Old Post Office Pavilion
Old Post Office and Clock Tower
Looking southwest at the Old Post Office Pavilion
|Built||1892 to 1899|
|Architect||Willoughby J. Edbrooke (original building)
Karn Charuhas Chapman & Twohey (East Atrium)
|Architectural style||Romanesque Revival (original building)
Modernist (East Atrium)
|Governing body||General Services Administration|
|Part of||Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site (#66000865)|
|NRHP Reference #||73002105|
|Added to NRHP||April 11, 1973|
The Old Post Office Pavilion, also known as Old Post Office and Clock Tower and officially renamed the Nancy Hanks Center in 1983, is a historic building located at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C. Completed in 1899, it was used as the city's main post office until 1914. Used primarily as an office building afterward, it was nearly torn down during the construction of the Federal Triangle complex in the 1920s. It was nearly demolished again in the 1970s to make way for completion of Federal Triangle. Major renovations occurred in 1976 and 1983. The 1983 renovation added a food court and retail space. An addition was added to the structure in 1991.
In 2013, the U. S. General Services Administration leased the property for 60 years to The Trump Organization. The Trump Organization said it would develop the property into a luxury hotel to be named Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C. The food court and stores closed in January 2014, while the remaining offices and the clock tower closed on May 1, 2014, as the renovation began.
- 1 Construction and opening
- 2 First 50 years
- 3 1970s demolition attempt
- 4 Rejuvenation in 1970s
- 5 1988 to 1992 expansion
- 6 Redevelopment as a hotel
- 7 Lease to The Trump Organization
- 8 2014 redevelopment
- 9 Building operations
- 10 References
- 11 Bibliography
- 12 For further reading
- 13 External links
Construction and opening
The United States Congress approved construction of a new post office for Washington, D.C., on June 25, 1890. The site, at the southwest corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street, was chosen by Senator Leland Stanford in 1888 in the hope that the building would revitalize the Murder Bay neighborhood between the Capitol building and the White House. The structure was designed in the Romanesque Revival style (some classify it as Richardsonian Romanesque) by Willoughby J. Edbrooke, Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department. Construction began in 1892, and the building was complete in 1899. The total cost of construction was $3 million.
At the time of its completion, the Post Office Building contained the largest uninterrupted enclosed space in the city. Its clock tower reached 315 feet (96 m) into the air. It was also the city's first building to have a steel frame structure, and the first to be built with electrical wiring incorporated into its design. The structure featured elevators with cages of highly intricate wrought iron, a glass covered atrium and mezzanine level, and floors, moldings, railings, and wainscoting made of marble. The atrium was 196 feet (60 m) high, and 10 floors of balconies looked out onto the space (which provided interior light in an era when indoor lighting was not common). It boasted more than 39,000 interior electric lights, and its own electrical generator. Girders and catwalks spanned the atrium at the third floor level to allow post office supervisors to look down on the workers. The fifth floor housed executive offices in the corners. Each office had a turret, ornately carved wooden moldings, and red oak paneling. But there were problems with the structure. The Washington Star newspaper reported that the skylights and windows leaked air and water, the marble floors were poorly laid, and much of the construction was shoddy. The ninth floor was to have served as a file room, but a post-construction inspection showed it could not accommodate the weight. Technological advances in electricity and electrical wiring, mechanical engineering, movement of air, heating, and more made the building out of date as soon as it opened.
Unfortunately, the anticipated economic development never occurred. At the 1898 meeting of the American Institute of Architects, the structure was criticized as supremely ugly during a plenary address by New York City architect George B. Post. That same year, Senator Joseph Roswell Hawley called it "a cross between a cathedral and a cotton mill". By the time it opened, the building was also too small to accommodate the government agencies which occupied it. The city postmaster had advocated a building with a 50,000-square-foot (4,600 m2) footprint, but only 10,000 square feet (930 m2) were purchased. The post office used the main floor and mezzanine, but these were already too crowded by January 1900. Treasury Department offices were to have taken over the eighth floor, but the structure was so overcrowded that this move was suspended.
A year after the building opened, an accident there took the life of D.C. Postmaster James P. Willett. On September 30, 1899, Willett fell 90 feet (27 m) down an open elevator shaft. Nothing more than a flimsy wooden barrier prevented access to the shaft. Willett died a day later.
First 50 years
In the early 1880s, Senator Justin Smith Morrill and Senator John James Ingalls proposed razing all the structures between Pennsylvania Avenue and B Street (now Constitution Avenue) to create a park. The influential McMillan Plan of 1902, however, proposed retaining the structure. (It could hardly have done otherwise, with the building only just having been completed.) Nonetheless, the same year the Washington Post editorialized in favor of its demolition. In discussing plans to beautify Washington, essayist Sammuel E. Moffett disparagingly called the building in 1906 a "Kansas City emporium so utterly out of keeping with the general atmosphere of official Washington that it sets the teeth of architects on edge." Later that year, Senator Weldon B. Heyburn introduced legislation to authorize the federal government to purchase all the land between Pennsylvania Avenue, the National Mall, 15th Street NW, and the U.S. Capitol for the construction of an architecturally "harmonious" set of massive office buildings. Heyburn's plan retained the Old Post Office Building, but adjusted its Pennsvylania Avenue side to be parallel with the street.
