The Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Board Building houses the main offices of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. It is located at 20th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W., in Washington, D.C. The building, designed in the stripped-down classical style, was designed by Paul Philippe Cret and completed in 1937. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the building on October 20, 1937.
Architecture of the Eccles Building
In 1935 the Federal Reserve Board decided to consolidate its growing staff in a new building, to be sited on Constitution Avenue and designed according to the results of an invited, juried competition. The winning design, by the Philadelphia architect Paul Philippe Cret, was a daringly modernist interpretation of the Beaux-Arts style and has become a noted part of American architectural history.
The principal officials overseeing the competition were Charles Moore, chairman of the presidentially appointed United States Commission of Fine Arts, and Adolph C. Miller. Miller had been a member of the Board since the Federal Reserve had begun operations in 1914; after leaving the Board in 1936, he continued as chairman of the Board's Building Committee.
These two men deliberated over the nature of the building design between October 1934 and February 1935. They could not ignore the traditional style of public architecture in the nation's capital—monumental scale, classical references provided by columns and pediments, and generous use of symbolic ornamentation. But they could—and did—work to update that style. Miller drafted a statement about the Board to help the competing architects understand the concerns of their potential client. Accompanying the Program of Competition, the statement conveyed the sense of Miller and Moore that traditional style would not be their utmost concern.
The building that emerged from the competition, with its modernism based on a simplified classicism, was unique for Washington at that time. The result is a credit to the vision of Miller and Moore and to the winning design by Paul Philippe Cret.
The Architect and the Design
Paul Philippe Cret (1876-1945), a naturalized U.S. citizen who had trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Lyons and Paris, won the 1935 invited, juried competition for the design of the new headquarters of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Cret first came to the United States in 1903 to establish a department of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He resigned from the faculty in 1907 to establish his own practice.
One of his earliest buildings, for which he was an associate architect, is the Pan American Union Building, in Washington, D.C. (1908), which is characterized by a quintessential Beaux-Arts style. Work on less lavishly decorated public buildings followed in other cities in the years preceding his Federal Reserve Board commission, including Detroit (1922), Hartford (1926), Indianapolis (1928), and Fort Worth (1932). In Philadelphia, he designed the Barnes Foundation (1923), the Rodin Museum (1928), and a new building for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia (1930). In Washington, D.C., he completed the Folger Library (1929) and the D.C. Heating Plant (1933), as well as the Klingle Valley (1931) and Calvert Street (1933) bridges.
The École des Beaux-Arts movement in architecture, which was grounded in the study of Greek and Roman architectural traditions, called for the interrelationship of all the arts. An architectural firm practicing in this tradition would therefore have to have the skill and resources to engage in every aspect of the building: exterior, interior, structural, functional, technical, and aesthetic. To complete the project, Cret's firm made more than 300 drawings of every degree of finish: freehand sketches, measured plans, site plans, elevational studies, and perspective drawings. A single drawing could contain information as to a frontal view, a side view, a view from the top, and section details, if necessary.
True to the Beaux-Arts tradition, Cret oversaw every aspect of the building project and in some cases involved himself in the details. He himself put his hand to the design of the Board's new official seal, illustrating four variations on the placement of the eagle, the shield, and the inscriptions (under the Banking Act of 1935, the Board had just had a change in name, from the Federal Reserve Board to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System). The Board suggested that Cret's design for the seal should be circled with 48 stars representing the states. Cret also designed the bronze fireplace ornament in the Board Room, for which he proposed symbols of Productivity and Stability. Chester Morrill, Secretary to the Board, felt that Cret's choice of balance scales to symbolize Stability was more appropriate to a judicial setting; Cret substituted a column for the scales.
The four-story building, with an exterior of Georgia marble, is in the shape of the letter H, with the space on either side of the building's center (that is, on either side of the "crossbar" of the H) forming east and west courtyards. In the 1970s, a fifth story was added to the center section of the building.
The focal point of the interior space is a two-story atrium with dual staircases and a skylight with glass etched in the outline of an eagle. The atrium floor is of marble and its walls are of travertine marble. Arranged on the second floor of the atrium, on each of two sides, are six bays with office doorways; above each door is carved the name of one of the twelve Districts of the Federal Reserve System. The largest and most elaborately designed meeting space in the building is the two-story Board Room.
