THE TREASURY BUILDING FIRE OF 1996: PROTECTING CULTURAL RESOURCES IN A NONMUSEUM ENVIRONMENT
Paula A. Mohr
2 2. BACKGROUND
Students of the history of Washington, D.C., are well acquainted with the federal government's legendary association with fires in the 19th century. The Treasury Department in particular has been plagued with numerous fires during its 200-year history. The first disastrous one occurred in 1814 when the British set fire to Washington's public buildings, including the Treasury. A second and equally devastating fire occurred at the Treasury in 1833, resulting in construction of the present Treasury Building to provide the nation's finance ministry with a “fireproof” building. Begun in 1836 by the architect Robert Mills, the early sections of the building were constructed of sandstone, brick, and quick-setting hydraulic cement. Later additions to the building, constructed in the 1850s and 1860s, employed masonry and segmental arches supported with iron beams. In addition to the noncombustible materials for the structure, the decorative elements in the building, such as door and window architraves, cornices, baseboards, and columns, are made of stone, plaster, or cast iron.
The Treasury Building has served as the headquarters for the Treasury Department for more than 150 years. Treasury remains the only one of the four original cabinet-level agencies to remain in the executive complex surrounding the White House. The building's architectural significance is derived from its development as the first large office building in America. When the building was completed, it was a powerful architectural symbol for early Washington, D.C. The Treasury Building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972.
In addition to this important architectural resource, the Treasury retains a significant collection of fine and decorative arts. Displayed in public and private spaces throughout the building, it includes portraits of secretaries of the treasury, paintings from Treasury's Depression-era art programs, historic currency displays, and 19th-century office furniture. These objects, while they receive museum-quality conservation, are part of a “working” collection and are used by occupants of the building.
The restoration program for the building was begun in 1985, and since that time a number of historically and architecturally significant spaces have been restored to their original appearance. These rooms, such as the Civil War–era office of the secretary of the treasury and the space used by President Andrew Johnson as a temporary office in 1865, typically have a high concentration of objects from the Historic Treasury Collection. Other historic rooms, such as the 1869 marble Cash Room, are public spaces and have a high level of interior finish, including marble, decorative bronze work, and ornamental plaster.