Saving the Unloved: The J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building and Brutalist Preservation

Mitchell, S. Michael, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Wilson, Richard, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
Crane, Sheila, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
Longstreth, Richard, Department of American Studies, George Washington University

Brutalist buildings have long been derided by critics as harsh, aesthetically displeasing, and relics of a misguided approach to design. By the early twenty-first century, it had become clear that many of such buildings were under threat. A score of preservation losses led to the demolition of many well-known, if disliked, concrete modernist buildings. However, a preservation movement to save Brutalism, emerging out of the larger effort to save modernism, had developed and devoted significant resources toward advocacy. Further, indiscriminate use of the term “Brutalism” masked a more complex history and served as only another obstacle for preservationists.

Such sentiment was not apparent as the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington, D.C. appeared to be destined for demolition. When the FBI announced in summer 2014 plans to vacate the building, it seemed a foregone conclusion, including among many preservationists, that the building would be torn down. Designed by Stanislaw Gladych and Carter Manny Jr. and their project team at C.F. Murphy & Associates in the 1960s, the FBI Building was supposed to be a crowning achievement of the President’s Council on Pennsylvania Avenue, led by architect Nathaniel Owings, and a keystone of the redevelopment of the street. Instead, a lengthy design review process with the Commission of Fine Arts and a host of concessions to the security demands of the FBI resulted in a product that ultimately satisfied none of the parties involved and seemed compromised—in other words, architecture designed by committee—before the building opened.

Questions had circulated since the mid-1970s about the appropriateness of the building in Washington architecture. Much of this criticism failed to account for the breadth of the collection of other concrete modernist, or Brutalist, public buildings of the period. In form, scale, and material, federal architecture of the 1960s communicated through a common architectural language a postwar confidence in the ability of the government to solve societal problems. As a product of a mid-twentieth century search for a “new federal architecture,” the FBI Building merits recognition and advocacy, and could be altered to mitigate its harsher qualities.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
Nathaniel Owings, Pennsylvania Avenue, new federal architecture, Brutalist preservation, Stanislaw Gladych, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Gordon Bunshaft, concrete modernism, C. F. Murphy & Associates, Brutalism, J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, Carter Manny, modernist preservation, historic preservation, Commission of Fine Arts
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