VA Central Office Timeline
One hundred years ago, in 1919, while the world was in the midst of the “war to end all wars,” the Lafayette Park area in Washington, D.C. was abuzz with the sounds of construction workers erecting a new office building, known as the Arlington Building.
For nearly 10 years the corner of Vermont Avenue, N.W., and H Street had sat vacant–an open wasteland situated too close to the prestigious White House–and was a local eyesore. The empty lot was a painful reminder of dashed hopes and faded memories for the once world-renowned Arlington Hotel which met a tragic end.
2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Arlington Building, known today as the VA Central Office Building, and 100 years of Veterans benefits being administered from the same location in D.C. The Arlington Building was completed in the fall of 1918 and fully occupied by the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, a VA predecessor created to provide benefits to World War I servicemembers and veterans, in March 1919. Over the coming months you will learn more about the building, the land, and its history, as well as the people associated with its evolution.
On April 5, 1918, the Treasury Department announced its purchase of the Arlington Building, then under construction on the corner of Vermont Avenue and 14th Street in Washington, D.C.
Treasury planned to use the building as an annex to house 18 offices of the Bureau of War Risk Insurance (BWRI), a VA predecessor, and Internal Revenue Service. At the time, those offices were scattered in multiple offices at various points in the city. The new building’s price tag was $4.2 million dollars, which came from the War Emergency Fund, because the programs that would be housed were connected to the war.
The prime slice of real estate that Treasury purchased, located so conveniently near the White House, had once been home to the grand and famous Arlington Hotel. The old hotel was razed and demolished in 1912 because of plans for a new hotel that eventually went bust. A dirt-filled vacant lot was all that was left in its place. For two years, the empty lot was an eyesore, serving as a reminder of failed plans and dreams gone awry in the heart of a city that valued success, money, and power. In 1914 a group of investors, mostly men from Richmond, Virginia, who formed the Arlington Corporation, bought the lot at auction. By the summer of 1915 talk of erecting a new hotel at the site was renewed and architectural plans were being prepared by Wyatt & Nolting of Baltimore. In the fall of 1916 bids for proposals to build a new hotel were solicited.
In the spring of 1917, just as the U.S. entered World War I, plans for the building changed significantly. On June 20, 1917, construction commenced on an 11-story fireproof office building. Wyatt & Nolting remained as architects and, in August 1917, a drawing of the planned structure was released to the media, just as Navy planned to occupy the building. Congress established life insurance programs in 1918 for servicemen going off to war and, as a consequence, the Bureau of War Risk Insurance mushroomed and needed the space more than Navy. In April 1918, just as Treasury purchased the building, Executive Order 2823 was signed to temporarily suspend the 8-hour work limit so that the new building could be finished in record time.
In the fall of 1918 Congress appropriated over $55,000 specifically for certain Arlington Building needs: building superintendents, engineers, elevator conductors, electricians, plumbers, painters, helpers, janitors, watchmen, water coolers, window shades, etc.–minimal operating and furnishings costs until the building could be fully occupied. Bureau of War Risk Insurance staff moved into the new Arlington Building in March 1919. Today the Arlington Building is known as the VA Central Office Building.
On August 9, 1921, the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, Public Health Service veterans’ hospitals, and the Rehabilitation Division of the Federal Board of Vocational Education were merged to form the Veterans Bureau, which was merged nine years later, in July 1930, with the Pension Bureau and National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers to form the Veterans Administration (VA). In October 1988, Congress authorized VA’s elevation to a Cabinet-level department known as the Department of Veterans Affairs.
As construction of the Arlington Building progressed, thousands of new Bureau of War Risk Insurance employees were hired to process millions of servicemembers’ life insurance policy claims. They desperately needed workspace and occupied the Smithsonian Natural History museum as temporary office space until they could move into the new Arlington Building.
Four hundred years ago, the patch of earth now occupied by the VA Central Office in Washington, D.C., was part of a vast expanse of raw, undeveloped land–fields and forests–that was home to thousands of indigenous people who had lived here for centuries. The native people of this region lived in villages located at nearby waterways where they farmed, fished, and hunted and enjoyed a rich culture in harmony with nature before they encountered the first Europeans. The earliest known map of this region was drawn in the 1500s after Europeans like Christopher Columbus first explored the continent in search of gold and riches or a swift route to the Orient for trade purposes. In 1562 Diego Gutierrez, a Spanish cartographer, and Hieronymus Cock, a Fleming engraver, created one of the first maps to show both North and South America–which were newly discovered by Europeans. Nearly 50 years later, Captain John Smith of England produced one of the first detailed maps of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland–which included the area now known as the District of Columbia–for the British crown. Captain Smith’s 1606 map was published in 1612 and identified more than 200 Native American villages and tribes that had long lived in this vicinity. The future D.C. area is shown to the right of “Patawmack flu” (Potomac River) in the image below.
By the mid-1750s, a steady influx of European immigrants who increasingly encroached on Native American’s land led to numerous treaties with Native Americans, in efforts to maintain peace, while colonists grew more discontented with the King who ruled them from thousands of miles away. On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence announced the colonists’ intent to be free of British rule. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783 with signing of the Treaty of Paris and a new nation and government was soon established. Under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1788) the new government met in Philadelphia, Princeton, Annapolis, Trenton, and New York, as no permanent capital had been selected.
