National Archives | RG 121

RG 121

The most important direct predecessor of the present Public Buildings Service of the General Services Administration was the former Office of the Supervising Architect, originally the Construction Branch of the Treasury Department, which was established in 1853.  The main body of records described in this inventory dates from that time.
The Service may also be traced back to the creation in 1791 of a Board of Commissioners for the District of Columbia, which had as one of its main functions the supervision of the construction of Federal buildings within the new District in preparation for the removal of the Government from Philadelphia.  This Board expired in 1802, but all of its records and many of its functions and responsibilities with respect to buildings passed successively to the Superintendent of Public Buildings, 1816-67, the Office of Public Buildings and Ground, 1867-1925, and the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, 1925-33.  Some buildings in the District were built by temporary commissions, but usually the function of maintenance was at some point inherited by one of the agencies named above, as were the records.
The functions and accumulated records described in the paragraph immediately above were turned over in 1933 to the National park Service.  In 1939 the functions, except those relating to parks and grounds, were transferred again, this time to the newly established Public Buildings Administration, now the Public Buildings Service.  Most of the long accumulated and inactive records (from 1791-1925) had been transferred to the National Archives from the National Park Service before 1939.  A few many still remain in the custody of the National Capital Parks, a unit of the National Park Service.  Only current records passed into the custody of the Public Buildings Administration from the National Park Service, and only records that were actually incorporated into files of the Public Buildings Administration are considered as belonging to the Public Buildings Service record group (Rg 121) here described.  Those of earlier date than 1933 that remained as separate files have been placed in a closed record group, Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital.  Most of the story of the older public buildings in the District of Columbia may be found in Record Group 42, for which another inventory will be prepared.
Outside the District of Columbia, the Treasury Department was the agency most directly concerned in the construction of Federal buildings, and this came about because of its need for assay offices, customhouses, appraisers stores, marine hospitals, and other buildings in which to carry on its own operations.  It also provided and accounted for funds used for construction by other Government agencies, which before 1853 were often responsible for their own building because there was no central planning and construction agency to serve the Government.  Some buildings were constructed under supervision of special commissions or officers, most of whom were appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury.  Local architects and supervisors of construction were often employed in this connection, being paid from funds appropriated for the construction of designated buildings.
An act of Congress approved on September 11, 1841, (5 Stat. 468, Sec. 3), provided
That no public money shall be expended upon any site or land purchased by the United States for the purposes aforesaid [i.e. erecting thereon public buildings of any kind whatever] until the written opinion of the Attorney-General shall be had in favor of the validity of the title, and also the consent of the Legislature of the State in which the land or site may be shallbe given said purchaser.
This law was succeeded by many others relating to the choice and acquisition of sites for Federal buildings by the Government and the records relating to this work, including the title papers, form one of the most important parts of this record group.
By 1853 the building activities of the Government had reached such large proportions that the Secretary of the Treasury, James B. Guthrie, felt the need of a separate branch to carry them out.  He accordingly set up the Construction Branch in the Treasury Department and issued general regulations applicable to its work.  The order and regulations, which appear in the Secretary's financial report for 1852-53, constitute the earliest record of a formal organization set up exclusively to carry out the Federal Government's building activities outside the District of Columbia.  The Secretary, in setting up this Branch, apparently relied on general authority given him under laws in effect at the time.  The functions of the Construction Branch were selection and purchase of sites, making of plans and estimates for buildings, "general superintendence" of their construction, and the preservation of related records and models.
At the request of the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of War detailed Alexander H. Bowman to serve as the first Engineer-in-Charge of the Branch.  He was succeeded in turn by S. M. Clark and Isaiah Rogers, who were designated as Acting Engineers-in-Charge.  Although the title "Supervising Architect" had been in use within the Branch, A. B. Mullett in 1865 was the first Supervising Architect to become head of the Branch.  For a list of his successors and of Commissioners of Public Buildings, see the end of this introduction.  At an undetermined date the Branch became known as the Office of the Supervising Architect.
