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United States Treasury

Built: 1842
Designed by: Robert Mills
Type: Government Building
Location: 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, United States
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Description by United States Department of the Treasury
I n the first years of the American republic's existence, the government was located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The new capital city of Washignton, DC, was authorized in the Constitution and built on the banks of the Potomac River. In 1800, the government moved to Washington, DC and the Department of the Treasury moved into a porticoed Gregorian-style building designed by an English architect, George Hadfield.

This structure was partially destroyed by fire in 1801, and was burned by the British in 1814, but was rebuilt by White House architect James Hoban. This building was identical to three others located on lots adjacent to the White House, each housing one of the four original departments of the U.S. Government: the State Department, the War Department, the Navy Department, and the Treasury Department. The Treasury Building, to the southeast of the White House, was burned by arsonists on March 31, 1833, with only the fireproof wing left standing.

Apparently for the three years after the 1833 fire that destroyed the second Treasury Building, the Department was without a home of its own. On July 4, 1836, Congress authorized the construction of a "fireproof building of such dimensions as may be required for the present and future accommodations" of the Treasury Department.

This legislation authorized the East and Center Wings. They were partially occupied in August 1839 and were completed in 1842. They were designed by Robert Mills, who was also the architect of the Washington Monument and the Patent Office Building. The most architecturally impressive feature of the Mills design is the east front colonnade running the length of the building.

Each of the 30 columns is 36 feet tall and was carved out of a single block of granite. The material for the original Wing was Acquia Creek freestone, which was largely replaced with granite in 1908. The interior design of the east and center wings is classically austere, in keeping with the Greek Revival style. Perhaps the building when completed in 1842 was an imposing structure for the time, but it fell short of providing accommodations for the future. Having cost less than $700,000, the building, which is now only a part of the east wing, contained 150 rooms.

It was found necessary in a few years to enlarge the building, and on March 3, 1855, Congress granted authority to extend the building, by appropriating $100,000. Construction of what is now the South Wing was begun in July 1855 and completed and occupied in September 1861. The west wing from 1855 was completed and occupied in 1864. The preliminary design of the wings was provided by Thomas Ustick Walter, architect of the dome of the U.S. Capitol, but construction began under the supervision of Ammi B. Young and from 1862 until 1867 by Isaiah Rogers. They each refined the plans, designed the interior details. While the exterior of the building was executed along the lines of the original Mills wings, the interiors of the later wings reflect changes in both building technology and aesthetic tasts. Iron columns and beams reinforced the building's brick vaults, and the architectural detailing became much more ornate, following mid-nineteenth century fashion.

The Department continued to grow, and construction began on the North Wing, the final addition to the Treasury Building in 1867. The Government building housing the Department of State was removed from the north area of the site in 1866-67 to make room for the North Wing. The architect of the North Wing was Alfred B. Mullett, who subsequently designed the State Department, the War Department and the Navy Building (now the Old Executive Office Building) located on the West side of the White House.

Similar in construction and decor to the south and west wings, the north wing is unique as the site of the Cash Room -- a two-story marble hall in which the daily financial business of the U.S. Government was transacted. The room was opened in 1869 as the site of President Ulysses S. Grant's Inaugural Ball. This wing was completed in 1869. The Attic story, now the Treasury Building's fifth floor, was added in 1910.

The stone used in the South Wing, the West Wing and the North Wing, was quarried on Dix Island, near Rockland, Maine, and transported in sailing vessels. The facades are adorned by monolithic columns of the Ionic order, each 36 feet tall and weighing 30 tons. Each column cost $5,000.

There are 34 of these pillars on the east side of the building facing Fifteenth Street, 30 of them forming a colonnade 341 feet long. This colonnade has for many years provided viewing space for inaugural arades and other state functions. There are 18 columns on the west side and ten each on the noth and south sides.

Thus, after more than a third of a century, the Treasury Building became the magnificent structure originally intended. One of the results of its expansion, though, was the violation of the original plan for the city -- to leave unobstructed the view from the White House to the Capitol.

The building as it is today is estimated to have cost approximately $8 million. Because early planning had the entire official city facing the canal which at one time ran through downtown Washington where the mall is now located, the south entrances of the Treasury Building, along with the south entrance of the White House, is the historical front entrance of the building.