On July 16, 1790, during the second session of the First Congress, a permanent seat of government for the new United States was authorized: “That a district of territory, not exceeding ten miles square, to be located as hereafter directed on the river Potomac, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and Connogochegue. . .is hereby accepted for the permanent seat of the government of the United States.” The temporary capital remained in Philadelphia for ten years, until December 1800, per Section 6 of the law. In March 1791, an amendment to the July 16, 1790 law authorized boundaries for the new capital to extend into Virginia, including the town of Alexandria.
Selection of the permanent U.S. capital, referred to then as “Federal city,” created a boom in real estate speculation as capitalists clamored to buy out farmers interested in selling for the cause. Samuel Davidson, a resident of the Georgetown neighborhood (established in 1751), owned a large parcel of land of which the VACO building sits today. David Burnes/Burns, a third-generation Scot in America, owned adjacent property where the White House now sits. In June 1791 Samuel Davidson signed an agreement transferring his land to Thomas Beall and John Mackall Gantt, commissioners appointed by the government to procure land for the new federal city, for five shillings. Selection of a site for the President’s House–known today as the White House–was made in 1791, the same year as Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for the new city was completed; the cornerstone was laid and construction of the building began in 1792.
Development of the city and Lafayette Park neighborhood was slow and further delayed by the War of 1812. In the third year of the war the President’s House (White House), the Capitol, and nearly every other federal building was burned by British troops who occupied the area. Construction of the first federal buildings for the State, Navy, and War departments began in 1801. St. John’s Church, located around the corner from today’s VACO building was constructed in 1815, the Treasury Building opened in 1836, and construction of the Washington Monument began in 1848. Commodore Stephen Decatur, a War of 1812 veteran, was the first to build a private residence near President’s Park, adjacent to the President’s House, in 1818 and others followed. President’s Park was renamed as Lafayette Park, after General Lafayette in France, in 1824.
The need for hotels in the U.S. capital mushroomed as the boundaries of our country expanded westward. New states meant more senators and representatives, as well as visitors or constituents, who came to town and required temporary accommodations. John Gadsby, of Alexandria, Virginia, opened one of the earliest hotels in D.C.–the National Hotel–located near the White House in 1827; his hotel was the site of President Andrew Jackson’s inaugural ball. Twenty years later, in 1847, Henry and Edwin Willard opened their hotel–the Willard Hotel–on part of David Burnes’ old farm at the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1847 Congressmen typically held temporary residences in the National Hotel, Willard’s Hotel, Coleman’s Hotel, Brown’s or the U.S. Hotel, or at a number of boarding houses or apartments. The Federal City never developed land on the Virginia side of the Potomac and was retroceded back to the state in 1846.
Development of D.C. was facilitated by bankers and investors like William Wilson Corcoran, son of Thomas and Hannah Corcoran. His father was a shoemaker from Ireland who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1700s. William Corcoran started out as a dry-good merchant before working at a bank run by John Mason, son of Virginia’s George Mason, a Founding Father. Corcoran was then transferred to the branch of the United States bank, located opposite to the Treasury Building, at a time when banking in the new nation was in critical flux during the 1830s under President Andrew Jackson.
In the span of one year, while working in the same building, William Corcoran went from an $800 per year job to become banker-in-chief. Corcoran’s deft skill in banking earned him the respect of Elisha Riggs who later became his partner in business. The Corcoran and Riggs Bank sold government bonds at the outbreak of the war with Mexico, made a fortune, and became a world-renowned bank. Corcoran used his wealth to re-invest in his hometown by collecting art, investing in property near the White House, establishing schools, churches, charitable institutions, and an art gallery (now known as the Renwick Gallery). The Corcoran and Riggs Bank building still stands today across from the Treasury building, but is now known as PNC Bank.
William Corcoran married Louise Morris in 1833, daughter of Commodore Charles Morris who was naval executive officer of the USS Constitution during the War of 1812. Of three children born during their marriage, only one survived. Corcoran’s wife, Louise, died in 1841. Corcoran’s only child, Louise Morris Corcoran, married Congressman George Eustis of New Orleans, in April 1859 in one of the biggest weddings D.C. had ever seen at the time. As a millionaire’s daughter she was a reluctant celebrity and many of her activities were recorded in newspapers. She traveled abroad during the Civil War and on December 4, 1867, died of consumption (tuberculosis) in France at the age of 29. Corcoran was nearly 69 years old when his daughter died and he was heartbroken. Out of his misery, though, he found a way to pay tribute to her.
Barely two years after his daughter’s passing, in early 1869, William Corcoran purchased additional properties across from the White House and Lafayette Park with the idea of building the finest hotel in the nation’s capital. With profits from his new hotel, along with an endowment, he founded the Louise Home in honor of his wife and daughter “for the maintenance and comfort of a limited number of gentlewomen who have been reduced by misfortune.” His grand hotel, initially known as the Arlington House Hotel, in tribute to General Robert E. Lee’s home that was confiscated by the U.S. government during the Civil War (and is now Arlington Cemetery), opened in November 1869. Over the years the hotel name was shortened to just “Arlington Hotel” and for nearly 50 years it occupied the land where VA’s Central Office (VACO) stands today.