How GAO Built Its Dream House

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Chapter 9, The President Lays the Cornerstone for GAO's Building

GAO's new headquarters building was dedicated on September 11, 1951. President Harry S. Truman attended the ceremony and laid the cornerstone. In his speech, the President talked about the perception by government officials that GAO was "a bugaboo that keeps them from doing what they want to do" and that many people outside the government considered GAO "a dry and boring subject." The President assured his audience that "the General Accounting Office is neither a bugaboo nor a bore. It is a vital part of our Government. Its work is of great benefit to all of us. The people who run the General Accounting Office certainly deserve these new and better quarters." He congratulated GAO for handling "the biggest auditing job in the history of mankind."

President Truman laying cornerstone of GAO headquartes building, 9/11/51

Comptroller General Warren stood next to President Truman as he laid the GAO building’s cornerstone

The building's cornerstone is located to the right of the G Street entrance door. Inscribed on it are several names, including President Truman, Comptroller General Warren, and builder John McShain. Sealed within the cornerstone are commemorative items: copies of addresses given by Truman and Warren at the September 11, 1951 dedication ceremony; construction photos; current issues of coins and postage stamps; the 1951 GAO telephone directory; the fiscal year 1951 federal budget in brief; GAO’s 1950 annual report; and a September 11, 1951, Washington newspaper.

At the time it opened, the GAO building was the largest air-conditioned structure in the capital city. In the greater Washington area, only the Pentagon in suburban Northern Virginia then surpassed GAO's building in size. A historic structures report prepared for GSA in 1990 noted that the completed building covered a ground area of 209,200 square feet and appeared as "a solid block set squarely on the ground" with walls that "rise sheer and unadorned."

A fact sheet prepared at the time of the building dedication explained that GAO's new headquarters:

• had a total gross area of 1,935,500 square feet, and a volume of 25,862,00 cubic feet,

• had over 1,000 windows,

• measured 638 feet on G Street and 388 feet on 4th Street,

• provided parking for approximately 800 cars in its garage,

• had a cafeteria on the third floor that was equipped to serve 7,500 meals a day,

• was served by twelve passenger elevators, two escalators "to handle the peak morning and afternoon loads" and four freight elevators. The escalators served floors one through five, and remained operational until the early 1990s.

Model of GAO building, 1949, showing proposed outdoor sculpture

This model of the GAO building from 1949 shows that architects originally envisioned placing outdoor sculptures at the corners of the structure

Inside, the interior reflects a style popular in the late 1940s, when architects and designers drew up plans for the building. The style is called Art Moderne or Late Depression Modern. It is similar to the stylized Art Deco design popularized in the 1920s, but is somewhat more austere and streamlined. The lst floor elevator lobbies in GAO’s building reflect Art Moderne style in the use of stylized lotus motifs and the repetitive groupings of horizontal lines and geometric shapes.

Planning officials considered putting outdoor sculptures at the corners of the building, but decided in the end simply to landscape the areas. Although they recommended placing murals in the entrance lobbies, budget difficulties prevented GAO from carrying out these plans. Bas relief sculptures designed by Joseph Kiselewski adorn the G Street entrance. However, GAO could not find the money to finish similar decorations designed by Lee Lawrie for the H Street entrance.

The panels at the G Street entrance show professional people and laborers. On April 25, 1952, The Evening Star described the new bas-reliefs. In an article headlined, "Brief Case Boys Cut in Granite at New GAO Building Entrance," The Star took note of one figure:

"The brief case boys, familiar figures on the Washington scene, have been immortalized in sculpture. One of their number forms part of two sculptured panels flanking the south entrance on G street N.W. of the new General Accounting Office Building. Toting his brief case, he is carved in enduring granite. About 30 figures on the two panels symbolize the various activities of Government on which the GAO rides herd. The man with the brief case symbolizes the business activities of Government and Government's relations with private business. He is not tagged, however. The observer, therefore, may write his own ticket. The man with the brief case may be regarded as an harassed businessman summoned before a congressional committee. Or a happy businessman with a government contract in the brief case. Or a Government official on his way to a policy-making huddle with other officials."

Elevator in main lobby, GAO buildingInside the building, the elevator doors contain aluminum bas-reliefs by Heinz Warneke, a German sculptor who moved to the United States in 1925.  They reflect the Art Moderne style popular in the late 1940s.  Warneke's elevator door panels represent the spirit of laws, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, liberty, justice, internal development, national ideology, and national security. Smaller panels around the framework of the sliding elevator doors represent sunlight, rain, snow, wind, hydrography, energy-matter, geology, and astronomy.  The photograph above shows the original Art Moderne elements in the elevator lobby on the G Street side of the GAO building.  When GAO undertook an extensive modernization of interior space in the 1990s, designers echoed the original Art Moderne style in new doorways and light fixtures throughout the building.

Elevator lobby, GAO building, reflecting original 1949 design Newly renovated hallway, 1999, echoing Art Moderne elements

The new design for a hallway renovated in the 1990s reflects the GAO
building’s original "Art Moderne" style

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