How GAO Built Its Dream House

Return to Table of Contents < Previous Page | Next Chapter >

Chapter 1, A Novel Design for GAO's Headquarters Building

The year was 1946.  Government planning officials were studying the proposed design for a new headquarters building for the General Accounting Office (GAO).   The Office’s needs were obvious.  GAO’s employees and records were crammed into 21 different buildings in the capital city during the 1940s.  Congress supported the effort to house the General Accounting Office, a legislative branch agency created in 1921 to keep a watchful eye on federal spending.  Planning officials also wanted to move ahead with the project, but they raised a yellow caution flag.  Would some employees feel claustrophobic in the new building?

The plans called for a block style building, filling most of the area between 4th and 5th Streets and G and H Streets in the Northwest section of Washington, D.C. Back in 1946, a block design was a novel, untested concept for so large a structure.   Engineers believed they could make it work by relying on air conditioning and artificial lighting.  The supervising architect would later note that the building "couldn't have been built without air conditioning. . . . the thing that made the new GAO block-type building possible was air conditioning."

Although modern air conditioning was developed in the early twentieth century, many public buildings were uncooled until after World War II ended in 1945.  Washington’s heat could be severe.  Congress used to adjourn early because its uncooled chambers and offices were too uncomfortable to permit working through the entire summer.  Air conditioning began to be seen in some movie theaters and department stores in parts of the United States during the 1920s and 1930s.   Residential cooling lagged behind until the availability of inexpensive window box units helped homeowners counter summer's heat in the early 1950s.

In the days before air conditioning, federal office buildings were designed with interior courtyards and wings, to allow for maximum ventilation and light.  Had war not intervened, GAO’s employees would have been lodged in such a building.  Earlier plans for a GAO headquarters at 4th and G Street had relied on traditional architectural and engineering methods.  The designs called for a  "fishbone" style structure with a central spine and interior courts.  The government acquired property for a General Accounting Office building and cleared the land but the United States’ entry into World War II in December 1941 put a stop to construction.   The need to use resources for wartime priority projects forced public works officials to shelve their plans for GAO.

Photo - original design for a GAO building, 1941
Original 1941 Design for the GAO Building
If the United States had not entered World War II in December 1941, GAO’s employees now would be working in a structure that looks like this

Due to advances in air conditioning technology, engineers believed it would be possible to do away with wings and courtyards as they considered new designs for GAO after the war ended in 1945. They drew up a plan in 1946 for a block style headquarters structure. This was so novel, local newspapers considered it newsworthy. The Washington Evening Star explained to readers that plans for a new GAO building called for a "solid building," without courtyards.  The concept was untested and some planning officials wondered whether such a structure would prove claustrophobic for employees. The commissioner of the Public Buildings Administration assured the Commission of Fine Arts in 1946 that "we hope to overcome the effects of claustrophobia" by having low partitions in the interior space "so that you can see the daylight and landscape, which apparently the doctors say is all that is needed."

Image of front page of THE WATCHDOG, GAO employee association newspaper, 1948Although the commissioners and engineers gave the go-ahead for a block style structure, some members of the public remained skeptical about the proposal. A concerned citizen wrote to the editors of The Washington Star in 1947 about the design. He noted with dismay that employees well might "spend their entire working lives in such a building" and asked, "Is this humane?" However, more knowledgeable observers accepted the assurances of engineers that the idea would work and applauded the novel, modern design of the proposed building. News accounts pointed to comfortable "human features" such as the interior escalators and multiple banks of elevators, the air conditioning and indirect lighting, the centrally located cafeteria, and the "acoustically treated" office spaces. In 1948, an article in The Washington Post explained that a 22 million dollar "Dream House" would assemble the heretofore "scattered GAO" in a structure filling almost an entire city block.

GAO was a well-established agency at this point.  It was created in 1921 as part of an effort to improve government financial management after World War I.  As the government’s accountability watchdog, it worked with nearly every federal agency.  Construction of GAO's headquarters began in 1949.  By the time President Harry S. Truman attended dedication ceremonies for the structure on September 11, 1951, thirty years had passed since the establishment of the General Accounting Office in 1921. The Office grew in size greatly between 1921 and 1951 as it handled more and more work.  Despite its expansion, GAO had a long wait before it could consolidate its employees in a headquarters building.

The agency’s chief commented on the delay during a Congressional hearing.  Comptroller General Lindsay C. Warren, who headed GAO from 1940 to 1954, noted in 1947 that "we have sat there for years and have seen the executive branch of the Government become properly housed, and the parade has gone by as far as we have been concerned."

Return to Table of Contents < Previous Page | Next Chapter >