History of the Treasury Building

Content Image: First Treasury BuildingIn the first years of the American republic's existence, the federal government was located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1800, the federal 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.  Later it 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 first four 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 again burned by arsonists on March 31, 1833, with only the fireproof wing left standing.

Content Image: Placing ColumnsThe 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. Construction started on the west wing in 1855 and 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 tastes. Iron columns and beams reinforced the building's brick vaults, and the architectural detailing became much more ornate, following mid-nineteenth century fashion.

Content Image: Construction of North WingThe 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 Old Executive Office Building, which originally housed the State Department, the War Department and the Navy Department.

The north wing of the Treasury Building contains 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 parades and other state functions. There are 18 columns on the west side and ten each on the north and south sides.

Content Image: The Treasury BuildingThus, 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.  Early planning had the entire capital city facing the Washington Canal which at one time ran through downtown Washington where the National Mall is now located.   Because of its location, 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 Main Treasury Building has had a great impact on the design of other government buildings. At the time of its completion, it was one of the largest office buildings in the world. It is unquestionably a monument of continuing architectural and historic significance. The Treasury Building was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark on October 18, 1972.

Last Updated: 7/27/2011 1:42 PM