Just six blocks from the White House, the FBI’s hulking headquarters overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue has long been the government building everyone loves to hate. The verdict: It’s an ugly, crumbling concrete behemoth, an architectural mishap — all 2.4 million square feet of it.
But in this time of tight budgets, massive deficits and the “fiscal cliff,” the 38-year-old FBI headquarters building has one big thing in its favor.
It sits atop very valuable real estate, an entire city block on America’s Main Street, midway between the U.S. Capitol and the White House. Just how valuable? The General Services Administration intends to find out.
This past week, the agency that oversees all federal buildings issued an invitation to developers: How would you like to build a new headquarters for the FBI in a different location? In exchange, we’ll consider throwing in the J. Edgar Hoover building and the underlying land as part of the transaction.
“We’re testing the marketplace,” the GSA’s acting administrator, Dan Tangherlini, said in an interview. “We think we have very valuable property. How much is it worth?” Tangherlini wants to see if it could be traded for a property that better meets current needs.
The finish line is still a long way off. But in perhaps seven years, according to an estimate last year by the Government Accountability Office, the FBI could be in a new home at a fresh location in Washington or one of its surrounding counties.
The J. Edgar Hoover building may not be praised as architecture, but the current building has become part of American culture.
Half a million visitors a year took the FBI tour. The bureau even met with Walt Disney executives to see how Disney’s operation handled big crowds. People on the tour sometimes recognized faces on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted exhibit and tipped off agents. The tours ended when the bureau moved its laboratory, a highlight of the tour, to its training center in Quantico, Va.
Over the years, the building cropped up in news broadcasts, novels, television dramas and movies. “Arlington Road,” a fictional 1999 movie about domestic terrorists, ended with a shot, produced by Hollywood’s imaging magic, of the structure being blown to bits by a truck bomb.
What will really happen to the Hoover building? If last year’s report from the GAO, Congress’ investigative arm, is any indication, a developer might want to knock it down and start over.
That report displayed photographs of concrete facing that came loose and had to be removed from the building’s exterior. Another problem: Rainwater runoff infiltrated the basement. Solution: The FBI jury-rigged a plastic chute that directed the rainwater into a recycling bin.
“On the outside, it’s ugly; on the inside, it’s not hideous. It’s just that horrifying world of modern sheet rock corridors,” says Hank Griffith, a museum exhibitions coordinator who spent 15 years as an FBI clerical worker. Even trained escorts — required for visitors —sometimes got lost.
In 1974, agents started moving into the new building from cramped quarters in the Justice Department across the street. The FBI building, which cost $126.1 million to build back then, occupies a 6.66-acre square block in the central business district.
Here’s what planners have in mind.
“We envision that if and when the FBI relocates that the site be reconsidered for mixed use as office space with retail, restaurants, cultural and residential components,” said Elizabeth Miller of the National Capital Planning Commission, an independent federal agency. That goal could be achieved by either starting over or reusing the building there now, a planning commission document says.
Miller cites the Newseum, which was built nearby along Pennsylvania Avenue, as one example of what the planning commission envisions.
The commission’s vision would dramatically transform the current state of affairs.
“The building’s fortress-like presence is exacerbated by security installations, the moat that surrounds three sides of the building, the scale of its architectural features and the absence of street-level activity,” says a commission planning document.
“My reaction would be rather than say ‘off with its head,’ let’s start thinking a little more creatively,” said Richard Longstreth, a professor at George Washington University.
“I don’t think the FBI building is so important that it’s worth reinventing the wheel to try to save it, but I think if it can be saved, it should be,” said Longstreth, director of the university’s graduate program in historic preservation.
Half a block down Pennsylvania Avenue, the GSA has chosen Donald Trump to spend $200 million to renovate the Old Post Office, completed in 1899, as a luxury hotel.
The FBI building is an example of Brutalist architecture — derived from the French “beton brut” meaning “raw concrete,” a popular style in the 1960s and 1970s.
“That was the fashion of the time, even though it’s hard to imagine now,” said Martin Moeller, senior curator of the National Building Museum. “I do think it was always an unfortunate work of architecture.”
He said that while he likes “some other very monumental buildings of that era, the FBI building is ill-proportioned and ominous. It does not create a pleasant streetscape at its base. I can’t imagine I would have ever liked it under any circumstances.”
Mary Fitch, executive director of the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said, “Many people have put the FBI building on their lists of least-liked Washington buildings because of what they view as its harsh and overbearing design and how it deadens street life on all four sides.”
“These feelings have intensified in recent years as the redevelopment and renaissance of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Penn Quarter neighborhood have made the FBI building’s forbidding, defensive design less and less compatible with its surroundings,” Fitch added.
The building wasn’t originally intended to be quite so cold and forbidding.
City planners envisioned shops and buildings with open arcades and courtyards along a redeveloped Pennsylvania Avenue. Initially, the FBI agreed, but the bureau’s final design modified that for security reasons. FBI officials explained that the first floor along Pennsylvania Avenue was closed with marble facing rather than leased to shops for fear that foreign agents might find a way to use the shops as a base to eavesdrop on the bureau. The public was blocked off from the building’s center courtyard, also for security.
Across the street from FBI headquarters is the Federal Triangle, an array of government buildings erected in the 1930s. These stately buildings may not achieve greatness, but architects regard them as worthy additions to the nation’s capital. They feature limestone facades, red-tile hipped roofs and classically inspired colonnades. The Justice Department directly across from the FBI is a classical revival-style building distinguished by art deco architectural elements.
The GSA calls the Hoover building outdated and overcrowded.
The current FBI building was designed to be a giant filing cabinet for investigative records, a purpose now made largely superfluous with the advent of the digital age, the GSA’s Tangherlini said.
As the FBI has shifted priorities to fight terrorism, the headquarters workforce has increased steadily for more than a decade, from 10,000 to over 17,000. But many of the headquarters employees aren’t working at headquarters. Overcrowding has pushed them into annexes scattered around Washington. In 2001, there were seven annexes. Today, there are more than 40. There are serious security issues at those locations where the FBI must share space with multiple tenants.
Consolidation “is urgently needed” and “we view this as one of our highest priorities for the foreseeable future,” the FBI told the GAO in a letter a year and a half ago.
How far away would the FBI go to find a new home?
Officials in Virginia’s Prince William and Stafford counties say the bureau would ease its employees’ commutes by moving the headquarters south of the Capital Beltway, the highway surrounding the District of Columbia. Officials say FBI facilities in the counties now employ 3,000 people.
Prince George’s County, Maryland, just outside Washington, is pitching its proximity to the Beltway, easy access to public transportation stations and the opportunity to rectify what officials there say is an imbalance in federal office space. About one-quarter of the region’s federal workers live in the county, yet it is home to a miniscule percentage of federal office space.
A new home in the city is not out of the question. After all, FBI directors have gotten used to making a quick trip across the street to defend the bureau’s interests in face-to-face meetings with the attorney general.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.
Planning Commission analysis: http://tinyurl.com/afxn2hq
FBI background on building’s history: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/history/hq