The Treasury Building is the oldest departmental building in Washington, and the third oldest Federally occupied building in Washington, preceded only by the Capitol and the White House. The Main Treasury Building covers five stories and a raised basement and sits on 5 acres of ground. The building measures 466 feet north to south by 260 feet east to west.

A Statue of Alexander Hamilton, the 1st Secretary of the Treasury, is located on the south patio of the building, while a statue of Albert Gallatin, the 4th Secretary of the Treasury, is located on the north patio. Gallatin served the longest as Secretary, from 1801 until 1814. The grounds of the building -- rose gardens at the north and south ends and grass, magnolia trees and other plantings gracing the west side -- add much to the beauty of the building.

The Treasury Building is used primarily for executive offices, the Secretary of the Treasury and Deputy Secretary occupying suites on the third floor. Despite its size, the Building can accommodate only about 10 percent of all Treasury personnel located in Washington.

In the basement, there are 15 vaults ranging in size from 10 feet by 16 feet to 50 feet by 90 feet. Stored within these vaults at one time were currency, coins, bonds and securities. Also, most of the Nation's gold and silver bullion was also stored in the vaults. They were securely protected by combination and time locks and by an electrical protection system which alerted the captain of the guard, the United States Secret Service, and local police headquarters to any attempt to tamper with the locks or otherwise violate the security of the system. Partially because of these vaults, the building was protected by the Treasury Guard Force, supervised by the United States Secret Service. The Treasury Building is now protected by the United States Secret Service Uniform Protection Division. The basement also houses a pistol range used by the United States Secret Service and other enforcement personnel to maintain marksmanship. The rest of the basement area is used for maintenance equipment and personnel and store rooms.

Among the many interesting architectural features of the building are the unique stairways that appear to be suspended in midair. Actually, the steps are cut-worked granite and/or marble blocks cantilevered from structural alls, primarilly supported by the arch action of the steps.

  • For 55 days following the assassination of President Lincoln, President Andrew Johnson used of the offices (now the Andrew Johnson Suite) on the third floor. This allowed Mrs. Lincoln an opportunity to move from the White House. This room has changed little in appearance since President Johnson's administration.
  • The large Cash Room in the North Wing of the building was used on March 4, 1869, for the inaugural ball for President Grant's first inauguration. The Cash Room, the walls, window frames, and doors which are sold marble, is still a magnificent area, two stories high, with an atmosphere of dignity and tradition. When President Grant held his inaugural ball, gas jets along with North Columns spelled out "PEACE" in 9-foot high letters of flame.
  • During the Civil war, the Treasury Building was the point of last defense of the seat of government. The basement was converted into a fortress. Federal troops were billeted in the South Wing. When General Jubal A. Early's Confederate forces attacked Fort Stevens on the outskirts of town, a traned force of Treasury officials and employees left their desks and marched to the Fort to aid the Union Army.
  • During World War II, the vaults in the Treasury Building were provisioned and kept in 24-hour readiness to provide ventilated bomb-proof subterranean quarters for President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the event of air attack. These vaults were formerly used to store opium and precious metals.
  • One of the elevators dates from 1898. Once, after an important press conference, the elevator stalled between floors. The Secretary was rudely disturbed by the screams of the caged reporters. The Dow Jones man, who had taken the stairs, beat the AP man filing his story by 30 minutes that day.
  • Legend has it that the cornerstone of the Treasury Building contains a golden lock of hair of President Jackson's baby granddaughter, Mary Donelson, who was born at the White House.
  • 1875 - Mary, the then impoverished widow of Texas Congressman John A. Wilcox, walked from the railroad station to the White House to see President Grant. He appointed her to a position in the Treasury auditor's office, which she kept until her death in 1905.
  • 1877 - The first telephone is installed in the Treasury Building, as a private line from the White House.
  • October 18, 1972 - The Treasury Building was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark.
  • August 9, 1973 - Several murals were uncovered on the ceiling of a southweast office that was formerly occupied by the Secretary of the Treasury (the Salmon P. Chase Suite). These murals date from 1861 and resemble the mural art in the Capitol and may have been painted throughout offices in the South Wing.

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