Some question arose about 1857 as to whether the Construction Branch existed by specific authority of law, but its legal status was accepted when Congress made early appropriations for its support.  The first law referring specifically to the Construction Branch was the Deficiency Act of March 14, 1864 (13 Stat. 27), which provided funds for the salaries of Branch employees.
The Act also listed their use to the duration "of the rebellion and for one fiscal year after its close"; however, annual appropriations continued to be made for the Branch. Before 1893 various appropriations and other acts were passed dealing with the acquisition of real property, with the keeping of property inventories, and with personnel and other matters.
The Office of the Supervising Architect never attained bureau status but remained a unit of the Secretary's Office in the Treasury Department.  There were no statutes describing specifically the functions of the Office or defining the duties of the Supervising Architect, who was apparently given more authority at some times than at others.  Sharply contrasting views of the extent of his authority were voiced at various times.  A special committee appointed in 1883 by Secretary Folger to investigate certain charges against the current Supervising Architect regarded him as having "extraordinary discretionary powers."  Conversely, a report issued in 1888 with the approval of M. B. Bell, Supervising Architect, complained somewhat bitterly that he was so circumscribed by laws, regulations, and the authority of the Secretary the he could not perform his duties efficiently.  Actually, it was the Secretary who was authorized and directed to administer the provisions of the various public buildings acts relating to specific projects.  The Supervising Architect's powers were delegated to him by the Secretary.
In 1883 the Office was organized into a "General Division" (which included the Supervising Architect), a Computing Division, a Division of Repairs, a Division of Accounts, and a Miscellaneous Division (concerned largely with routine administrative and housekeeping matters).  By 1889, however, the Office had been reorganized into nine divisions which were under the "administrative control" of the "Assistant and Chief Clerk" in the Supervising Architect's Office.  The nine divisions were as follows: Law and Contract, Tracing, Computing, Construction, Accounts, Repairs, Records and Files, Copying, and Photography.  The later organization of the Office and its functions are described in existing monographs.
Under the Treasury Act (27 Stat. 468), passed by Congress on February 20, 1893, competition was permitted among private firms for the design and construction of public buildings, but general supervision of the work was continued in the Office of the Supervising Architect.  There was a good deal of controversy over certain provisions of this law, and it was finally repealed by the sundry civil act for the fiscal year 1913 (37 Stat. 428).  Numerous other acts were passed bearing on different phases of construction work and related activities between 1895 and 1913 when the next basic act was passed.
The Public Building Act of 1913 (37 Stat. 866), approved March 4, 1913, carried authorization for a large number of public buildings and extensions and for the purchase of sites, the sum of $41,797,350 being allocated to the Treasury Department to carry out its program.  It also provided for a Public Buildings Commission, which submitted a report on April 30, 1914.  This report made detailed recommendations for reform of the Government building program, many of which were adopted.  Other such commissions were provided for by the sundry civil appropriation act of July 1, 1916 (39 Stat. 328), and an act of March 1, 1919 (40 Stat. 1269).  These recommended further correction of abuses and standardized the practices and procedures of Federal construction activities.
The practice of making appropriations for public building programs by omnibus bills was changed radically by the passage of the Public Buildings Act of May 25, 1926 (44 Stat. 630).  This act provided a broad and basic law for the orderly development and authorization of building programs to be presented to Congress through the Bureau of the Budget.  As amended from time to time, it authorized a total limit of cost for the whole program, to be spent at a specified rate per year and to be equitably spread over the country.  Authorization continued to be made under this law until June 1933.
By 1933 the activities of the Office of the Supervising Architect had expanded to such an extent that it could no longer appropriately continue as a unit of the Secretary's Office.  Executive Order No. 6166 of June 10, 1933, which was issued to implement Title IV of an act of March 3, 1933, entitled "Reorganization of Executive Departments" (47 Stat. 1517), as amended March 20, 1933 (48 Stat. 16), established a Procurement Division in the Treasury Department.  This Division was headed by a Director of Procurement responsible to the Secretary.  The relevant section of Executive Order 6166 reads:  "The Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department is transferred to the Procurement Division, except that the buildings of the Treasury Department shall be administered by the Treasury Department and the administration of post office buildings is transferred to the Post Office Department."  The new Division was composed of two branches, a Public Works Branch and a Branch of Supply.  To the Public Works Branch was delegated all of the functions of the former Office of the Supervising Architect.  The records of the Branch of Supply, now known as the Federal Supply Service, are assigned to Record Group 137 and are not covered by this inventory.
