Placed Convenient to the President
Four Buildings Entire Working Force of the Government in Early Days
Some Forest Growth In And Around Them
First of Group, the Treasury, on Part of the Site of the Present Structure, Was Burned in 1833.
Public Buildings, No. 2.
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, June 6, 1915 [pt. 2, p. 11]
(The first article on old public buildings was published in last Sunday's Star.)
The four executive buildings housing the entire working force of the government, with the exception of the postal force, were situated convenient to the official residence of the President. There was in and around them some forest growth. From about 1820 the water supply originally piped from Franklin Square to the executive Mansion was carried to hydrants in department yards. There had been little improvement in and around the square, much of the ground north and south of the executive Mansion not having been graded.
In the early days, the homes of department and bureau heads and employes were mostly within a quarter of a mile of there desks, and up to 1824, when the rule "to the victors belong the spoils" operated, the tenure of office appeared to be lasting. Many who had come here with the government in 1800 were still literally "shoving the quill," and a number of these were revolutionary patriots, in whose cases old age seldom counted.
In the twenties the administration of pension laws and the conduct of Indian affairs were each given bureau organizations. Pension and bounty land laws had been administered since 1789 by clerks in the office of the Secretary of War, where Col. James L. Edwards, who became commissioner of the pension bureau on its organization under act of March 2, 1833, was employed. The bureau of five clerks was first located in the northwest corner of the basement of the War Department building. The management of Indian affairs was also in the War Department from 1789, but the Indian trade service was conducted by Col. Thomas L. McKenny in Georgetown, having been organized in 1811. The bureau was created by act of July 9, 1832.
Destruction of Treasury Building
Saturday night, April 31, 1833, the first of the executive buildings, that at the southwest corner of 15th and F streets, occupied by the Treasury, was destroyed by fire. A few minutes after sundown the watchman at the bank of the metropolis, at the northeast corner of those streets, saw flames bursting from a window and at once gave an alarm. The building was found to be locked on the inside and was forced open, and a young man who was doing duty as a watchman for his father had to be roused from sleep. The alarm soon brought out the clerks of the department, who manned a small engine, called the Alert, kept for the protection of the department, and the Franklin and other companies, the former comprising a number of clerks.
Primitive Heating Methods
Though the means of heating the building was primitive, mostly by wood fire in the numerous chimneys, and from the combustible nature of the contents led many to suppose that it was an accidental fire, others thought otherwise. One of the clerks was said to be a defaulter, and the Secretary had called on him for an explanation of his accounts. As he did not make his appearance on the scene until some time after the fire, he was suspected and charged with the crime of setting fire to the building, and later was tried and acquitted. It came out during his trial, however, that there was pending in the office a claim in which false evidence had been filed, and from the testimony then taken grew out the arrest of two brothers named White. These two men were arrested some time afterward, one of them being followed over much of the western and southern country before his apprehension. They were tried separately, and it was claimed that the party who had filed the false evidence, being fearful of arrest, and trial, had, through a noted criminal, hired the brothers to destroy the papers, and one of them came to the city as a colporteur and took up his residence on 11th street near F, and while he was engaged in selling Bibles to the clerks, he took note of the desks, etc., in the building. It was claimed that he entered the building by means of Spanish nippers, and placed in one of the desks a contrivance which caused the fire some time after he had departed and locked the door behind him. One of these brothers was convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary for seven years and the other escaped on a technicality. These trials took place in 1837.
New Treasury Building Erected
By the act of July 4, 1836, an appropriation was made for a new treasury building, and the result was a portion of the present building fronted by the colonnade on 15th street with a wing. About 1841 the department found itself in the new quarters, the entire cost of which was over $600,000. The south portion was first completed and the treasurer's office, which now takes up such a large portion of the new building, was in this wing in but three rooms with the vault built in the side of one of the rooms. The offices were gradually settled in the building. The Attorney General was located in two rooms, the first and third auditors, the first controller, the general land office, the register and others occupying places in the new building. The second auditor, however, remained in the War Department, the fourth auditor in the navy building, the fifth auditor in the State Department, as also the second controller.
The War Department had several of the bureaus in private dwellings on 17th street, among them the pension and bounty land bureau, now under the Interior Department, and the surgeon general's office on G street, above 17th, where it had been located for more than a quarter of a century.
The structure in which were the post office and patent office known as the Old Hotel, had been occupied by them since 1812, but long before the thirties it was found inadequate for the public business. For the accommodation of these offices additional buildings were provided for and by the act of July 4, 1836, an appropriation of $108,000 was made for a new building for the patent office. Before this was fully carried into effect fire destroyed the old hotel building.
City Post Office Burned
Early on the morning of December 15, 1836, a fire broke out in the basement of the city post office at the eastern end of the building. The clerks had finished up their work on the mails and had retired to rest. A butcher with his attendant en route to the Center Market noticed the flames and give an alarm. There was just north of the office the engine house of the Washington Fire Company containing, besides the engine, the arms, etc. of the Washington Guards. In and around the building lived many of the officers and employes of the department, the Postmaster General, Amos Kendal, only a short distance away. In a little time a large crowd gathered. The weather was exceedingly cold and a brisk wind was blowing from the northwest, and there were then but few fire companies or engines. That of the Washington Company was at once gotten out and was soon at work. So intense was the heat, however, that those at the engine had to leave it and it was burned in the street. Notwithstanding the rapidity of the flames, many of the crowd devoted their energies to the saving of the books and papers and so many had close calls that several were regarded as heroes. Among these was the butcher who gave the alarm and after sending his meats to market, saved many valuable papers of the Postmaster General's office.
Life Job for Firefighter
After the fire had been extinguished and the excitement subsided, Mr. Kendall appointed him to a position in the department, which he held all his life, dying "in the harness" at about eighty years of age. The collection of models was totally destroyed as well as many of the exhibits which formed the nucleus of the National Museum. Perhaps the most prized article destroyed was the painting of the steamer Claremont on the first trip on the Hudson river, Fulton being the artist.
The destruction of the building had the effect of scattering the offices. The general post office went to the hotel building at the northwest corner of Pennsylvania avenue and 14th street, owned by Col. B. Ogle Tayloe, and first conducted as a hotel early in the century by Col. John Strother, then under lease to Fuller & Co., who rented the premises to the government the day after the fire. The Fullers conducted it as a hotel in the forties and were succeeded by H. A. Willard.
City Post Office Movable
The city post office was movable, located first in a house on 7th street on the site of the Lansburgh store; then to Masonic Hall, 4 ½ and D streets; then to the Carusi saloon, 11th and C streets; then to the site of the old Fountain Hotel, now the new Raleigh, at 12th street and the Avenue, and finally to the south house in McLean's row on 7th street just north of the old building.
The patent office found quarters in the west wing of the city hall, to which an invitation was given by the mayor and corporation, and the exhibits were cared for by John Varden in a house on the present site of the Columbia building, who was connected with the museum for the rest of his life, going with it from the patent office to the Smithsonian.