The clock in the building tower was originally mechanical in nature, and kept accurate time via gravity. A cable was wrapped around a drum, and a large weight attached to the end of the cable. As the cable unwound due to the force of gravity, the clock hands turned. The cable was rewound once or twice a day. On October 10, 1956, the weight came loose from the cable and plunged through two floors (narrowly avoiding killing a man, who had just gotten up from his desk). The mechanical clock was later replaced with an electric one.
In 1914, the District of Columbia General Post Office moved to a larger building constructed next to Union Station. Although only 15 years old, the building at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue was now commonly called the "old" post office. For the next forty years, the building served as office space for several government agencies.
The Old Post Office Building was slated for demolition during construction of the Federal Triangle. In 1926, the United States Congress enacted the Public Buildings Act, which authorized the construction not only of the Federal Triangle complex of buildings but also a new U.S. Supreme Court building opposite the United States Capitol, a major extension of the U.S. Government Printing Office building on North Capitol Street, and significant widening of B Street NW on the north side of the National Mall. Government officials, other experts, and the press believed that the demolition of the District Building and Old Post Office Pavilion and the closure of many streets in the area would occur. A Board of Architectural Consultants was created on May 19, 1927, to advise the federal agencies developing Federal Triangle on how to proceed. By July 1927, the board had fashioned a general plan for the area, but did not address whether the Old Post Office Pavilion, District Building, or the Southern Railway Building should be torn down or not. Planning for the complex was deeply influenced by the City Beautiful movement and the idea of creating a civic center to achieve efficiency in administration as well as reinforce the public's perception of government as authoritative and permanent. For the architectural style of the buildings, the board adopted the McMillan Plan's recommendation of the Neoclassical style. Rather than a mass of tall, imposing buildings, two unifying open spaces (intended for ceremonial use, and under discussion by the Board at least by March 1928) would be utilized. The first would be a Circular Plaza (inspired by the Place Vendôme) bisected by 12th Street NW, and which would require the demolition of the Old Post Office Pavilion.
But by 1934, although the government had cleared land around the Old Post Office Building, Congress was increasingly opposed to demolishing the structure. Tearing down a structurally sound 35-year-old building during the Great Depression seemed foolish. But the executive branch agencies overseeing the Federal Triangle's construction still wanted it gone. Yet, it was not demolished. Four years passed. Although a push was made to remove the Old Post Office Building again in 1938, Senator Elmer Thomas defended it and attacked the erection of a Neoclassical office building in its place as financially unacceptable.
The 1938 effort to remove the building was the last one for 30 years. Various reasons have been suggested for why the Old Post Office Building survived. A common claim is that the federal government, fighting the Great Depression, simply did not have the money. Press reports at the time, however, noted that voters would have punished congressmen who tore down a perfectly good building. Architectural historians have also argued that President Franklin D. Roosevelt (who took office in March 1933, five years into Federal Triangle's construction) was not interested in completing the expensive complex of white marble office buildings or making Federal Triangle architecturally harmonious.
The Old Post Office Building's tower slowly became an iconic one in the city. The United States Information Agency often used it as a backdrop for propaganda films to be shown in foreign countries. In one instance, a portion of a film about Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn was taped in the tower.
1970s demolition attempt
By the 1950s, the neighborhood around the Old Post Office Pavilion had also declined. Pennsylvania Avenue NW was marked by deteriorating homes, shops, and office buildings on the north side and monumental Neoclassical federal office buildings on the south. After witnessing the poor state of the avenue during his inaugural parade, President John F. Kennedy appointed a President's Council on Pennsylvania Avenue to study ways to improve the area. The council's draft plan was ready for Kennedy's approval when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963. The draft plan retained the Old Post Office Pavilion.
Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, agreed to move forward with the plan and appointed a Temporary President's Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue, although it did not hold its first meeting until May 21, 1965. The new commission recommended that the Old Post Office be torn down in favor of completing the plan for Federal Triangle. The temporary commission managed to prevent development of the avenue which was contrary to the draft plan, but it never was able to win congressional approval for its plan. It ceased to function on November 15, 1969, due to lack of funds. A permanent Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) was finally created by Congress on October 30, 1972.
An attempt to demolish the Old Post Office Pavilion began in February 1970. The National Capital Planning Commission agreed, a federal agency with legal jurisdiction over major building projects in the Washington metropolitan area, agreed (although it said the tower might be preserved). Within days, Wolf Von Eckardt, the influential architectural critic of the Washington Post, began campaigning for the structure's preservation. No action was taken on the demolition project in 1970, and Von Eckardt continued to press for the building's preservation in 1971. By early 1971, a group of local citizens and architects formed a group known as "Don't Tear It Down" (predecessor to the D.C. Preservation League). The group's members included Nancy Hanks, the politically influential chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Don't Tear It Down began heavily lobbying the PADC, General Services Administration (which owned the building for the federal government), White House, Congress, and D.C. city government to stop the demolition. Opposition to the demolition began to grow in the U.S. Senate, which held hearings on the buildings in April 1971. Preservation forces received a major boost in May 1971 when the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation recommended retaining it.
