PALACE OF STATE: THE EISENHOWER EXECUTIVE OFFICE BUILDING
Edited by Thomas E. Luebke with a preface by John F.W. Rogers
U.S. Commission of Fine Arts/University of Massachusetts Press, $45, 245 pages
Recently, I was puzzled to receive a weighty FedEx package from Goldman Sachs, a Wall Street mammoth with which I have never had any dealings. Inside was a splendidly illustrated volume dedicated to what Baedeker’s 1899 guide to Washington, D.C., describes as ” the building that accommodates the State, War, and Navy Departments, a huge parallelogram, enclosing two courts and measuring 567 ft. in length by 342 ft. in breadth.” Today it is known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
I was delighted with this lavish memento, but why me? A cover letter from John F.W. Rogers, a senior Goldman Sachs executive, solved the mystery. Like me, John had worked in the stately old pile in younger years. He would also play a key role in restoring it. As he mentioned in a handwritten postscript, we had first met in the building in the Nixon years, and “when I close my eyes I can see your office and your magnificent art work. I am sure they have not seen a nude painting since!”
The reference was to an au naturel portrait of Nell Gwyn, the merriest mistress of the Merry Monarch (Charles II), about whom I’d written in leisure time. Local artist Alexia Scott had painted a copy of the 17th century original for me and I had hung it in my office. Since then, there probably hasn’t been a nude painting — as opposed to the occasional nude staffer — on the premises.
The building itself narrowly escaped demolition in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Sitting next to (and overshadowing) the West Wing of the White House, it was not to the taste of many trendy modernists. At least one president, Lyndon Johnson, was also reputed to have disliked it, perhaps because of the time he spent in his vice presidential office there, snubbed by the Kennedy clan and its Camelot camp followers. Local legend has it that he wanted to tear it down.
Instead, it has not only survived but thrived thanks to loving restoration work and a post-modernist revival of interest in buildings that transcend the cardboard box monstrosities still housing many federal agencies. When it opened in 1888, it was the perfect symbol of a rising nation that had weathered a bloody civil war, spanned and settled a vast continent, and become an economic superpower, embodying the exuberant, ostentatious and slightly over-the-top optimism of the Gilded Age. It is still an imposing sight today.
Until construction of the Pentagon and the State Department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters, this single structure was the nerve center of American diplomatic and military power from the Spanish American War through two World Wars. It was also a nursery for future leaders, including its eventual namesake, Dwight Eisenhower, who worked there as a young officer. A distinguished alumnus who never made it to the presidency left his mark in a different way.
In 1913, Gen. Douglas MacArthur briefly served as superintendent of the State, War and Navy Building and “reputedly provided the design for a concrete flower planter in the shape of a classic urn to decorate the exterior of the building In fact, twenty-eight urns were cast, installed and remain there to this day.”
The style of the building is “Second Empire,” referencing the architectural flowering — some would say over-flowering — that characterized Parisian public spaces during the splashy but ill-fated reign of Emperor Napoleon III. By the time Army Navy State opened its doors, Napoleon III had been dethroned, driven into exile and had been pushing up daisies for 15 years; America’s own “imperial” age was just beginning.
The building is also a reminder of how drastically government has metastasized. At birth it housed a major chunk of the entire federal work force. Gradually, the White House staff took up more and more of its space and diplomats, generals and admirals found new quarters elsewhere. Today, the White House staff itself has spilled over into the massive New Executive Office Building on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue overlooking Lafayette Square.
A few numbers tell the story. In 1873, “[President] Grant had a staff of 6 Franklin D. Roosevelt’s staff numbered only 37 before World War II by 1944 it had swelled to 787.” Which was only the beginning; today the Executive Office of the President has an estimated strength of 4,000.
In 1974, after modernists had failed to demolish the building, the late architectural writer Wolf Von Eckardt — once one of its debunkers — hailed it as “one of the most inspired buildings in the capital. It has charm. It has flair. It has a sense of grandeur. Now that they have cleansed the facade, the government should also restore its fabulous interiors.”
Thanks to the efforts of enlightened preservationists like John Rogers, that is exactly what has happened, as evidenced by the splendid color illustrations in “Palace of State,” a paper tribute to a monument hewn of sturdy American granite.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.