The Old Executive Office Building (OEOB), originally called the State, War, and Navy Building, was constructed on the site of the previous Navy and War Department buildings. It was built over a period of seventeen years, beginning in 1871, and has been the scene of some of Washington's most important diplomatic events.
The OEOB is considered a landmark and has been listed on the Nation Park Service's National Register of Historic Places since the 1960s. But in its early days, the building was thought to be a hideous aberration. Mark Twain once called it "The ugliest building in America." Harry S Truman called it "The greatest monstrosity in America." The building may have been a monster, for it killed its original architect, Alfred Bult Mullet. After trying unsuccessfully to sue the government $160,000 for his work, Mullett committed suicide in 1890.
Mullet, who had been one of the Treasury Building architects, had been selected for this project by Grant's Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish. Like Mullett, Fish was starry-eyed over France's architecture of the Second Empire period. Unfortunately, that architectural style was one that almost instantly went out of fashion, and thus the building was ridiculed as an overly ornate confection. The OEOB, which ended up costing $10 million dollars, was the nation's largest office building when it was finally completed in January of 1888.
Before the building was even completed, the Departments of State, War, and Navy took up occupancy. One of the reasons for the endless construction was a battle for grandeur among the occupants. Hamilton Fish, whose State Department moved in 1875, complained about his Diplomatic Reception Room and got the Navy Department to build a marble and onyx Library Reception Room. Not to be outdone, the War Department had the walls of the Secretary of War's office covered with a tooled-leather-like material. And all around the outside of the building, various cannons and guns captured in wars were planted as decoration. Another 'decoration' could be found outside as well, between 1909 and 1913: President Taft's pet cow Pauline, who grazed on the south lawn of the OEOB.
All of America's diplomatic business was conducted in the rooms of the OEOB. In 1898, the Spanish Ambassador was given a declaration of war by Secretary of State John Hay; the peace treaty for the same war was signed here two months later. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, was also signed at the OEOB in 1919, as well as the United Nation's Declaration in 1942. In all, more than a thousand treaties of war, peace, and economic or political alliances were signed in the OEOB.
In more recent times, the OEOB has been the site of a major controversy. Fawn Hall shredded documents in room 392 for her boss, Colonel Oliver North. This action was revealed during investigation of the Iran-contra scandal in the Reagan presidency.
Also recently, the White House has started up a virtual tour of the Old Executive Office Building. Visit the site to learn even more about one of Washington's great landmarks.
Sites on the West side of Lafayette Park