The Nixon administration, however, continued to seek its demolition so that Federal Triangle could be completed in time for the United States Bicentennial in 1976. But by this time, Senator Mike Gravel, chair of the Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds of the Committee on Public Works was strongly opposed to the effort. Gravel sought allies in the United States House of Representatives, and in June 1972, the House Committee on Appropriations voted down Nixon's request for money to demolish the Old Post Office.
Rejuvenation in 1970s
The Old Post Office was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. That same year, the General Services Administration formally dropped its intention to demolish the building and instead developed a plan save the Old Post Office Pavilion. The National Capitol Planning Commission agreed to the project.
Major renovation of the structure was made possible in 1976 by enactment of the Public Buildings Cooperative Use Act. The law gave GSA the legal authority to lease federal buildings and use the money received for renovations and upgrades. It also legalized the use of a portion of federal office buildings for commercial retail and restaurant use. The Old Post Office was the first major project begun under the law.
An $18 million renovation began in 1977. The building badly needed it: The atrium roof had been covered over, making the interior dark; the building leaked and had suffered extensive water damage; there was mold throughout the building; and the heating system often broke down.
GSA held a competition in 1978 to find a partner willing to redevelop the Old Post Office Pavilion. The agency believed that the configuration of the interior space and downtown real estate market would only support a hotel. But the winning bid did not propose a hotel. A joint venture by four firms—McGaughy, Marshall, and McMillan; Arthur Cotton Moore Associates; Associated Space Design, Inc.; and Stewart Daniel Hoban & Associates—won the competition. GSA and the bidding team reached an agreement for a 55-year lease. GSA collected $166,000 a year in rent, which increased just 5 percent during the life of the lease. GSA also received a percentage of all profits from the enterprise.
The $29 million renovation was completed in 1983. Much of the building was gutted to utilize the interior space for efficiently, but some "preservation zones" were established to retain the interior's historic character. Much of the old marble was replaced with new, pink marble, and the interior repainted in shades of cream, gray, green, and ivory pastels. A glass-enclosed elevator to the observation deck was also added, as well as a new grand staircase to the second floor and two 6,000-square-foot (560 m2) restaurants.
The renovated building was officially dedicated on April 19, 1983. Vice President George H. W. Bush presided over the event. The re-opening was celebrated with peals from the Bells of Congress from the clock tower. Federal tenants included the Institute for Museum Services, National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the President's Council on the Arts and Humanities. (Modular office furniture was used to allow more people to work in the offices, which proved controversial among federal employees used to traditional desks and chairs.) The retail levels, which occupied the first three floors of the building, opened on September 13, 1983. The retail section included a performance space known as the Nancy Hanks Center. (Hanks died on January 7, 1983, just weeks before the building's re-opening.) The clock tower and observation deck reopened to the public on May 1, 1984. The 1983 renovation won strong praise from architectural critic Benjamin Forgey. The Washington Post editorialized that it was "spectacular", and professor of architecture Roger Lewis cited its atrium as one of the finest in the region. The impression of excellence in architecture lingered. In February 1988, Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, executive editor of Architecture magazine; Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey; and professor of architecture Roger Lewis still counted the Old Post Office building as among their favorites.
The commercial space was designed by the Boston firm of Benjamin Thompson & Associates, and it was leased by Evans Development Co. of Baltimore. More than 50 restaurants and boutique retail stores were anticipated to sublet portions of the three-story retail section, and it was 98 percent leased at its opening. The retail pavilion seemed to do well at first, and was a major attraction downtown especially on weekends. Evans Development received a $2.25 million tax credit in July 1984 for its work on the historic building.
In the mid-1980s, Hillman Properties bought out its partner, Evans Development, and took control of the Old Post Office Pavilion.
In October 1986, Congress enacted legislation formally renaming the Old Post Office the "Nancy Hanks Center".
1988 to 1992 expansion
Despite the positive news about the Old Post Office Pavilion, it was not doing well. GSA imposed conditions on the 1983 renovation that left the retail pavilion looking like an office building rather than a shopping mall. There was also too little retail space, the retail space was poorly configured due to the architectural design of the building, and GSA refused to allow any storefronts on the exterior that would signal that there was retail or restaurants inside. The pavilion's revenues were generated in about equal parts from tourists, local office workers, and local residents. Although most retailers were making money, revenues fluctuated wildly on a seasonal basis. Restaurants had a difficult time earning money, and turnover among them was high.
Old Post Office Joint Venture (a group led by Hillman Properties), the developer of the pavilion, was also losing money. Old Post Office Joint Venture (OPOJV) received $166,000 a year in rent from GSA, but its agreement with the federal government called for doubling the size of the retail space to 100,000 square feet (9,300 m2). Approval for that expansion had never been given. OPOJV originally proposed expansion of the retail space into the Internal Revenue Service Building, but this was rejected for security reasons. It then proposed an underground parking lot and pavilion expansion in the area occupied by the IRS building's parking lot, but this, too, was not approved.
