A Little Bit About the Federal Triangle

Every day on my way to work, I drive down Constitution Avenue along the entire southern border of the Federal Triangle. The whole shebang: from the Department of Commerce to the Federal Trade Commission.

That’s 11 buildings of varying sizes and styles — but mostly the same height — housed along six city blocks of varying length (see below). They’re a sturdy, imposing, generally Neoclassical lot that look somewhat boring and official at first, but which contain details of extraordinary artistry and symbolism if you take a moment to look up.

Federal Triangle, USGS

Aerial view of the Federal Triangle taken by the USGS in 2002. That’s Constitution Avenue at the bottom and Pennsylvania Avenue forming the diagonal at the top.

The complex was conceived to consolidate the explosion of government offices that sprang up all around the city in the early years of the last century into one central location. At the time, building a repository for the nation’s archives was a huge priority, as was finding a place to put the Department of Commerce and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. What better location than the swampy, sketchy, brothel-laden part of town where all the poor people and criminals lived?

By the mid-1920s, Congress appropriated the necessary parcels of land and funds to begin construction of one of the largest public building projects in our nation’s history. Between 1927 and 1938, seven humungous, Beaux-Arts/neoclassical-style structures were built and ornamented. Each eventually housed the:

  • Department of Commerce
  • Post Office Department Building
  • Department of Labor/Interstate Commerce Commission
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • Department of Justice
  • National Archives
  • Federal Trade Commission

You’ll notice that at the beginning of this enterprise, 1926-7, there was still a world economy to speak of. By the time the first building, the Department of Commerce, was completed in 1932, the nation was well into the Great Depression. But the Federal Triangle project went on uninterrupted, putting laborers, architects, muralists, sculptors, and other artisans to work for the duration.

Hmm…government-funded public works in time of economic downturn. What good could come of THAT?

Maybe this?


Aluminum door ornament on an entrance to the Department of Justice Building

or this?

Man Controlling Trade Statue

Statue entitled “Man Controlling Trade,” on Constitution Avenue side of the Federal Trade Commission Building at the Apex of the Federal Triangle

or a few dozen of these?


“Contemporary Justice in Relation to the Child,” painting by Symeon Shimin in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice. Inaccessible to general public since 9/11

Lots more to come on this subject.

Meanwhile, if you are in the area, I heartily recommend this walking tour by the U.S. General Services Administration: Federal Triangle Heritage Trail (1Mb PDF).


About Beth Daniels

DC writer | Old movies. Old Washington. Any old thing.
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