The Procurement Division was further reorganized.  The Public Works Branch became the Public Buildings Branch and was placed under the Assistant Director of Procurement.  The Supervising Architect was retained as subordinate to the Assistant Director and was limited to professional duties such as the preparations of designs, plans, and specifications for projected buildings.  A second principal office, coordinate with that of the Supervising Architect, was that of the Supervising Engineer, whose duties consisted of the field supervision of construction, operation, repair, and preservation of buildings.  Two acts passed in August 1935 vested the Public Buildings Branch with the control and use of surplus real property acquired by the Federal Government and with the authority to sell public buildings (49 Stat. 685 and 49 Stat. 800).
On July 1, 1939, under authority of the President's reorganization Plan No. 1 (53 Stat. 1426), the functions of the Public Buildings Branch and those of the Branch of Buildings Management of the National Park Service were transferred to the Public Buildings Administration, which was set up in the newly created Federal Works Agency.  The PBA was thus made responsible for the design, construction, maintenance, and repair of most Federally owned buildings in the District of Columbia and in the States and Territories and for the custody and repair of those that were leased.  It also controlled the allocation of space among Government agencies and was responsible for the disposal of surplus real property.  In accordance with an act approved June 30, 1949 (63 Stat. 380), the PBA was abolished and its functions were transferred to the General Services Administration, established by the same act.  The new agency set up the Public Building Service as one of its constituent parts and delegated the old PBA functions to the Service.
The main function of the Public Building Service at present are:
1. Selection of sites
2. Acquisition of land
3. Initial steps preceding construction or other work; making estimates, drawings, specifications, and all matters pertaining to letting of contracts.
4. Construction, reconstruction, extension, and remodeling of Federal buildings.
5. Operation, maintenance, and protection of buildings and sites
6. Negotiation, conclusion, and administration of leases of buildings or space.
7. Sale of surplus Government real property.
8. Embellishment of public buildings.
During the early years of the Office of the Supervising Architect the so-called "field force" remained small.  Custodians of buildings were about the only field personnel to remain in one location for long.  Construction engineers, inspectors, disbursing officers, and a few other classes of employees moved around as building needs dictated.  Certain "district offices" were set up, probably beginning in the late 20's, but the details of practically all phases of administration, technical standards and specifiations, and fiscal and property accounting appear to have been centralized in the Washington office.  Decentralization of functions did not begin to any great degree until the creation of the PBA in 1939, which is the terminal date of most of the records described in this inventory.  During the period of the so-called "emergency relief agencies," particularly the Public Works Administration and Works Projects Administration, much of the building was carried on with relief funds, so a part of the documentation of such construction is to be found among these agencies' records, most of which are now in the National Archives.
The records described in this inventory comprise all the records in Record Group 121, Records of the Public Buildings Service, that had been transferred to the National Archives by December 31, 1957.  They amount to 7,615 cubic feet and fall mainly between the dates 1853 and 1939.  The Public Buildings Service has retained most of its records since 1940 and some earlier records.  These earlier records include appropriation ledgers, account books, a small quantity of title papers, drawings, and miscellaneous records of the Office of the Supervising Architect before 1933.
Records relating to supervision over the office of the Supervising Architect and the Public Buildings Service will be found among the records of the Secretary's Office in General Records of the Department of the Treasury (Record Group 56), and among the General Records of the Federal Works Agency (RG 162).
The entries describing the 482 cubic feet of photographic records included among the records are based on identifications prepared in the Still Picture Branch of the Audio-Visual Records Division.
Engineers in Charge
Capt. Alexander E. Bowman, 1853-60
S. M. Clark (Acting) 1860-62
Isaiah Rogers, (Acting) 1862-63


Supervising Architects

A. B. Mullett, 1865-75
William A. Porter, 1875-76
James G. Hill, 1876-84
M. E. Bell, 1884-88
William A. Freret, 1888-89
James E. Windrim, 1889-91
W. J. Edbrooke, 1891-93
Jeremiah O'Rourke, 1893-94
Charles E. Kemper, (Acting) 1894-95
William Martin Aiken, 1895-97
Charles E. Kemper (Acting) 1897-98
James Knox Taylor, 1898-1912
James J. Wetmore, (Acting) 1912-13
Oscar Wenderoth, 1913-15
James A. Wetmore, (Acting) 1915-34
Louis A. Simon, 1934-41
George Howe, 1941-45

Commissioner of Public Buildings
W. E. Reynolds, 1939-54
Peter A. Strobel, 1954-55
F. Moran McConihe, 1956-
National Archives | RG 121

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