USTR - History of the Winder Building, Home to USTR's Washington D.C. Headquarters
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The Office of the United States Trade Representative

History of the Winder Building, Home to USTR's Washington D.C. Headquarters


The headquarters of the Office of the United States Trade Representative are located in the Winder Building at 600 17th St., NW in Washington, D.C., a pre-Civil War building of historic significance that Early lithograph of the Winder Building in Washington, D.C.narrowly escaped demolition in an urban renewal city program in the 1970s.

The Winder building, named after its builder, William H. Winder, was Washington’s first “skyscraper” when it opened for business in 1848. The government purchased the building in 1854 for $200,000. Originally designed as office space for the U.S. Army and Navy, the building has housed a variety of government tenants over the years, including a military arms museum.

Around the time of the Civil War, 1860-65, occupants of the Winder Building included the Quartermaster General and the Navy's Bureau of Ordinance and Hydrography and later, the Headquarters for the Bureau of Military JustPhotograph showing signal station on the roof of the Winder Building in 1865.ice under Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt. In 1865, the Winder roof served as a signal station of the Washington detachment of the U. S. Signal Corps for communication via flag signals to military fortifications and camps around Washington.

In 1888, the building was transferred to the Department of Treasury, which later built a cafeteria restaurant for its employees in 1896. The Second Auditor of the Treasury and his staff occupied the building exclusively for many years. During World War I, the Army occupied part of the building. In 1949, the U.S. General Services Administration, which is the building manager for many government facilities, took control of the Winder Building and has maintained it ever since.

During the 1970s, the White House used the building, which was undergoing renovation. At the end of the Carter Administration, the Council on Wage Price Stability occupied the building for a short time. USTR took up residence in 1981, moving from offices at 1800 G Street, and before that in a building that is now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Architecture and history

The Winder Building has 60,000 square feet of floor space, 130 rooms on five floors with 104 windows. When built, it was the tallest and largest office building in the District, measuring 75 feet in height and 210 feet in length on the F Street facade. The building was constructed to be entirely fireproof with a pitched wooden roof sheathed in sheet metal.

The Winder building was the first in the city to use central heating and cast iron beams. While the central heating system was a failure – Congress had to purchase dozens of stoves to provide supplemental heat – the cast iron beams were an architectural achievement. At one point in the building's early history, the roof blew off during a storm, but the fourth and fifth floor tenants had no idea. Another unusual detail is the wrought-iron tie, which is found at the corners and cross walls of the building at every few rows of bricks, bracing the building together.

Photograph of the Winder Annex.Three other buildings near the Winder building shared some similar architectural elements. The Winder Annex was the most noteworthy. Built in 1882, it was directly adjacent to the main building on the left-hand side facing Seventeenth Street. The two buildings were similar in style, and at one point they were connected. Next door to the annex was Nichols Café, a federal-style townhouse built in 1830 that served both as a restaurant and private dwelling. A third building, located on the corner of 17th and G streets, was built by the Washington Loan and Trust Company in 1924. This bank later became part of Riggs National Bank in 1954 until it was vacated in 1965.

Brush with destruction

In 1969, the Winder Building was declared a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, but the three other buildings were excluded. At the time of its nomination and appointment to the National Registry of Historic Places, the National Capital Planning Commission described the Winder Building as “one of the few remaining pre-Civil War office buildings in Washington, probably the earliest and least altered one in existence.”

But despite the historic designation, the General Services Administration announced plans to demolish the Winder and the three buildings to make way for a new office building. A citizen’s group, Don’t Tear it Down, Inc., filed suit in 1974 to prevent the demolition. The Advisory Council on Historic Places sought to place the three other buildings on the historic register, making it more difficult for GSA to tear them down. GSA said it would not destroy the Winder building, and the agency agreed to delay a decision on the other buildings until the matter was submitted to a full council meeting.

But despite this promise, and before legal status was confirmed, GSA began demolition of the buildings - on a Sunday. Ultimately the case against GSA was dismissed as moot after GSA took responsibility and apologized for its past actions. As mitigation for the demolition of the other buildings, GSA allotted money toward the modernization of the Winder building.

The renovations of the Winder building were completed in 1976, and included air conditioning, heat, and general ventilation. To satisfy the fire safety codes, the stairwells were enclosed in glass and sprinklers were installed throughout the building. An elevator room was added to the building (the older elevators had been in a different location). Doors were restored to replicate the originals. The intricate wrought iron balcony was restored. The original balcony, which ran along the second floor, had been sold as scrap metal in 1922.

Myths

As with many old buildings, there are a number of myths associated with the Winder building that add to its mystique. It was once thought that during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln would visit the Winder building to receive telegraphs about the progress of the war from the southern and western battle areas as well as view military parades from the building's exterior iron balcony. However, it is documented that the telegraph machines were housed in the Telegraph Office of the Old War building and that the military telegraph did not have even one line to the Winder building.

Another unproven myth is that Lincoln kept some of his horses and carriages in the stables behind the Winder building. It is also believed that President Lincoln visited confederate soldiers who were being held in a dungeon-basement inside the Winder building. However, according to research, there was never a prison in the basement, nor was anyone ever incarcerated in the building. Documents show only that civilian suspects were questioned in the building's basement.

Another myth that has never been proved is that four successive commanding generals of the Union Army (Scott, Halleck, McClellan, and Grant) occupied offices in the Winder building. Yet most generals during that time were headquartered in what was the Grant building on the southwest corner of 17th and F Streets. Documents do show, however, that following Lincoln's death, the building was the site of the entire investigation surrounding his assassination, including the place where evidence was amassed.

Without the famous inhabitants, myths, and the beautiful, historic architecture, the Winder building would not have as much significance as it does today. And while USTR, as its current inhabitant, has begun to outgrow the building (recently housing some employees in a building across the street), USTR is proud to be part of Winder's history.

The Winder Building, August 2000.


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Historical Note: This document is intended to provide a general historical overview and, thus, lacks source document citations. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, however, does possess many of the source documents from which this overview is derived.