With the financial situation at the Old Post Office Pavilion worsening, OPOJV proposed building a glass-enclosed annex on the IRS building's parking lot. The proposal was strongly opposed by the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board. Nonetheless, Congress appropriated $1.7 million for the project and OPOJV agreed to contribute another $15 million. The National Capital Planning Commission also gave its approval to the project.
The new East Atrium opened on March 6, 1992. The three level structure had 100,000 square feet (9,300 m2) of interior space and a glass roof. Under the terms of the development agreement, the federal government owned the land beneath the structure, but the building was owned by Hillman Properties. As construction occurred, the Old Post Office Pavilion lost many of its high-end retailers and replaced them with low-end shops selling mugs, souvenirs, t-shirts, and other items aimed at tourists. The East Atrium, however, included larger and more upscale retailers. The addition also featured a 5,000 square feet (460 m2) miniature golf course and bar. The East Atrium was managed by General Growth Properties, which said about 78 percent of the space was leased. The East Atrium was not well received, critically. Architecture critic Benjamin Forgey acknowledged that the building achieved its goals; incorporated many modern architectural design features (such as glass curtain walls, setbacks, and good connections to sidewalks and pedestrian areas); and it added a piece of the 1982 master plan for Federal Triangle. But Forgey called the design by the local architectural firm of Karn Charuhas Chapman & Twohey awkward, with "clunky" proportions and over-heavy elements. The interior, however, won praise for its lightness.
A small fire broke out on the west side of the Old Post Office Pavilion between the ninth floor ceiling and the roof on August 26, 1992. Workers repairing the roof accidentally caused the blaze, which began at 3:45 P.M. and was extinguished 45 minutes later. Although small, the fire snarled downtown traffic during the evening rush hour.
The fire appeared to be a bad omen: By October 1993, despite more than 3 million visitors a year, OPOJV was behind on its rent to GSA and in default on its mortgage to Collin Equities (a subsidiary of Wells Fargo). Real estate experts blamed the cost of heating and cooling the vast atrium, heavy tenant turnover, and the lack of a theater for a space below the East Atrium. Although the D.C. Convention and Visitors Association said the Old Post Office was the eighth most-visited attraction in the District of Columbia, retail experts believed it had never made money, and the East Atrium did not bring in enough rent to support the Old Post Office Pavilion.
Collin Equities/Wells Fargo foreclosed on OPOJV in October 1993. The bank hired Hill Partners, a real estate management firm from Charlotte, North Carolina, to revitalize the retail aspects of the development. Hill Partners said that improving access to and shoppers' awareness of the retail area, it could double the number of visitors to the Old Post Office to more than 7 million. Hill Partners began reevaluating its tenant mix with a view to adding retailers which D.C. residents needed. It also revealed that the East Atrium was a money-loser, never filling more than half its space. Whether the East Atrium would remain open was not clear. The company agreed, however, to keep the Pavilion area a "festival marketplace" (one which offers a combination of entertainment, food, and retail shops).
In March 1995, the Cineplex Odeon Corporation said it would open a seven-screen movie theater in East Atrium (which now had no tenants). But the company pulled out in May 1996, saying it could not reach a lease agreement with Hill Partners.
Hill Partners had a difficult time finding any new tenants for the East Atrium and for the Pavilion. Virgin Group said in June 1996 it might build a Virgin Megastore, eight-to-12 screen Virgin Cinema, and possible a rock music-themed restaurant at the Old Post Office. But the company wanted the main building for its retail outlets, not the East Atrium. But nothing came of these discussions.
In 1997, a hotel development firm, Denhill D.C. LLC, approached GSA and offered to take over Collins Equities/Wells Fargo lease. The company said it would spend more than $100 million to turn the office space on the upper floors into hotel rooms and open the Pennsylvania Avenue walls to create more access and street-front retail space. In return, the company asked GSA to extend the 55-year lease to 65 years, and give it the option of adding three more decade-long lease extension options. According to Denhill D.C. officials, the negotiations were so far advanced that they had a management company ready to operate the hotel and retail tenants ready to take space. GSA said it then ended the negotiations over legal concerns that it was about to enter into a long-term lease without advertising it to other bidders.
By August 2000, business conditions at the Old Post Office had sunk even lower. Operations there had never turned a profit in 17 years, the vacancy rate in the Pavilion was 80 percent, the East Atrium was closed, and GSA had stopped charging Wells Fargo rent because no income was being generated. Realizing that a retail/office combination was not going to make money, GSA began negotiating with Collins Equities/Wells Fargo to cancel the lease. GSA by now had realized that if retail space was to be retained, it would need to open onto Pennsylvania Avenue NW. But the agency also was considered scrapping the retail floors and turning them into office space or getting rid of both retail and office space to allow the structure to be developed as a hotel. The hotel option was proving far more appealing than in the early 1980s because of the agency's overwhelmingly positive experience in allowing Kimpton Hotels to transform the 170,000-square-foot (16,000 m2) vacant Tariff Commission Building into a 172-room luxury Hotel Monaco.
