First department to Have Its Own Building
Not One Now in Use
But on Same site and Ready When Capital Moved In
Structure Thrice On Fire
Destruction Nearly Complete Last Time
Two Brothers Accused as Incendiaries

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, September 6, 1908 [p. 12]

The Treasury Department was the only executive office which, on the removal of the government here, in 1800, found a permanent abode ready for its reception. It was a far different home than the president edifice, which covers the original site.

This was a plain brick structure of two stories with cellar, located on the west side of 15th street, its north front about on a line with the south side of F street, and contained less than forty rooms.

Though the erection of this building had been provided for in the act of 1795, it was not complete, a few rooms needing flooring and trimming out. Nevertheless, the Secretary, Oliver Walcott, and his force of about eighty in all were provided with accommodations. About July 1 the financial department of the government was in operation.

Provision was made by the act of May 7, 1800 for its protection from fire and a fire engine purchased. As was proven, this was a wise precaution, for the night of October 15 a fire took place. This is believed to be the first time fire extinguishing apparatus was used in Washington.

So efficiently was this worked that the flames were confined to the room in which they originated, and the loss was but slight intrinsically, but there were some papers and records beyond price destroyed.

Two houses for the messengers were provided for, as also two wells and pumps. It was found necessary for the preservation of the records to provide an additional building, owing to the dampness of the lower part of the Treasury. Under act of 1805 a fireproof structure was erected. This was located about the center of the west front of the present building. It was a two-storied oblong structure and aside from its use by the Treasury the State Department clerks were at times located here. With other public property both buildings were destroyed by the British in 1814 and the clerks, with what could be gathered from the debris, were located in houses opposite. The main building was soon put in habitable condition, the masonry having proved safe for use, and by 1816 business was conducted at the same old place. In 1817, the erection of two additional executive buildings having been authorized, one was placed directly north of the Treasury for the Department of State. It was similar in size to the original Treasury of some forty rooms, and fronting north on the northeast corner of the reservation had a somewhat imposing appearance, with large porticos, columns and pediments.

In March, 1833, the third fire occurred in the original Treasury building, and the destruction was more complete than during the invasion in 1814, save that some of the books and papers were preserved. This was a case of incendiarism supposed to hide a crime, and two brothers named White were charged with the crime, one being acquitted on his trial and the other found guilty and sentenced to the penitentiary.

In a little time three of the three-storied brick dwellings on the site of the Hotel Regent, southeast corner of Pennsylvania avenue and 15th street, were leased for the department, and for several years this was the Treasury office. For some reason nothing was done looking to rebuilding or a new building for three years.

On July 4, 1836, an act was approved by President Jackson for the erection on or near the site of the former Treasury building of a fireproof structure. The plan selected was that submitted by William P. Elliot, long a civil engineer and patent agent. The building was commenced by an appropriation of $100,000 that year and continued several years, the sandstone portion of the mammoth pile resulting in about four years at a cost of over $600,000.

Room for State Department
Col. Joseph Elder, commissioner of public buildings, who had the direction of the work, had that room on 15th street north of the line of G street ready for the occupancy of the State Department in 1819, and John C. Calhoun, the secretary, moved in with his clerks. The department accountant, who was then the fifth auditor, was located here, as were the general land office under Commissioner Josiah Meigs, the commanding general of the army and adjutant general.

The location of these army offices here during the days of Gen. Jacob Brown, who died in 1828, was accompanied by the establishment of a detachment of United States cavalry in quarters north of the building. Orderly service was performed by the cavalrymen, and they were mounted messengers for the departments. So long were some of them here that they came to be personally known to many clerks.

About 1823 an unlooked-for event occurred. A Sergt. Lanam had been reduced to the ranks for intoxication, and, blaming one Kelly as the cause, vowed vengeance. Leaving the barracks, he went off, liquored up and returned, killing Kelly by shooting him. He was tried by the civil authorities, convicted and sentenced to be hanged, but barely escaped.

The writer was informed many years ago by a lifelong resident of the neighborhood that the case excited much interest in the offices. On the day set for the execution many clerks were in the crowds about the jail and scaffold. The former was about the center of Judiciary Square, and afterward became the Washington infirmary, which was destroyed by fire in 1862, and the latter was erected on a knoll north of G street opposite the north door of the pension building.

Col. Tench Ringgold, the marshal, Cartwright Tippitt, the jailer, and assistants were leading the prisoner out when Daniel Brent, chief clerk of the State department, arrived with a reprieve for six months from President Quincy Adams. This ended the proceedings and in a few months Lanam was given life imprisonment. The change of program, however, greatly excited the mass of people who had assembled, and many denounced the action taken and loitered round the scaffold for hours discussing propositions to voice their sentiments by an indignation meeting or through the public press.

That portion faced by the colonnade which is now undergoing a transition from sandstone to granite was first erected and the offices moved in as the rooms were prepared. The south wing was the first in use, and to the treasurer were assigned quarters on the main floor, south of the main entrance, the first being the cash room, with a vault of small dimensions.

About 1842 the west wing was completed, and soon after the treasurer occupied rooms on the main floor, having an ordinary room with an adjoining room for vault for handling cash. With the expenditure of about $75,000 more the second treasury was about completed and soon occupied by its bureau. About 1844 the offices of the second controller and land office moved here from the State building and third auditor from the navy, and the Attorney General.

More Room Needed
Though the act directed that the building should be "of such dimensions as may be required for the present and future accommodations of the treasury," in a few years there was more room needed. The Mexican war had created work and the force augmented made outside accommodations necessary, especially for first, second, third and fifth auditors' offices, and by 1855 nearly $12,000 was paid for rents. The houses at the southeast corner of 15th and F streets had been utilized for government purposes in 1849, rented for the newly created Interior Department, and the Attorney General and first auditor also moved here from the Treasury, as did the commissioner of customs, a newly created Treasury officer.

In 1851 a building erected by C.H. Wonder on the northwest corner of 17th and F streets became an office building, and the second and fourth auditors were assigned rooms therein, the former being still an occupant. After the government had paid over $87,000 as rent to 1855 it bought it for $200,000, and it has since been occupied by a bureau of the War Department as well as the Treasury. The wisdom of the purchase is apparent.

On March 3, 1855, an act was approved by President Pierce for the continuation of the Treasury on the plans of T.U. Walter, architect of the Capitol extensions, the first appropriation being $100,000. In 1856 $37,000 of this was expended in commencing the work. The south wing was first constructed, followed by the other portions. The north wing, in which was the State Department, was left for the last. In 1866 the old building, having served its purpose, was demolished and the State Department joined the army of house renters.

In all near fifteen years passed before the completion of the Treasury, during which hundreds of hands were employed, and about $6,000,000 expended. In the meantime the bureaus in the old building spread out from cramped quarters as the rooms were prepared. But with the enlarged accommodations there were quarters outside for some of the offices. Under the roof, however, the most of the Treasury offices found lodgment, but two of the auditors are located in leased quarters, as is the life-saving bureau.