U.S. Department of the Interior

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History of the South Interior Building, Washington DC

The South Interior Building, Washington, D.C. Headquarters for the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), is rich in history. This is an unofficial staff compilation of the South Interior Building history that was developed from many published sources. Much of the information was collected during the 50th Anniversary of the Joint Chiefs of Staff celebration, held in the in the Director's office on February 10, 1992. All photos are from the National Archives and are linked to captions in the text.

Constructed in 1932 as the Public Health Building, the South Interior Building has had a fascinating past...the defeat of Hitler's forces in Europe had its beginning within the building walls, teepees and tennis courts once had their place on the grounds where the building now stands, and plans were laid for construction of the first atomic bomb in an isolated wooden structure on the roof of the building.

1931 construction from the Southwest side

1931 construction from the Southwest side.

Original construction plans for the building were begun by the Public Health Service in 1931 - before the wide lanes of Constitution Avenue covered over what was then called "B" Street. Before construction began the site had many uses. The Army's Quartermaster kept his horses in stables along the 19th Street side of the lot, on B Street was a YWCA cafeteria and the "Stumble Inn." The glassed-in porches at the back of the YWCA building over looked an expanse of tennis courts, a club house and a snack bar. A public alley running behind the stables and the tennis courts joined 19th and 20th Streets. The perimeter of the lot was shaded by elm trees that were destroyed during the building construction.

On May 6, 1931 the cornerstone was laid

On May 6, 1931 the cornerstone was laid.

The bulldozers and wrecking cranes came early in the summer of 1931. In those days government buildings were commissioned by the agency which was going to occupy them, so the man directly responsible for this building was the Surgeon General, Hugh S. Cumming. The architect he chose was J.H. deSibour, who designed the three-story "E"-shaped marble building which stands today.

The original octagon office

The original octagon office.

DeSibour also designed a very handsome private office for the Surgeon General. The room, an octagon shape placed where the west leg of the "E" joins the front wing, was embellished with pecan paneling, ornamental carving, a molded plaster ceiling, parquet floor, marble fireplace, and crystal chandeliers. This room has the reputation of being the largest government office in Washington, even larger than the Oval Office in the White House. Cumming was probably able to afford this large, ornate office through his economy in not having central air-conditioning installed. Although it was becoming standard equipment in government offices he thought it unhealthy for anyone living in Washington's hot, muggy climate!

1933 view immediately after the Public Health Service had moved into the building

1933 view immediately after the Public Health Service had moved into the building.

The Public Health Service moved in to the building in 1933, when construction was almost completed. Then, in December 1941, a meeting was held in the Federal Reserve Building next door which was to have important consequences for the building as well as world history. At this meeting, known as the Arcadia Conference, the heads of Great Britain's military staff and the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff were united under the designation "Combined Chiefs of Staff." In order that the closest possible communications be maintained between London and Washington, it was decided that representatives of the British Chiefs should remain in Washington and confer daily with the American Chiefs of Staff.

An announcement by President Roosevelt followed on January 30, 1942, saying the Public Health Service Building was to be renamed the Combined Chiefs of Staff Building. It was here that the British representatives met regularly with the United States Chiefs of Staff, most of whom had offices in the Navy buildings across Constitution Avenue. The Main Navy Building and Munitions Building were both torn down in the 1970s.

Original entrance to the building

Original entrance to the building.

The room that is now the OSMRE Director's office, was where the Joint Chiefs met to make decisions affecting the lives of millions of people during World War II, and the present auditorium was the map room. During the war, the doors of the map room were closed and sealed, and an opening was cut in the floor to allow a sliding carriage to raise maps from the basement-level boiler pit. By the close of the war, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had held 201 meetings, most of which took place in their Combined Chiefs of Staff Building.

Later, the Combined Chiefs of Staff Building was the site of the planning for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. The planning was done in a temporary wooden structure atop the two-story center wing of the Building. The Manhattan Project was so important that the building was sealed, and sharpshooters maintained a round-the-clock vigil to guard it.

In 1947, the war was over, the Combined Chiefs were disbanded, and the newly created Atomic Energy Commission moved into the building. Quite possibly the allocation was made because of the high security arrangements which had been necessary during the war years. The Atomic Energy Commission remained in the building until August 1958, when the National Science Foundation took it over as the center for its program of administering and financing research at colleges and universities across the country. That organization was in turn succeeded by the Department of the Interior, whose Bureau of Indian Affairs moved in during April 1965.

It was under the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the building experienced one of its most dramatic events. On November 3, 1972, a week before the Presidential election, a group of Native American Indians barricaded themselves inside the building in an attempt to make their concerns known to the government. For seven days teepees covered the front lawn, manned by some of the protesters made up in war paint and brandishing spears. When the Indians finally left, the building was standing; but, its interior was in shambles. Windows had been broken, furniture and equipment destroyed, graffiti covered the walls, and the halls were knee-deep in papers from overturned files. Although it took a long time to restore order no serious structural damage had been done. In 1977 the building gained its current tenant, the newly formed Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Shortly after OSMRE moved into the building, the temporary Manhattan Project structure on the roof was demolished. Preservationists attempted to stop the demolition; but, were unsuccessful. Each day as the wrecking ball finished its work the preservationists would salvage pieces of the walls the scientists had use to scribble notes on.

The General Services Administration began work on renovation in November, 1978, in an effort to bring the building up to General Services Administration fire and safety standards. The third and mezzanine floors of the center wing, original built of wood, were removed and the third floor replaced in steel and limestone. New stairwells at the ends of the wings were added for greater ease of evacuation in case of fire, and new fire alarms with smoke detectors were installed. In addition, a new heating and cooling system, new electric wiring, and new steam and water lines were added. The outside of the building was cleaned, and interior repainting and replastering peeling walls completed. At the same time this renovation was going on the new staff of the OSMRE was writing the final regulations for implementation of the Surface Mining Law. As work crews proceeded from one section of the building to the next the large body of regulation writers would quickly move into the finished areas.

The renovation work in the octagonal office which was once the Surgeon General's office included removal of fluorescent lights in the ornamental plaster moldings of the ceiling. They were replaced by a handsome brass chandelier which duplicates in spirit, the original crystal one. A General Services Administration decorator tastefully chose furniture and decor to fit the period of the room and the wall-to-wall carpeting was cut back to show the beautiful parquet floor beneath. Except for the comfort of the air-conditioning, someone in this office today could almost be waiting for a chat with that first Surgeon General.

While the renovation was being done, OSMRE employees moved from one section of the building to another until January 1981, when work was completed and the building officially became the headquarters of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Page Last Modified/Reviewed: 4/24/17

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