Redevelopment as a hotel
In January 2001, the General Services Administration sought to convert the Old Post Office Building into a hotel. GSA proposed buying out the Wells Fargo lease to regain control over the structure, and then allowing companies to bid for redevelopment rights. Companies would be required to pay GSA $12.5 million up front for these rights. If no agreement with a developer would be reached within 12 months, GSA said it would convert the entire building into office space. GSA eventually purchased the lease for $7.1 million.
Non-hotel redevelopment attempts
In 2002, lobbyist Jack Abramoff engaged in extensive illegal discussions with GSA chief of staff David H. Safavian an attempt to secure the lease on the structure for a Native American tribal client. Abramoff took Safavian on an all-expenses-paid golf trip to Scotland, during which time they discussed turning the lease over to the unidentified tribe. Savafian was later convicted of perjury for lying about his relationship with Abramaoff.
The General Services Administration issued a Request for Expression of Interest in 2004 for developing the Old Post Office Building. Several companies expressed interest, but GSA did not proceed further.
Little movement occurred over the next few years. By early 2004, the building's roof was leaking, and it needed substantial refurbishment of its HVAC systems. The Washington Post reported that some within GSA were still pushing for a retail use for the Old Post Office. The problem appeared to be the limited parking, difficult-to-configure interior space, and historic preservationists' opposition to piercing the walls to create storefronts and adding large signs to the exterior. Some D.C. developers suggested a better use would be private office space or a hotel. But the use which seemed to have the best chance in 2004 was as a National Women's History Museum. The museum, a private organization, was pushing legislation in Congress to have the Old Post Office Building transferred to them at no cost. The bill won passage in the U.S. Senate in November 2003. But local developers, city residents, and members of the House of Representatives were angry that a multi-million dollar building would be given away for free. The bill failed in the House. It was reintroduced in the 109th United States Congress, although this time the women's museum asked for only the East Atrium. This effort, too, was unsuccessful, even though the East Atrium had broken floor tiles and unfinished interior construction that exposed beams and left gaping holes instead of storefronts.
Limited movement on redevelopment
GSA issued a request for information (RFI) in March 2005. More than 20 responses were received, and many of them proposed a mixed-use design. The agency did not receive approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to proceed to a request for proposals (RFP), however. OMB did not believe that the responses to the RFI showed that redevelopment was in the best financial interest of the federal government, however.
In June 2006, record-setting rainfall of 12.11 inches (30.8 cm) fell on Washington, D.C., causing extensive flooding in the city. The basement of the Old Post Office Building flooded, as did the Ariel Rios Federal Building (headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), the Herbert C. Hoover Building (headquarters of the United States Department of Commerce), the Internal Revenue Service Building, the National Archives Building, and the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building. The Old Post Office Building, one of those on higher ground, reopened after two days. Most of the other buildings remained closed for a week.
No further activity occurred on the redevelopment issue in 2007. GSA estimated, however, that it would cost more than $100 million to modernize the structure. GSA also said that while it earned $5.4 million in rent at the Old Post Office Building in 2007, it spent $11.9 million on administrative and maintenance, for a loss of $6.5 million.
By 2008, still no action had been taken by GSA to redevelop the Old Post Office Building. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s Delegate to Congress, introduced the "Old Post Office Building Redevelopment Act of 2008" (H.R. 5001) to require GSA move faster on issuing a request for proposals. During hearings before the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, members of Congress singled out the Old Post Office Building for underutilization. The legislation passed the House on June 23, and the Senate on September 26. President George W. Bush signed it into law (P.L. 110-359) on October 8. As enacted, the Redevelopment Act required GSA to proceed with redevelopment of the Old Post Office Building and relocate all federal tenants. It required GSA to report to the appropriate House and Senate committees regarding any redevelopment agreement, and barred any redevelopment plan from coming into force until 30 days of a continuous session of Congress had passed.
The legislative effort was supported by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the federal agency with legal authority to approve all major transportation, building, and infrastructure projects in the national capital area. On July 12, 2008, the NCPC issued its new National Capital Framework, a plan designed to govern development in Washington, D.C. for the next 50 years. The plan was supported by the United States Commission of Fine Arts, the federal agency with legislative authority to approve the aesthetic design of all major buildings in the D.C. metropolitan area. The new National Capital Framework specifically asked that the Old Post Office Building be renovated in order to improve public amenities and support the ongoing revitalization of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Post-legislation redevelopment initiatives
With the passage of federal legislation, redevelopment efforts began to move more swiftly. GSA entered into discussions with OMB about how to relocate the federal employees working in the building. It also said it would issue a new RFP at the end of 2008.
But by October 2010, two years later, no major redevelopment goals had been met. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee strongly criticized GSA in a report for mismanaging the Old Post Office Building. The report specifically accused GSA of not moving to redevelop the property during a real estate boom in 2006. When the boom ended, GSA was stuck with the property, and the House committee accused the agency of losing more than $25 million on maintenance rather than generating income. With pressure building on the White House to deal with billions of dollars worth of excess or underutilized federal property, the Obama administration said it would take action to more quickly dispose of property like the Old Post Office. Rather than sell property at fire sale prices, the administration created a new independent advisory panel to help create a disposal plan for each individual building. D.C. area lawmakers pressed the advisory panel to act immediately on the Old Post Office. Real estate experts, however, asked the government to go slow. Douglas Firstenberg, a principal with StonebridgeCarras (a real estate property management firm that helped the federal government lease buildings), said that historic preservation restrictions and the large number of existing tenants made redevelopment difficult.
