his battle in court, in 1890, Mullett took his own life.
By then, the Old Executive Office Building was two years old—and decidedly out of fashion. At the turn of the century, the reputation and standing of this building and other once-trendy projects plummeted; in the 1930s, they were bulldozed left and right. Fewer than half the Second Empire buildings that popped up in Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, New York, and St. Louis during this post-war era survived the Gilded Age.
Behind the stately magnolias that grow in its courtyard, the Old Executive Office Building has come into its own as a fortress of American authority. Up until the current president took over the Old Post Office Building for the Trump International Hotel, there was little competition for the Old Executive Office Building as a symbol for power, luxury, and corruption. In its own day, it was a demonstration of both excess and sobriety—and above all, ambition.
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