Seems Strange Now
How the Great Bureaus of the Government Grew Apace
40 Rooms Housed Many
Leased Buildings Were Common, as They Are Now
Even Names Are Changed
From Small Offices, With Two Clerks Each,
Sprung Pension, Land and Indian Bureaus
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, date unknown
The government building which was erected on the east side of 17th street, south of the line of F street, for the departments, was not ready for service when, in 1800, the officers, clerks, etc., located. This was a twin building with the Treasury building, containing about forty rooms, and was called the west executive building until 1819, when the building, afterward long occupied by the War Department, was erected. Then the positions with reference to the President's House applied, and this building was for a time known as the southwest building, but it was better known as the navy office in the past century. The War and Navy departments, the latter but two years old, were the joint occupants for nearly twenty years; but they were in private houses while it was being made ready for service. Such accommodations were easily obtained then, for there were but about forty clerk sin both departments. Temporary quar4ters were found for reach in dwelling houses, the War Department on the south side of Pennsylvania avenue, east of 22d street, while the naval affairs were directed from a house near the corner of New York avenue and 18th street.
Destroyed by Fire
A three-story brick building belonging to Joseph Hodgson was leased by Samuel Dexter, Secretary of War, for the department; and the clerks resumed their work which had been interrupted by the removal. They were here less than four months, for in November of that year it was destroyed by fire, together with an adjoining house, occupied by W. Markward, the messenger, and the public as well as private loss was complete, nearly all the valuable archives in the department and the furniture and household effects of Mr. Markward being a prey to the flames. There were no hand engines in Washington then, but from tradition and the columns of the Intelligencer it is learned that the citizens worked manfully and none with more zeal than Oliver Wolcott, the Secretary of the Treasury.
The adjacent property was saved. The fire was said to have been of incendiary origin. Many years after, through an act of Congress, Mrs. Hodgson was paid $6,000 for the loss of the house. Little of the effects were gathered and the work was resumed farther east on the avenue, but he west executive building in a year or two housed the War and Navy departments and for a few years the State Department.
But Few in the Service
So small was the number then in the service that, besides department clerks, others found accommodations in the building. The offices of superintendent of the city, as well as the surveyor and the city post office, were there. Thomas Munroe, who had been the clerk to the city Commissioners whose duties in 1802 were vested in a superinendent, filled that position and was also the city postmaster, having four or five clerks, who, like himself, were double-barreled, i.e., serving in both offices. Robert King, the surveyor of the city, was then located there.
City Post Office Site in 1812
In 1812 the city post office, with the offices of the superintendent and surveyor, were vacated, all moving to the hotel building on E street between 7th and 8th streets, which had been purchased by the government. Like other government property, it was burned by the British in 1814. The walls of the burned building, being found but little injured, the work of reconstruction soon commenced and the two departments again shared rooms in it. An increase in the work, the number of clerks and the need of more room, however, warranted the continued use of private houses for clerks.
Two New Executive Buildings in 1818
In 1818, by the appropriation for two additional executive buildings, a new home for the War Department was provided. About 1819 the two departments separated, the old building being retained by he Navy Department. At that period the force of navy clerks was amply provided with facilities for the work, as were those of the fourth auditor, whose duties were that of accounts of the navy; the third auditor and the second controller, who were also in close relation to the War Department. The fourth auditor until recent years has been in the War Department, and the others were till the forties, when the Treasury building furnished them quarters. The navy office building for the first time was then used exclusively for naval business. As such it remained till the seventies, when the erection of the building for the State, War and Navy departments caused its demolition.
The War Office
The term northwest executive building was not known to the general public as the War Department till war times, the name "war office" being the popular one. On the occupation of it when completed in 1819 the Secretary, Mr. Calhoun, occupied rooms on the second floor, as did also the officer of engineers, Gen. A. Macomb; Ordnance Col. George Bomford; Topographical Engineer Col. Isaac Roberdeau, and the Attorney General William Wirt. On the first floor were Quartermaster Genereal T.S. Jesup, Paymaster General N. Towson, Commissary General George Gibson, Surgeon General Joseph Lovell and the office of second auditor in part.
Origin of Great Bureaus
At that time the pension, bounty, land and Indian business was included in the duties of the department, one or two clerks in each performing the work. Later, in 1833, from this small beginning important bureaus grew. The pension bureau was afterward located in a rented building, as were the bounty, land and Indian offices, and later, in 1849, formed part of the Interior Department, moving downtown.
That the war building in 1845 had become too small for the business is apparent from the fact that the bureau of topographical engineers, Col. J.J. Abert; paymaster general, Gen. Towson; commissary general, Col. George Gibson; ordnance, Col. George Talcott, and pensions, J.L. Edwards, commissioner, were in the leased buildings on the west side of 17th street between E and F streets. The topographical engineers were on 17th street north of Pennsylvania avenue, and the surgeon general, Dr. Thomas Lawson, on G street between 17th and 18th streets. The secretary's office and those of the commanding general, Gen. Winfield Scott; adjutant general, Gen. Roger Jones; quartermaster general, Gen. Thomas S. Jesup, and second auditor were then in the building.
Winder's Building Rented in 1851
Winder's building, at the corner of F and 17th streets, was rented by the government in 1851, ,and purchased in 1855. The ordnance bureau was here many years, and a very instructive museum was for a long time an attraction. This bureau without the museum is now on G street west of 17th street. The pension office was also a tenant for a time and the second auditor's office was here for fifty years or more.