The following is an excerpted chapter from the 1988 book From Lighthouses to Laserbeams: A History of the US Department of Commerce, available to read in full online through the Commerce Research Library.
Land for the monumental Department of Commerce building was purchased in 1910. The $2,460,000 site, a swampland of snakes, frogs, mosquitoes, flies and an occasional wolf, had been shunned by the original inhabitants of Washington, D.C. The Indians preferred to live in dry and comparatively healthy villages such as those north of Georgetown and on Capitol Hill.
The marshland lay on the edge of a swiftly flowing silver band of water named Goose Creek—later renamed Tiber Creek by city planners. Concern was expressed about Pierre Charles L'Enfant's plans to build the White House so close to the swamp, which would later be blamed for the prevalence of malaria in the city.
L'Enfant's original designs envisioned a great canal draining swamps, checking spring floods, and providing an impressive channel for waterborne passengers and cargo from the Potomac to the foot of Capitol Hill. Instead, poorly built, the canal became a cesspool. In 1871 it was drained and paved over. It is now Constitution Avenue. The only reminder of the canal's history is a lockkeeper's house, still standing at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue.
According to early land records, the land which the Commerce Building is on lay within a 225-acre tract called "Beall's Level," granted in 1703 to Ninian Beall by English royalty. In 1769, James Burnes secured part of the land and had it resurveyed. In 1774, his son, David Burnes, received the land. He sold it for the proposed Federal city at a price of $67 an acre.
As the city began to develop, people settled in neighborhoods in the southwest, on Capitol Hill, and on the far side of the "President's House."
In the early 1800s, the city had no paving, no water systems and no drainage. Pennsylvania Avenue, then only 32 feet wide, was described as "a deep morass covered with elderbushes." Cows grazed on the mall. By 1850, city population had increased to more than 50,000 people, but there was little development on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue where the Commerce Building is located. In fact, the low-rent area was known as "Murder Bay" because of the criminal activities centered there.
Not until nearly 1900 did the area around the Commerce building begin to assume its present form. The Post Office Building at 12th and Pennsylvania was completed in 1899 and the District, Building, across from the Commerce site, in 1908. In 1920, the Commerce plot was occupied by the Navy Department and several other structures.
Construction of the unusual Department of Commerce building began on October 4, 1927, more than a decade after the'-creation of the Department, whose offices were scattered among a number of temporary facilities. On June 10, 1929, President Herbert Clark Hoover laid the cornerstone. A former Secretary of Commerce, Hoover had been a strong advocate for the new facility, which was renamed in his honor in 1982.
When the building was completed in January 1932, the total construction cost was $17,500,000, over $2,000,000 more than the Louisiana Purchase, which brought 10 new states into the Union. At the time, the Commerce building was the largest office building in the world. Its total length of 1,050 feet exceeds that of the United States Capitol by 300 feet. The building contains 3,311 rooms and the net floor area is 1,093,000 square feet. More than eleven million bricks were used and 16,400 tons of steel.
The Commerce building is three complete rectangular buildings in one, with the three units joined with accordion-type expansion joints. It was constructed this way because the building sits over Tiber Creek. There was no bed rock into which foundation piles could be driven. Seepage water from this Potomac River tributary at the time excavating was finished created an eight-acre lake, necessitating unusual construction methods to make the building stable and to eliminate seepage in the sub-basement and basement.
The building's expansion and contraction features are such that on the hottest day in summer the structure may be three inches longer than on the coldest day in winter. The accordion joints thus protect the building from suffering structural damage.
When the construction was completed, it marked a milestone in the development of Washington, D. C. The Commerce building forms the base of a planned federal triangle bounded by 14th Street, Pennsylvania Avenue and Constitution Avenue. In August 1987, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation to complete the triangle construction.
Opposite the Department of Commerce, a new structure will replace a parking lot on the site of the proposed plaza and park area, represented by a fountain memorial to Oscar Straus, who was Secretary of Commerce and Labor in 1906 and the first Jewish cabinet officer.
[Note: This "new structure" became the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, which opened in 1988.]
The Commerce building was designed to house all of the Department bureaus except the National Bureau of Standards, which had laboratories north of the center city. Attention was given to the special needs of each agency. Two-to-four story stacks were installed for storage of the Patent Office's more than three million patents, and the Great Hall became a patent-search room for the public. Stargazing equipment was installed on the roof for the Coast and Geodetic Survey. The Census Bureau, which occupied the south section of the building, was provided with facilities in the basement for intricate computing machinery.
The central section of the building was used for administrative functions. It also housed smaller agencies such as Aeronautics, Radio, and Foreign and Domestic Commerce.
The Secretary's suite was built with non-operating windows and its own air conditioning system, the only one in the building. It was paneled with walnut, as were the conference room and sections of the main library.
The original overall interior design called for a minimum of walls. Glass partitions were used to provide better light diffusion and to make supervision easier.
Facilities for the Bureau of Fisheries National Aquarium were provided in the basement of the new building. Established in 1873, the aquarium, the oldest public aquarium in the Nation, is now under the direction of a private, nonprofit organization. Displays include more than 1,000 fresh and saltwater specimens, representing 200 species from the United States and around the world.
[Note: The aquarium closed permanently on September 30, 2013.]
In 1970, there was a major renovation of the building and central air conditioning was installed.