Highlights of an exhibition recently installed in the U.S. Treasury building on the history of the location of the Office of the Secretary since 1800 when the federal government moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.
The history of where the Secretary of the Treasury has had their office quite naturally follows along the lines of the history of the Treasury buildings in Washington, D.C. Yet, there have been times when the office has been relocated in the building either due to the whims of a particular Secretary or due to an overall reconfiguration of the office spaces throughout the building. Lastly, there is the case of how one rather obscure Treasury Secretary moved the office in the early 20th century and established a location that has been in continuous use now for over a century.
THE FIRST TREASURY BUILDING
When the federal government relocated from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. the building completed for the Treasury Department was much smaller than the current Treasury building. The building that awaited the department was a modest 2-story brick Georgian style building designed by architect George Hadfield.
Situated at a location near the southeast corner of today’s Treasury building, it accommodated 69 of the total 131 federal employee workforce that moved to Washington, D.C.
The employees worked in 16 rooms on the first floor and 15 rooms on the second floor along with a basement and an attic. The first Treasury building suffered multiple fires over the years including being set on fire by the British during the War of 1812. The final conflagration in 1833 was a total loss forcing the offices of the Treasury Department to relocate to rented spaces.
Nine Treasury Secretaries occupied the Secretary’s Office in the first Treasury building (which included a corner office, an “audience room” and the Secretary’s library).
1838 - THE SECRETARY MOVES INTO THE NEW (CURRENT) TREASURY BUILDING
Once contruction of the major portion of the east and center wings of the Treasury building we know today had been substantially completed, the Secretary moved into a third floor office at the west end of the center wing with a view across the east lawn towards the White House.
Secretary Levi Woodbury was the first to occupy this location in 1838 and a total of thirteen Treasury Secretaries would use this office up until 1861 when the office was moved to the southeast corner of the building.
THE CIVIL WAR ERA (1861-1865)
The Secretary’s Office moved to the southeast corner of the building before the Civil War. The south wing of the building was added to the east and center wings and completed in 1860 but Secretary Salmon Chase did not occupy an office in the south wing until October of 1861. Chase remained in the office for three years and was the only Secretary to occupy the office during the course of the Civil War.
The Secretary’s Office initially only stayed in this location for three years initially, before the end of the Civil War the office was moved over to the completed west wing of the building. Thirty-three years later, in 1897 Secretary Lyman Gage returned the Office of the Secretary to the suite of southeast corner offices used by Chase where it would remain for thirteen years until 1910. Through both incarnations at this location, a total of five Treasury Secretaries occupied this office.
SECRETARY'S OFFICE BECOMES TEMPORARY OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT AFTER THE DEATH OF PRESIDENT LINCOLN
The Secretary’s Office was moved to the west wing in 1864 in what is now called the Andrew Johnson Suite. The original design of the interior was considered too ornate by the first Secretary to occupy the office, Salmon P. Chase, who delayed moving two months while the office was redesigned to a range of more muted colors and simpler decoration. Chase would only occupy the office for a few months, leaving Treasury on June 30, 1864. In December of the same year President Lincoln nominated Chase for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He was confirmed on December 6, 1864 and served until his death in 1873.
The Secretary’s Office would remain at this location for eleven years, including the end of the Civil War at which time Treasury Secretary William P. Fessenden offered President Andrew Johnson use of the office after the assassination of President Lincoln to allow Mary Todd Lincoln time to grieve and move out of the White House.
Once funeral observances for President Lincoln were completed, Johnson returned to the task of running the government, reportedly seeing visitors in his office at Treasury for almost five hours daily. According to Edna Colman, who called on the president at his office, at least 100 people were waiting outside his office in the corridor when she arrived. Despite the long hours of visitations, Johnson preferred to stand when meeting with his appointments, a practice that was disconcerting to many of the visitors. A total of six Treasury Secretaries occupied this office location.
A RETURN TO THE SOUTH WING (1875-1897)
The office of the Secretary was located in room flanking the south portico entrance for only 22 years from 1875-1897, and occupied by 12 Secretary’s, yet the history of the space is one of the most complex of all the office locations. Secretary Benjamin Bristow relocated the office in 1875 from today’s Andrew Johnson Suite location in the west wing. Unlike other moves of the office that were motivated by specific construction completions of the building wings or the reorganization of the entire building in a 1910 move, there is no documented reason for why the office was moved in 1875.
The office underwent two design periods, the initial preparation of the room in 1875 and then a second redesign in 1884 by one of the premier Gilded Age furniture and design firms, Pottier & Stymus. In addition to decoration changes to the room, it was one of the first to benefit from infrastructure upgrades during that period including bathrooms, telephone lines, radiators and improvements in cooling and air circulation.
Among the most challenging features of the office as it exists today is the ceiling. During the renovation and restoration of the interior of Treasury building in 2000-2007, investigations were made to try and uncover decorative painting on the ceiling that is seen in archival photographs.
Other original features of the office included decorative window valances framing each window, a wall pier mirror on the south wall between the windows and a marble fireplace mantel with a projecting eagle. In 1884 under Pottier & Stymus, design renderings for two mahogany fireplace mantels were produced but believed to have never been made. More utilitarian additions included installing an air circulation flue in the main office and in the Secretary’s bathroom and “air ventilators” for the windows. A total of twelve Secretaries had their office at this location.
After 22 years, when Secretary Lyman Gage was appointed Secretary in March of 1897 he took little time to decide to return the office back to the southeast corner of the Treasury Building with the move completed by June of 1897.
THE LAST SEAT, THE OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY MOVES BACK TO THE WEST WING OF THE BUILDING (1910)
The Office of the Secretary has continued to evolve into the 21st century while remaining in the same location since 1910. Security, communications technology and modern conveniences have historically been introduced in the Secretary’s Office first and then spread throughout the building. These types of improvements were at the forefront when Secretary Franklin MacVeagh commissioned the architectural firm of York & Sawyer to make recommendations on the utilization of room spaces and the overall operations of the Treasury building. Highly regarded for their work designing numerous bank buildings, the firm produced a report that guided changes to the building including the relocation of the Office of the Secretary.
By 1910 the Treasury building had undergone a haphazard series of reassigning of spaces since 1877 when the Bureau of Engraving and Printing moved out to a building of their own across the Mall. Four successive “Departmental Committees on Rooms” attempted to come up with a new space assignment plan and one was finally implemented in 1882. This plan had treated the Office of the Secretary as a sacred island with no relationship to other offices and daily interactions with his staff. The 1910 reorganization by York & Sawyer was the first attempt to logically focus on the Secretary’s Office while also pivoting the location of significant offices within a short distance from the Secretary.
A primary consideration for relocation of the Secretary’s office to utilize an existing roadway and door opening to create a private entrance for the Secretary. This plan called for installing what was the first automatic push button elevator in a U.S. Government building.
The overall layout of the Secretary’s suite remains pretty much as it was when completed in 1911. While the office is historic in its location and as a tangible link to a legacy of significant events that have occurred in the space, it is an office suite whose decoration and furnishings change, reflecting each Secretary during his tenure. Unlike the Johnson and Chase Suites whose historic features remain unchanged regardless of the occupant, the Secretary’s office has much more flexibility to be altered to suit the needs of each Secretary. Through 2017, the location of the office has been host to 33 Secretaries of the Treasury.