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U.S. Department of the Interior
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History of the Main Interior Building

Inception Phase—Through Design

The Department of the Interior was the first building in Washington, D.C. authorized, designed, and built by the Roosevelt Administration. Construction began in April of 1935 and was completed in December of 1936 - a record time for the building of a federal structure of its size and complexity.

Plans for a new building to contain the principal offices and agencies of the Department were realized during the first term of Secretary Harold L. Ickes. When Ickes was sworn in on March 4, 1933, as the 32nd Secretary (1933-46), the Department had outgrown the old Interior Building (now the General Services Administration Building), between E and F Streets and 18th and 19th Streets, NW.

Even with offices in 15 additional buildings around Washington, D.C., employees were overcrowded and morale was low. Acutely aware of problems resulting from rented offices scattered throughout the city, Ickes undertook the task of finding a more suitable  arrangement.

In November 1933, President Roosevelt gave Secretary Ickes permission to take over the soon-to-be finished Interstate Commerce Building in the Federal Triangle. However, this required an Act of Congress. Since that seemed highly unlikely, FDR Recommended that funds be appropriated for a new building to be specifically designed and constructed to meet the requirements of the Department. In 1934 the Administrator of Public Works, with the approval of the President, allotted $12,740,000 for a new Interior building. Three sites were considered: the first was on the Mall facing constitution Avenue between 12th and 14th Streets, NW (today, the site of the Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution): the second was a cluster of small lots on the east, west, and north sides of the old Interior Building; and the third was just south of the old Interior building and Rawlins Park.

On March 21, 1934, the third proposed site just south of the existing structure and Rawlins Square was selected. This plot, including the area between 18th and 19th Streets and C and E Streets, NW represented one of the few double-block sites in the city where an intervening street (D) could be eliminated for development.

Waddy B. Wood, a prominent Washington, D.C., architect was selected to design the new Interior Building. Mr. Woods's work was concentrated in a rapidly growing city; his designs centered on the historic styles; and his philosophy was one that disdained attempts against the traditional as forced and wasteful. 


Building Economy, Safety and User Utility—Secretary Ickes Vision

Secretary Ickes' influence went beyond that of the typical client/architect relationship, as reflected in the following quote from the Washington Daily News, January 9, 1937: "Secretary Ickes has a paternal concern for the new Interior Building. He designed
most of it himself, and financed it through PWA." This statement is not far from the truth. Although, Ickes did not design the building, the innovative characteristics and special features was largely a product o his input tin the planning, design, and construction stages of the new building.

"Utility and economy" were the principles that guided the design of the new Interior Building. Among the most significant aspects were the spacious central corridors, the open courtyards, the movable steel office partitions, the acoustically treated ceilings, an
entire floor reserved for mechanical equipment, and the fireproof design. Every element of the building's plan and architectural and decorative detail was considered carefully to allow for a useful building of practical simplicity.

Concern for the employee's comfort and needs were of prime considerations at all levels of planning. As a result, the new Interior Building became one of the most functional and innovative government office structures in Washington, D.C., during the 1930's.

Secretary Ickes was progressive and open to new ideas and technologies. After he had air-conditioning installed in his office in the old Interior Building, he regretted that all personnel could not have it. Ickes' insistence that central air be included throughout the
new structure resulted in the first such system in a large government building. As reported by Ickes at a cabinet meeting, the Interior Building not only cost less per square foot than those of the Federal Triangle, but also cost 10 to 15 percent les to operate-even with air conditioning.

Since the Interior building was to be two blocks in length, it was important that effective and efficient maintenance and fire protection systems be designed. Facilities and operation programs were planned to reduce maintenance and to keep operation cost minimal. Plans included a central vacuum system and a floor between the fifth and sixth floors to contain mechanical equipment- plumbing, electrical panels, telephone equipment rooms, and central air-conditioning. The new Interior building was designed with protective fire and security systems. An automatic sprinkler system was installed in the parking garage and storage areas, and a fire detection system covered the mechanical floor. Eleven stairways were also included in the structure to allow rapid evacuation of employees in the event of fire or emergency.

An original feature of the Interior Building, which has added immeasurably to the total ambience of this working place over the years, was the inclusion of spaces designed for group assembly and employee amenities. Most such spaces evolved as a result of the efforts of Secretary Ickes. They included the conference Hall (Auditorium), the Activity Space (Gymnasium), the Cafeteria with courtyard, the Employees Lounge (South Penthouse, now offices) with soda fountain, the Museum, the Art Gallery (currently offices), the Indian Arts and Crafts Shop, the Broadcasting Studio (North Penthouse), and the parking garage. Their architectural detailing and embellishments were given special attention and, in most instances, they are still used for their original purpose.

Architecture and Art

Although the designers placed considerable emphasis on the functionalism of the building, the architectural and decorative details were not over-looked. The Interior Building is not excessively ornate, but the quality of decorative detailing, such as the bronze grilles and hardware, the lighting fixtures, and the plaster moldings, reflects the architect's and his client's concern for design materials, and craftsmanship. Like most buildings designed for a specific purpose of organization, the building's architectural details often included the symbols of the Department in their design, such as the door hardware featuring the buffalo motif.

Ickes was a great proponent of the arts, which is immediately apparent upon entering any if the central corridors. The structure contains more Public Work Administration (PWA) artwork than any other government building and it is second only to the Post Office building (Franklin Street Station), Washington, D.C., in the number of artist who executed the work under that program.

Involved in every step of the development of all the artwork, the Secretary reviewed preliminary sketches and often provided valuable critiques. He inspected all full-size mural cartoons taped on walls and frequently requested changes, especially the content of the message in the mural. He was each work of art as a medium to expound upon the administration's philosophy of conservation or to portray one of the programs of the Interior Department. He inspected murals painted in the building daily (some were painted in studios and brought to the buildings for installation). No mural was complete until Ickes approved it.

Part of the Interior Building's significance lies in its concept. The building reflects the dedication and commitment to government service of people such as Harold L. Ickes and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and their unfaltering belief in the "new day." Ickes placed utmost importance on this meaning of the Interior Building - to the extent that in his official portrait the plans for the new structure are lying on the table in front of him.


About This Project:

The Main Interior Building (MIB), located at 1849 C Street NW, has been undergoing a major renovation since November 2002. The primary purpose of the MIB renovation is to improve the quality of life and ensure optimum habitability for all Department of the Interior (DOI) occupants. The building, which encompasses more than 1.3 million square feet, is receiving a major overhaul and will be completely modernized in areas including environmental health and safety; life safety; accessibility; technology; security; and environmental responsibility. Extensive work is being performed to restore and preserve the historic integrity of the building as new systems are put in place. When complete, this 1930s-era building will boast state-of-the-art health and safety features. The modernization project is being managed by DOI in tandem with the General Services Administration.

The Original Project Management Plan (PMP) for the Modernization of the Main Interior Building dates back to 1992. Even in those very early days, the renovation was always planned to occur in phases so that the Main Interior Building could remain occupied and functional. In 1995 the move management plans considered 12 separate construction phases. By 1996 the construction document were 100% complete. In FY 2000 Congress authorized funding for GSA to begin construction. Grunley Construction Company was awarded the contract for the first of six phases, however, just after the sixth wing was vacated, the events of September 11, 2001 prompted a need for the DOI's swing space and the project was delayed by approximately one year while the National Park Service moved back into the building and the search for a new swing space started all over. New swing space was acquired at 1201 I Street and finally in November of 2002, ten years after the development of the first PMP, work was able to begin in the sixth wing.