How GAO Built Its Dream House

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Chapter 2, Where to Put Workers and Their Cars

Why did the General Accounting Office have to wait so long?  To a large extent, the delay was due to enormous competition for tight office space in the capital city.  The reasons lie in the great changes that took place in Washington during the first half of the twentieth century.

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, there were 48,313 federal employees in the capital city. The number more than doubled to 106,000 during the next two years. Although the amount went down after the war, it rose again during the next few decades.  As government expanded, federal employment climbed to 137,940 by 1940.

Even before wartime expansion brought an influx of new employees into Washington in 1918, many government departments and agencies struggled to house their workers.  We now take for granted the large clusters of government buildings in Washington--in the Federal Triangle area between 6th and 14th Streets, N.W., in the Southwest portion of the city, and in the Northwest Rectangle.  But when GAO started operations in 1921, these clusters did not yet exist.  A few departments had their own buildings near the White House and the parkland of the national Mall but many operated out of leased space.

Responding to pleas for relief from government officials, the newly formed Commission of Fine Arts approved a plan in 1919 for new buildings for the Departments of State, Justice and Commerce and Labor to be built at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. Congress did not appropriate funds for this proposed public works project. Many government employees continued to work in cramped offices, some in rented space, throughout the Washington metropolitan area.

This is the situation GAO faced when it started operations. When the Office first began work in 1921, it employed 1,708 people. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the federal government to carry out his New Deal programs, federal employment rose, reaching 108,673 in 1935. Inundated with more and more paperwork, GAO had to hire new workers. By 1936, its staff numbered 4,401. As GAO and other agencies grew in size, federal and city planners struggled to house government offices. It wasn’t easy. Planning officials had to consider the cost of acquiring land, the building density in city neighborhoods, and parking options.  Many planners agreed that the most promising site for building was south of Pennsylvania Avenue near the Mall.  However, there were few other sites available for large public works projects in the heart of the city.

Most agencies wanted to be located in the city center, but a rise in automobile traffic and lack of parking spaces caused serious problems for planners as they looked at sites in downtown Washington.   At the start of the 1920s, few people drove in the capital city and the speed limit in the city was only 22 miles per hour.  Some people used streetcars, but many still walked to and from work.  As families moved further into the suburbs during the 1920s, more and more commuters began to use cars.  Even then, it seemed as if many Washington area workers preferred to use their own cars to drive to work.  In 1929, only 34 percent of people riding to work in the capital city used public transportation, a much smaller percentage than in other cities of comparable size.

Planners worried about congestion as drivers parked wherever they could, even on the green expanse of the Mall and on the "Ellipse" below the White House. The Fine Arts Commission protested in the 1920s that the "entire Mall has become an open-air garage; in the Department of Agriculture grounds automobiles are parked on the grass."

In 1926, officials approved plans for an enormous public works project on a triangle of land along Pennsylvania Avenue between 6th and 15th Streets. There was fierce competition for space in this prime spot. The original plans for this Federal Triangle complex pencilled in a spot for a GAO building but this soon was removed from the design. Although GAO lost out on space in the Federal Triangle, its officials continued to push for construction of a headquarters, either on Capitol Hill or near Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1922 and again 1931, Congress considered plans to build a headquarters building for GAO on Capitol Hill but nothing came of the proposals.

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