On any given June day, summertime tourists visit their Representatives in the three House Office Buildings near the Capitol. But off the beaten path, at the foot of Capitol Hill, another House Office Building stands in relative obscurity. This is the story of the Ford House Office Building, an old structure that got a new lease on life, becoming the House’s own used Ford.
The Ford Building started life as a quick fix for space-starved 1930s Washington. During that decade, America fought the Great Depression with the New Deal, a battery of programs and public works projects that expanded the size of government. By decade’s end, the government’s growth outpaced all attempts to build grand structures to house it. The Federal Works Agency, in charge of finding space for the burgeoning workforce, needed a “new solution to the constantly pressing office-space problem.”
In 1939, the agency found its answer by imitating the standardization and efficiency of factory assembly lines—the new structures could be built from premade components “with the speed of a warehouse.” General Federal Office Building (FOB) #1, the first project built using the new process was begun in September, 1939. It would be available for any executive branch agency that needed an office quickly or temporarily.
Workers descended on the site of FOB #1—the future Ford House Office Building. The boasts of efficiency were true—working nonstop, builders demonstrated just how fast they could raise a pre-fab building. Three shifts worked a 24-hour schedule, seven days a week, at breakneck speed. In September 1939 “they were still cleaning shanties off the site,” newspapers reported. A few weeks later, the building was going up so fast that it “sprouts and waxes like a mushroom.” Three months later, in December, the crews put the finishing touches to the roof of the six-story structure.
The building’s design demanded relatively small windows and plain façade, which were practical rather than attractive. Bronze door trim and lanterns at the entrance were the only decoration on the simple exterior. Inside, the layout was much like a warehouse, divided into offices by partition wall. But the structure was a success in the ways that mattered most: low cost and quick completion. The government immediately started on FOB #2 and FOB #3, in the nearby suburbs.
True to the plan of providing temporary office space, 7,000 Census Bureau workers moved in and left after completing the 1940 census. The wartime Office of Price Administration replaced them for an equally short stay, rationing scarce supplies during World War II. Eventually, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrived for a decades-long tenancy. Finger print files and other thrilling records of the FBI’s post–World War II heyday found a home at FOB #1. In the 1970s, the FBI pulled its files and employees to its huge new headquarters, and the old structure became surplus property.
At that moment, in 1975, FOB #1 found its new purpose. Post-Watergate reforms led to substantial increases in congressional work, staffing levels and the need for space. “I remember when I came to Congress [in 1953], I had . . . three employees in my Washington office,” one Member noted at the time. “Now, we have 16 employees.” The House took on the old FOB #1 and gave it an equally bland name, House Annex 2. Because the entrance was a half-mile from the Capitol Rotunda, the House adapted the Ford Building for the Congressional Budget Office, the Architect of the Capitol, and other House-related functions, freeing up space in the older buildings for committees and Members.
In 1990, the House upgraded the Annex’s name, honoring former House Minority Leader and later President Gerald Ford of Michigan. Ford had a storied career in the House. He began his service in the post–World War II era, in 1949. He aspired to a House leadership post, and achieved that success after years of rising through the ranks.
Ford climbed the ranks of the House with a reputation for integrity and openness. He once described himself as "a moderate in domestic affairs, an internationalist in foreign affairs, and a conservative in fiscal policy." In 1965, the "Young Turks," a group of youthful House Republicans who felt party leadership was stagnating, tapped Ford as their best hope to challenge Minority Leader Charles Halleck for his post. Ford won by a small margin and held the position for eight years.
In 1973, President Richard Nixon appointed Ford Vice President, following the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, By virtue of that position, Ford was also President of the Senate, a bitter irony for a man whose ultimate ambition was to become Speaker of the House. He became President when Nixon resigned in 1974. Ford remained beloved and respected in the House of Representatives. It came as no surprise when the fourth House Office Building, as hard-working and versatile as Ford himself, was named for him.
Sources: Christian Science Monitor, July 16, 1940; Washington Post, December 24, 1939; Antoinette J.Lee, Architects to the Nation: The Rise and Decline of the Supervising Architect’s Office (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); James Cannon, Gerald R. Ford: An Honorable Life, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013).Follow @USHouseHistory