How GAO Built Its Dream House

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Chapter 7, How the War Stopped Construction of a GAO Building

While documents show no recorded objections by GAO to the Southwest location, its officials continued to press for a more centrally located headquarters site downtown. In October 1940 Congress authorized $9,850,000 for the acquisition of Square 518, the block across from the Pension Building, for a GAO headquarters building. The Commission of Fine Arts and the national capital planning commissioners considered plans for a limestone-faced six-story GAO building with a "fishbone" structure, consisting of a central section and flanking wings. The use of wings would allow the maximum amount of natural daylight into the offices. Preliminary sketches show a building similar to that built in 1936 for the Department of Interior on the Mall.

Scene from block of current GAO building as it appeared in 1941   St. Mary's church as it appeared around 1941

St. Mary's Catholic Church stands on the northwest corner of Square 518 at 5th and H Streets, N.W.   Although Square 518 presently is in the Chinatown section of Washington, the neighborhood was home to many German-American businessmen from the 1860s until well after World War II.  Photographs suggest that there also were several businesses in the area that were owned by Greek-Americans.

Some local historians believe that land at 5th and H Streets was donated for construction of a church in order to attract more Germans to the neighborhood during the latter part of the nineteenth century. St. Mary's heard confessions in German as late as 1961. Only with the destruction for redevelopment in 1931 of a Chinatown then located at 4th and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. did Chinese-American merchants begin to move into the neighborhood near Square 518. St. Mary’s was so well established in the neighborhood, planning officials did not hold out much hope for buying the church property. In they end, they designed the GAO building around the church. The proposed building measured 640 feet on G Street and 400 feet on H Street.

Photo: aerial view of Pension Building and Square 518, 1940. Record Group 373, Union Station, 1940, NARA. Square 518 in 1940 from exhibit, "Washington:  Behind the Monuments," courtesy Emily Soapes, former Chief, Exhibits Branch, National Archives and Records Administration, 1990.

Square 518 contained a number of brick and frame row houses, small "mom and pop"-type stores, restaurants, garages, warehouses, stables, and a parking lot. The block was bisected near St. Mary's Church by G Place, which ran from 4th to 5th Streets.  The aerial photograph dates from 1940.  The Pension Building is visible between F and G Streets.  Square 518 fills the block between G and H Streets, with G Place splitting the block near St. Mary's Church.

In 1941, the government purchased plots from the individual property owners and razed the structures. The Commissioners of the District of Columbia closed and vacated G Place up to the point where the St. Mary's church property began. Only a small alley, still marked as G Place, NW, remains next to the church property at the beginning of the 21st century as a reminder of a street that once cut through the entire block.

Empty contstruction lot on Square 518, 1940sPhoto from the Washington Star Collection, Washingtoniana Division, D.C. Public Library

No sooner had excavation begun than it had to stop because of the United States' entry into World War II on December 7, 1941. GAO could not get priority for building materials during wartime, and the construction site remained an empty lot, except for the church, until 1949.

GAO's employees were squeezed into office buildings and warehouses at 20 different sites throughout the Washington area.  They sometimes worked under difficult conditions during the war. Comptroller General Warren expressed concern about records "filed or stored largely on temporary wooden shelves, unprotected from dust, insects, and rodents, in buildings beset with fire and water hazards." Washington's summer heat caused problems as well. In an article headlined, "Sell the Grub First," The Washington Times-Herald reported on July 21, 1942, that heat in a GAO warehouse at First and M Streets, N.W., reached 100 degrees by 10:30 a.m. Employees were not dismissed until 1:15 p.m., after the cafeteria had disposed of its lunchtime stock. The newspaper added that in the meantime, there reportedly were 52 "calls to the sick room."

It would have been reasonable to expect that after the war ended, Congress soon would appropriate funds for a GAO building.  However, the way in which the war ended caused further delays in public works projects.  Caught short by the dropping of the atomic bomb, which had been developed in tight secrecy, government planners struggled with the transition to a peacetime economy.  Lacking knowledge of the bomb, economists and other officials had anticipated an end to the war in 1946, not 1945. Construction supplies and spending remained tight after the war ended in August 1945. After lifting controls over building materials in the U.S. in October 1945, Truman found he had to re-impose them a few months later, as returning veterans confronted a huge housing shortage.  Homes for GIs and emergency construction projects received priority consideration while GAO continued to wait for a building.

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