Fire Prompts the Evacuation Of Historic Eisenhower Building

By Allison Klein and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 20, 2007

A fire in a utility closet forced the evacuation of hundreds of employees from the historic Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, yesterday and caused significant smoke and water damage to an ornate ceremonial office used by Vice President Cheney and many of his predecessors, officials said.

At 9:34 a.m., when the blaze was reported, officials said, more than 100 D.C. firefighters were dispatched to the five-story granite building, constructed in the late 1800s on 15 acres at Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street NW. Although the fire was contained to the closet in the second-floor ceremonial office, officials said, smoke wafted through many areas of the building and poured from windows broken by firefighters.

As scores of onlookers gathered on street corners in the chill air, the sight of thick gray smoke billowing from the 662,000-square-foot building suggested that decades of history might be going up in flames. But officials said that the fire was quickly extinguished and that they expected the building would be safe to reoccupy.

Police closed several blocks of 17th Street on the west side of the complex to accommodate firetrucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles. Scores of employees who had rushed from the building -- some without stopping to grab their coats -- huddled on the street to watch. Many soon left to find warmth.

Except for a man who suffered a cut hand escaping, authorities said, no one was injured. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

"There's a significant amount of damage to the ceremonial office on the second floor, but the damage was primarily limited to that office," D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said at a news briefing. The damage was from smoke and water, not fire.

Rubin described the damage in other parts of the building as "moderate to minor."

Asked whether any important documents or archival materials were lost or damaged, Rubin said: "That's being evaluated. We really don't know."

More than 1,000 civilian and military White House employees work in the building, including aides to the vice president and staff members of the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget. Cheney and President Bush walked to the building from the White House after the fire was out and chatted with firefighters outside for about 15 minutes, thanking them for their work.

Lea Anne McBride, a spokeswoman for Cheney, said officials had not determined what was damaged in the ceremonial office.

The building was constructed from 1871 to 1888 in the French Second Empire style. According to the White House Web site, the spacious office damaged yesterday was occupied by 16 Navy secretaries from 1879 to 1921, when the building housed the State, Navy and War departments. Gen. John J. "Blackjack" Pershing used it from 1921 to 1947, when he was Army chief of staff and later chairman of the Battle Monuments Commission.

Since 1960, according to the Web site, every vice president except Hubert H. Humphrey has used the office, which has been known as the Vice President's Ceremonial Office since it was restored in the 1980s. Like other vice presidents, Cheney has a White House office for day-to-day business and uses the one in the Eisenhower building for ceremonies, meetings and media interviews.

The office's walls and ceiling originally were decorated with ornamental stenciling and allegorical symbols of the Navy, hand painted, the Web site says. Much of that design work was damaged over the years, however, and what remains is preserved under canvas coverings. The lost designs have been replicated on the canvas.

"The floor is very delicate, being of mahogany, white maple and cherry," the Web site says. "The two fireplaces are original Belgian black marble; the overmantles [were] regilded during the restoration."

Items of note in the office include a desk first used by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 and later by six other presidents. "Vice President Johnson and all subsequent vice presidents have used the desk" in the ceremonial office, the Web site says. "The inside top drawer has been signed by the various users since the 1940s."

Also in the office is a bust of Christopher Columbus, which has been on display there since it was taken from a Spanish cruiser in July 1898 during the Spanish-American War, according to the Web site.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) praised firefighters for quickly extinguishing the fire and clearing the building of smoke, preventing widespread damage and injuries.

Questions a mayor always asks at the scene of a fire are " 'What was our response time? How many people have been injured? And are all the firefighters okay?' " Fenty said, standing with fire officials outside the building.

"And for all those questions," he said, "it's obvious there was a success here -- that we got here right away, that all our firefighters . . . were able to put the fire out and keep themselves from being harmed, and all our civilians in the building are safe."

A White House military aide suffered cuts on one of his hands when he broke a fifth-floor window so he could climb onto a ledge to escape the smoke, officials said. They said firefighters soon arrived and led him out of the building.

A White House spokesman said the adjacent White House was not evacuated and that business there went on as usual.

Staff writers Peter Baker, John Solomon and Debbi Wilgoren, staff researcher Rena Kirsch and politics producer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company