Ornamentation and Furnishings
The architect, Paul Philippe Cret, exercised restraint in the application of decoration to the building. He used bas-reliefs sparingly, high above the north (C Street) façade and for the fountain mask in the west courtyard. He used three-dimensional sculpture only once—to portray a majestic eagle over the building's south (Constitution Avenue) entrance. All other embellishments were flat ornament. Cret employed nationally recognized artists to complete the ornamentation of the building.
John Gregory (1879-1958), previously employed by Cret to design the nine exterior bas-reliefs for the Folger Library, sculpted the bas-reliefs on the exterior of the C Street entrance. Cret did not ask Gregory to specify the symbolic figures; rather, they were to be "merely figures holding the official emblem of the U.S."
The design of the west courtyard fountain includes a Dionysus-like mask selected from five designs provided by another sculptor, Walker Hancock (1901–99).
Sidney Waugh (1904–63), who designed the eagle sculpture, was selected because he had "a fine architectural sense . . . always flavored with a Classic background. . . . We [Cret and partners] believe he will be able to produce the eagle in the new Greek feeling conventionalized as is necessary to harmonize the sculpture with the architecture." Waugh's design was similar to his subsequent design for the Federal Trade Commission Building (1937–38).
Waugh also designed two light fixtures for the first-floor ceilings bounding the north and south ends of the atrium. As an exception to the traditional style of the interior embellishments, Cret permitted a modern digression in style and material for these fixtures: a sphere—the top half of glass, the bottom half of chrome pierced with openings in the shape of stars—encircled by a ring of Steuben glass bearing the twelve signs of the zodiac. The design first appeared commercially in 1935 on a bowl produced by the Steuben glass firm, for which Waugh was chief designer.
Samuel Yellin (1885-1940), the noted wrought-iron craftsman from Philadelphia, designed and executed the balustrades for the atrium stairs, the railing for the second-floor gallery surrounding the atrium, the gates for the passageway from the gallery to the corridor lined by the Board Room and Governors' offices, and a pair of elevator doors.
In the building's main (Constitution Avenue) lobby (the entrance was closed to daily use in the 1970s), places of honor were reserved for President Woodrow Wilson, "Founder of the Federal Reserve System" and Senator Carter Glass, "Defender of the Federal Reserve System." The memorials occupy niches on each side of the lobby and combine a bronze bas-relief portrait with a quotation. The sculptor Herbert Adams (1858-45), known for a neo-Renaissance style, was awarded both contracts. The clay model of Wilson was completed in December 1936, and the bronze bas-relief was in place in time for the dedication of the building on October 20, 1937. The Carter Glass bas-relief was not dedicated until December 23, 1938.
A large map of the United States, to be both decorative and functional, was planned for the Board Room. To ensure that the map would be functional, Chester Morrill, the Board Secretary, consulted Professor George Renner of Columbia University, who had worked on maps showing regional economic interests. Miller wanted the map to (1) be an original conception for the most important room in the new building, (2) indicate the boundaries of the states and the Federal Reserve Districts and Branches to reflect the regional character of the System, (3) use symbols representing the chief economic activities of each region, and (4) give the impression of age. Ezra Winter (1886-1943), a mural painter, was chosen from a list of six candidates drawn up by Cret himself.
The Board considered several interior decorators before awarding to Cret's firm the contract for the furniture and furnishings of the Board members' area, the Constitution Avenue lobby, the atrium, and the private dining rooms. The contract, awarded in April 1937, summarized the design effect sought by the Board as "of the early part of the 19th Century, sometimes referred to as Federal, influenced by the Sheraton, Regency, Empire and Duncan Phyfe periods, except the dining suite on the 4th floor which is in the period of the late 18th Century." Some chair specifications called for steamed bentwood. The contract to produce the furniture was awarded to the custom division of W&J Sloane, New York, with the architects having the final responsibility.
The light fixtures and mantel ornaments were provided by a subcontractor, Edward F. Caldwell Co., and were complementary to the design. In particular, an antique chandelier from the Chateau Malmaison, the retreat for Napoleon and Josephine, and owned by the Caldwell firm, was replicated for the Board members' offices.
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