A new RFP was finally issued by GSA in March 2011. A significant number of submissions were received, although GSA declined to say how many or what they proposed. But among the proposals were a luxury hotel and a National Museum of the Jewish People. Bidders included The Trump Organization, Carpenter & Co., The JBG Companies, Monument Realty, and Hilton Worldwide. GSA said it would make a decision on which bidder to negotiate with by November 17. In all, GSA received 10 bids, most of which were hotels.
Lease to The Trump Organization
On February 6, 2012, GSA announced that it had chosen The Trump Organization as the potential redeveloper of the Old Post Office Building. The company partnered with Colony Capital, a private equity firm, in its bid. The Trump Organization bid pledged to spend $200 million to turn the structure into a 250-room (later sources said 261-room) luxury hotel. Much of the investment would be in cash, not debt. The hotel would include a conference center, spa, three high-end restaurants, and a 35,000-square-foot (3,300 m2) meeting and banquet facility. The company also pledged to create a small museum dedicated to the history of the building and the Bells of Congress, and to maintain the historic exterior. The Trump Organization also tentatively agreed to pay GSA $3 million a year in rent. The Trump Organization bid touted the involvement of Arthur Cotton Moore, a noted local architect who had renovated historic buildings in the area before and who had helped design the Old Post Office Building renovations in the 1970s.
There were many concerns expressed by local residents and historic preservationists by the successful Trump bid. Preservationists believed Trump would not respect the historic nature of the building and had almost no experience renovating historic properties but government officials said any redesign would need to be approved by the Commission of Fine Arts (whose secretary signaled heavy scrutiny for any changes). Trump dismissed concerns that he lacked experience with historic buildings, pointing to his redevelopment of Grand Central Terminal in New York City and the Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida. Some city residents worried that Trump would block access to the clock tower. However, the National Park Service said it will retain control over the clock tower and observation deck and it will keep them open for tours. Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein questioned the financial wisdom of selecting Trump/Colony Capital, given Trump's extensive problems with bankruptcy and Colony Capital's current problems keeping its hotel properties out of receivership. Pearlstein and local hoteliers argued that the market would not support the room rates Trump wished to charge, and therefore would not be able to support the excessive amount of redevelopment money and rent Trump was paying for the property. Robert Peck, Commissioner of the General Services Administration, defended the selection, arguing that the Trump/Colony Capital bid was by far the best in terms of financial commitment, experience in renovating and managing properties, and quality of design. Peck dismissed criticism about Trump's numerous past bankruptcies, noting that these mostly concerned casinos rather than hotels.
There was, however, also the opinion expressed by Washington Post business reporters Petula Dvorak and Jonathan O'Connell that the new Trump hotel would help spark an economic renaissance in the Downtown neighborhood.
In March 2012, the Washington Post reported that Monument Realty offered a base rent much higher than that of The Trump Organization. Monument and development partner Angelo, Gordon & Co. proposed a 260,000-square-foot (24,000 m2) office building with a media center on the first three floors. It also proposed demolishing the annex in favor of a parking garage. Monument Realty bid for the building with a lease price of $5.1 million annually, with rent increases based on the building's performance. The Trump Organization, however, offered $200 million in redevelopment dollars, while Monument would have provided just $116.5 million. GSA scored submission based on experience and past performance, design concept, financial capacity and capability, and initial development investment. It was unclear, therefore, that Monument's bid was superior to The Trump Organization's bid.
Another bidder, BP-Metropolitan Investors, filed an official protest in April 2012 against GSA for awarding the redevelopment to The Trump Organization. The bidding group, which included Hilton Worldwide, said GSA failed to take into account Trump's repeated bankruptcies and unrealistic economic assumptions. GSA said Metropolitan lost the award because it offered to spend only $140 million to renovate the building. GSA responded to the protest by noting that since the redevelopment was not a procurement, there were no legal grounds for protesting its decision.
Trump lease negotiations
In the summer of 2012, The Trump Organization asked the District of Columbia to waive possessory interest taxes on the Old Post Office Building. The possessory interest tax was estimated at about $3 million in 2012, although it would likely be far more once the property was fully redeveloped. D.C. tax officials denied the relief. Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesperson for Mayor Vincent C. Gray, said, "It was never part of the bid proposal that the project would not be subject to the tax." David Orowitz, the Vice President for Acquisitions and Development in The Trump Organization, said that the denial of tax relief was not a surprise and would not change the financial calculations of the company's bid. Donald Trump later denied seeking any tax relief.
As the clock ticked on the one-year deadline to finalize a deal with GSA, The Trump Organization hired Streetsense, a real estate and retail design firm, to select restaurants and retailers the Old Post Office Pavilion. Trump chose the company over local real estate developer Douglas Jemal and retail design firm Ashkenazy Acquisition. Tiffany & Co. was among the retailers the company talked to.
