By Frank Leone
The Federal Triangle gets all the attention. That sliver of federal buildings (15th to 6th Streets, where Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues meet) even has its own Metro Station. But Foggy Bottom has a more impressive section of imposing and historic federal buildings – the Northwest Rectangle. Bordered by Constitution Avenue and E Street, and running from 17th to 23rd Streets, the area features monumental buildings north of the Mall and east of the Ellipse and several parks, statues, and New Deal buildings within the Rectangle.
Formally designated as the “Northwest Rectangle” in 1937, the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission identified the area as a location for a grouping of U.S. government buildings in 1931. The Northwest Rectangle Historic District was determined “National Register-eligible” in 1988, with a period of significance of 1891-1963. The Rectangle encompasses 15 city blocks enhanced by 20 government or semi-public institutions.
Constitution Avenue’s buildings reflect the early 1900s McMillan Plan and City Beautiful Movement. Prefaced by the modern U.S. Institute of Peace (b. 2008 ) with its dove-inspired ceiling, the Rectangle provides a grand entrance to the City along Constitution Avenue. The first building is the only private one – the American Institute of Pharmacy (b. 1933) – built in a classical style to complement the Lincoln Memorial (b. 1922). It is followed by the marble National Academy of Sciences (b. 1924) (also built to complement Lincoln), with its imposing yet friendly bronze statute by Robert Berks of Albert Einstein (1979), the U.S. Federal Reserve Board building (1933), and the currently being renovated Public Health Services building (b. 1939).
OAS Corner: The last building on Constitution Avenue is the Organization of American States (OAS) Annex (b. 1949), across the street (and connected by a tunnel) to the spectacular Beaux Arts OAS Main Building (b. 1910), with its Art Museum of the Americas (b. 1910), Aztec Garden, and 1816 stucco Van Ness House stable in the back. The OAS buildings frame Virginia Avenue – running northwest – which contains statues of Latin American leaders, making it Foggy Bottom’s Avenue of the Americas. See https://www.foggybottomassociation.org/post/funkstown-foggy-bottom-s-avenue-of-the-americas.
Turning north on 17th Street, across from the Ellipse, the OAS is followed by neoclassical Daughters of American Revolution Memorial Continental Hall (b. 1910); John Russell Pope’s adjoining Constitution Hall was added in 1929. The neoclassical American Red Cross National Headquarters (b. 1915) is next, with its complex including large back lawn (rabbits), gardens, memorials and two additional administrative buildings (b. 1928, 1931). Next door is the imposing Beaux-Arts Corcoran Gallery (b. 1897), which now houses the George Washington University Corcoran School of Arts & Design.
New York Avenue/E Street – you’ll find the Octagon House (b. 1800), one of the treasures of Foggy Bottom, which served as the White House during the War of 1812 and hosted the signing of the Treaty of Ghent which ended that war. (It’s also haunted; see https://www.foggybottomassociation.org/post/funkstown-no-10-haunted-foggy-bottom).
To the west on E Street is the General Services Administration building (b. 1915, the original Department of the Interior), with its E-shaped structure to allow light and air, You’ll pass the GWU Elliot School of International Affairs (b. 2003), the former D.C. Chapter Red Cross building with its bas-reliefs (b. 1947), the Embassy of Bosnia and Herzegovina (b. 1948), and a CVS – originally a People’s Drug Store (b. 1939).
Turning south on 23rd Street is the Pan-American Health Organization (b. 1965) and crossing over the gash created by the E Street Expressway is the U.S. State Department Harry S Truman Building (b. 1950s). The original State building (facing 21st St.) was built for the War Department in 1941, but it relocated to across the river to the Pentagon in 1943. The building’s original modern front is now somewhat obscured by the modernist box of the new National Museum of American Diplomacy.
The interior of the Rectangle is dominated by the 5 ½ acre Indiana Limestone Stuart Udall Department of the Interior (b. 1936). The severe style is typical of New Deal architecture and contains a large collection of New Deal art, but its museum is currently closed. Green space includes Rawlings Park, which runs between 18th and 19th Streets at E Street (created 1874, current layout 1937), which is anchored by a statute of Ulysses S. Grant’s advisor, Gen. John A. Rawlings, and resplendent with magnolia trees and currently-empty pools. To its west is Walt Whitman Park. Extending beyond these parks was “the Little Mall,” laid out in 1934 and obliterated by the 1964 E Street Expressway. Modern buildings include the Theodore Roosevelt Office of Personnel Management (b. 1963), the United Unions building (b. 1963), the Federal Reserve Annex (b. 1975), and the American Institute of Architects (b. 1974).
Sources: Northwest Rectangle Historic Register Nomination (1998), https://planning.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/op/publication/attachments/NW%20Rectangle%20NR_opt.pdf; The WPA Guide to Washington D.C., Pantheon Books: 1983; Pamela Scott & Antoinette J. Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia, Oxford: 1993; FBA History Project, https://www.foggybottomassociation.org/history-project.