How GAO Built Its Dream House

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Chapter 8, Congress Approves a Building for GAO

In October 1945, a bill for a GAO headquarters building was introduced in the House of Representatives. However, because money for construction was tight, Congress in 1946 asked GAO to keep waiting. Comptroller General Warren and his deputy continued to press their case for a new headquarters. In 1947, Assistant Comptroller General Frank L. Yates explained to Congress how difficult it was to work out of 21 different buildings:

". . . every action of the Office must be taken upon one record, an accounting record. It might be a contract; it might be a disbursing officer's account; a voucher, a check, or a claim, or a report of investigation, and the severe handicap arises from the fact that many times the record that is wanted in one part of the Office to enable the preparation of a decision, in another part for the preparation of a reported investigation, and yet another part for the settlement of a claim, cannot be in all those places at once, so the work has to be held up until that record can be carried from one building, perhaps in Alexandria or out at Friendship, over near the Sears, Roebuck Building, back and forth, from place to place."

Warren told Congress on April 23, 1947, that GAO was faced with a "critical situation" because some of its buildings were "not fit for human beings to work in. . . some of them are insanitary and some of them could be classed as firetraps." The Comptroller General said, "We are the agent of Congress, and we now think it is high time that the Congress looks after its child, at least so far as giving us proper housing is concerned." Before taking charge of GAO, Warren represented North Carolina in Congress for eight terms and briefly served as Acting Majority Leader. He and GAO were held in high esteem by legislators and the Comptroller General's pleas found a sympathetic audience in the Congress.

Finally, in 1948, Congress approved $22,850,000 for the construction. President Harry S. Truman signed Public Law 533 on May 18, 1948. The next year Congress passed supplementary legislation increasing the funding to $25,400,000. Authorization for a building represented a significant achievement for GAO. As historian Roger Trask noted in 1996, "By its willingness to give GAO sufficient funding and staff and, ultimately, an imposing new building, Congress signaled its recognition of GAO's contributions and its support for the Office."

Construction site of GAO's headquarters building, ca. 1940
John McShain, Inc., a well-known Philadelphia construction firm, won the contract for building GAO's headquarters. Construction began in 1949 and finished in 1951. Office space in Washington, already tight, again was affected by a military build-up, as the Korean conflict flared up. The General Services Administration (GSA) negotiated a deal with the McShain company that allowed GAO employees to move into sections of the building as they were completed. On September 28, 1950, the Commissioner of the Public Buildings Service (PBS) asked the General Accounting Office to consider temporarily occupying part of the east end of the partially constructed building, thus freeing up some space in the Pension Building for defense needs. As meeting minutes show, GAO’s officials debated whether they should accept. They concluded that it would be best to move into the structure as "actual occupancy would give GAO 'squatters' rights, thereby preventing its being considered for assignment to some other agency."

Although GAO agreed to the first interim move, officials later expressed concern about "habitability and working conditions" in a building still under construction. In April 1951, the Office rebuffed a subsequent request by PBS to move in more employees. GAO’s officials objected because drilling and installation of partitions was to be done during office hours. On May 11, 1951, Assistant Comptroller General Yates informed GAO's executive officer that "no further moves to interim space are to be considered-that is, no moves except to space which the moving unit is scheduled to occupy permanently when the building is wholly completed." He added, "moves of units even to space to be occupied permanently will not be made where work remaining to be completed during working hours will disrupt functioning of the units such as the drilling for and installation of runners for metal partitions."

In the end, PBS worked out a compromise.  Mr. Yates noted that Commissioner [W. E.] Reynolds "advised me . . . that he has arranged with the partition contractor to complete all drilling work and all installation of the partition runners at night. This will leave only the placing of the partitions in the runners during office hours and for such hammering as may be required rubber hammers will be used."

The Comptroller General shared his view of the new headquarters building in a letter sent to all employees. He told them that "in addition to strengthening the Office so that its operations may be conducted with increased economy and efficiency, this consolidation provides a means of renewing old acquaintances and molding us into one big family." He explained that

". . . we were urged to move into our new building several months ahead of the contract completion date due to the critical space situation. Consequently, we have all had to endure many inconveniences and discomforts, some of which might not be remedied until the structure is entirely completed. However, when it is considered that over 1,000,000 square feet of space will have been made available to the National Defense Program months in advance of the scheduled completion date of the building, I feel sure that each of you will take such inconveniences and discomforts in stride. It will not be too long before we can settle down in our permanent quarters and enjoy the many modern facilities that our new home will provide."

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