The redevelopment project received a blow when architect Arthur Cotton Moore left the project in late September 2012 for health reasons. Moore said he hoped to rejoin the development team once his health improved.
Six development meetings were held with GSA, the CFA, D.C. government officials, and The Trump Organization between February and December 2012. Determining what was acceptable redevelopment was critical if a final lease agreement was to be signed. The Trump Organization's new design team consisted of the firms Beyer Blinder Belle and WDG Architecture (formerly Edwin Weihe & Associates). The Trump Organization proposed extending 11th Street NW south of Pennsylvania Avenue NW. City officials asked that a half-block of C Street NW south of the hotel be reopened with redevelopment money, too, but The Trump Organization declined the request. The architectural team proposed adding retail on all four corners of the Old Post Office Building, and building a new mezzanine level inside it (with a restaurant on top and a spa and fitness center below). Historic preservation agencies refused to allow various types of canopies or signs bearing the hotel's name along Pennsylvania Avenue, and six alternative designs for the East Atrium were rejected out of hand by the CFA. But still under consideration was a proposal to convert the lower level of the East Atrium into parking with the upper level retained as a ballroom.
By late January 2013, no final lease agreement had been reached. However, both The Trump Organization and GSA said that they were closing in on a deal, and GSA said it was unlikely to reopen the bidding process if one was not reached by the 12-month deadline. Trump officials and GSA attributed the delay to the length of the lease, which created complexities that needed time to be resolved. GSA also said there were also unique issues raised by the building's historic status. Nonetheless, federal law required GSA to reach a deal by June 2013 or reopen the bidding process.
Change in financing and receiving preliminary regulatory approval
Donald Trump asserted that a deal was "weeks" away in mid-April 2013. But even as he said that, contrary to rumor, he was not seeking to renegotiate his initial agreement with GSA, The Trump Organization re-evaluated its partnership with Colony Capital. Trump said his company was likely to either replace Colony or finance the entire redevelopment deal in cash. GSA officials said any such change would not affect the negotiations.
The Trump Organization cleared several regulatory hurdles in April and May 2013. On April 28, the Commission of Fine Arts gave non-binding, preliminary approval to the company's draft redevelopment plan. On May 16, GSA completed an environmental impact assessment (EIA) which concluded the redevelopment would have no significant adverse historic, land use, or transportation impacts. The EIA also concluded that the hotel would generate about $6.5 million per year in hotel bed tax revenue and $1.5 million in sales tax revenue.
Final lease agreement
On June 4, GSA reached a final agreement with The Trump Organization regarding redevelopment of the Old Post Office Building. The Trump Organization negotiated a 60-year lease under which it paid $250,000 in rent per month, with annual increases tied to the Consumer Price Index. Rent payments were to begin either eight months after construction started or 20 months after the lease's signing, whichever came first. The company had the option to extend the lease another 40 years. The Trump Organization agreed to spend at least $200 million redeveloping the property, with Trump using his personal funds to pay for the redevelopment. To allay concerns by critics that he too often defaulted on developments, Trump agreed to provide a $40 million personal guaranty as well as a "bad acts" (to cover failure to pay taxes, fraud, or other forms of misconduct). The Trump Organization agreed to pay all taxes, although the lease did not bar the company from seeking a historic preservation tax credit.
The Trump Organization agreed to turn the Old Post Office Building into a 260-room hotel (although some sources said there would be 267 rooms, some said 270, some said 271, and others 275). Many of the rooms would have 25-foot (7.6 m) high ceilings, although most ceilings would be 14-to-16-foot (4.3 to 4.9 m) high. The average room was expected to be 600 square feet (56 m2) in size, and the hotel would have a higher percentage of suites and larger-than-average rooms to draw corporate executive and diplomats.
In what were formerly the offices of the Postmaster General of the United States, the company planned two "presidential suites" of 3,000 square feet (280 m2) each with 16-foot (4.9 m) ceilings. Each presidential suite would have a working fireplace, sauna, steam room, walk-in closet, direct-access elevators, and views of Pennsylvania Avenue NW and the National Mall.
Redevelopment plans included an art gallery, café, bar, fitness center, library, lounge with fountain, meeting rooms, spa, two or three upscale restaurants, several luxury retail shops, a 4,000-square-foot (370 m2) Mar-A-Lago brand spa, and a small museum about the building, its clock tower, and its bells. The Trump Organization agreed to continue to allow the public access to the clock tower and observation platform. The National Park Service agreed to operate the clock tower tours. The exterior of the building (including the multicolor brick and granite pavement designed by Aleksandra Kasuba) would be preserved in its historic state. Pending approval by regulatory authorities, The Trump Organization proposed building a floor over the ground level (turning the mezzanine into a floor), although the grand staircase would remain. Most of the retail would occupy the ground and second floor, while the historic Stamp Counter on the east side of the ground floor would become the hotel registration desk.
Major changes would be made to the 86,000-square-foot (8,000 m2) East Atrium and the streets around it. The Trump Organization intended to convert the 34,400-square-foot (3,200 m2) basement level into a 150-space parking garage, with a 31,600-to-35,000-square-foot (2,940 to 3,250 m2) ballroom on the ground level and 20,000 square feet (1,900 m2) of conference room space on the second floor. The ballroom's size would make it the largest in any luxury hotel in the city. The city agreed to extend 11th Street NW into the Federal Triangle south to C Street NW to provide access for automobiles. The Old Post Office Building's entrance on 11th Street NW would again be the structure's main entrance (opening the door on the long-closed side of the building). Pending final regulatory approval, a new steel and glass canopy will be constructed over the new entrance and a "Trump International Hotel" sign suspended inside the entrance arch.
The 12th Street NW entrance would become the secondary entrance, providing public access to the restaurants and retail stores. Awnings would be over windows and the entrance on the ground floor, and a sign for the hotel added over the entrance. Outdoor seating would be added on the 12th Street NW, 11th Street NW, and Pennsylvania Avenue NW sides of the building. C Street NW would not be reopened to automobile traffic. The Trump Organization said it would remove the ahistoric glass and steel ground floor storefront on the C Street side and expand and renovate the public plaza there by adding outdoor seating and a performance space.
Construction was scheduled to start in 2014, perhaps as early as the first three months of the year. The new Trump International Hotel was scheduled to open in 2016 (although some sources suggested late 2015).
Under the 2008 redevelopment law, Congress had 30 days to disapprove the lease or it would become final. Anticipating no problems from the legislature, GSA began relocating the existing federal tenants in the Old Post Office Building.
Another major regulatory hurdle was cleared by The Trump Organization in early July 2013. The staff of the National Capital Planning Commission recommended to the agency that it approve the redevelopment plans. The NCPC staff report suggested that GSA and The Trump Organization continue to work on exterior signage designs to ensure they appropriate. The full commission approved the staff report and gave preliminary approval to the company's building plans. The NCPC asked the organization to return in fall 2013 with final plans.
On August 5, 2013, Congress allowed the lease between GSA and The Trump Organization to go into force. The Washington Business Journal reported that the lease called for a 263-room (another source said 270-room) hotel and for Trump to spend $250 million on renovations. The D.C. Preservation League (the former Don't Tear It Down) said it supported the Trump redevelopment of the site.
The Trump Organization hired the interior design firm of Hirsch Bedner Associates to work on the interior aesthetics of the Old Post Office Building. The company said it would retain many of the historic interior features of the building, including the wide upstairs hallways. The interior design tentatively featured brass-and-crystal chandeliers and hand-woven rugs in the public areas. Guest rooms were tentatively expected to have wool carpeting, 6-foot (1.8 m) long bathtubs, crystal lighting sconces, and crystal chandeliers. No room price had yet been set by September 2013.
Development of the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., was expected to provide economic benefits for the city. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said studies by the city showed it generating $100 million in tax revenue over 10 years. Construction would create 700 temporary jobs, and the hotel and retail businesses in the building would create 300 permanent jobs, he said. The main floor of the nine-story atrium would also include a water sculpture and trees.
The Trump organization said the $200 million renovation would begin on May 1, 2014, with the closure of the clock tower. The renovation should take two years.
As of September 2013, National Park Service rangers provide tours of the Old Post Office Pavilion's Clock Tower.
The structure is the third tallest building in the city, and the 270-foot-high (82 m) observation deck in the 315-foot (96 m) high tower offers spectacular views of the city. The tower includes an exhibit depicting the building's long struggle for survival, and a view of the interior workings of the illuminated clock.
Visitors can also view the Bells of Congress (also known as the Ditchley Bells). The bells are replicas of those at Westminster Abbey and were donated to the United States by the Ditchley Foundation as a bicentennial gift. The 10-bell peal consists of bells ranging from 300 to 3,000 pounds (140 to 1,360 kg), and from 2 to 4.5 feet (0.61 to 1.37 m) in diameter. They are 78 percent copper and 22 percent tin, and each bell features the Great Seal of the United States, the Great Seal of the Realm, and an image of the flower London Pride in relief. Because the tower was not designed to hold bells, the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and the structural engineering firm Cagley & Associates were hired to modify the tower so that it could accommodate the weight of the bells as well as handle the stresses of their swing.
The Washington Ringing Society sounds the Bells of Congress every Thursday evening and on special occasions. The official bells of the United States Congress, they are one of the largest sets of change ringing bells in North America.
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- The federal government owns a large amount of property in the District of Columbia. The U.S. Constitution bars state and local governments from taxing the federal government. In order to prevent private businesses from evading property taxes by renting space from the federal government, the District of Columbia in 2000 enacted a "possessory interest tax" that captures much of the same revenue from those businesses leasing space from the federal government.
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For further reading
- Shultz, Scott G. "America's Watchtower: Saving the Old Post Office," Cultural Resource Management No. 2, 1998.
- Trump International Hotel, Washington, D.C.
- Old Post Office Pavilion Management Company
- Old Post Office Tower Web site of the National Park Service
- Old Post Office Web site of the General Services Administration
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