By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 10:19 PM
In the downtown Washington federal building bearing Ronald Reagan's name, no events are planned until May to mark his 100th birthday, so there will be no parties for him this week in the ballrooms, no new exhibits in the hallways and no commemorative lectures in the auditoriums.
And good luck finding any sign of him in the building's three gift shops.
Nonetheless, the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center lives on as a paradoxical monument to a president, born Feb. 6, 1911, who called government "the problem," slashed the budgets of agencies within it and abhorred the kind of overdue, overbudgeted construction project it became.
In a city full of tributes to presidents, Reagan's is like no other. Formally dedicated in 1998, the building houses 7,000 federal employees working for the Commerce Department, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Agency for International Development - odd, perhaps, considering Reagan's decision to freeze federal pay and slash budgets at Commerce and the EPA.
But it also houses private-sector tenants and an international trade center, which Nancy Reagan once praised as a fitting tribute to her husband's support for open markets and free trade.
The building, built on the site of Washington's Civil War-era red light district, was the final piece of the Federal Triangle downtown redevelopment project that began in the 1930s. It is one of dozens of public works projects that carry the late president's name, including Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, a bridge in his home town of Dixon, Ill., a highway in the Cincinnati area and a school in Yuma, Ariz.
In size and scope, none compares with the Reagan Building, which encompasses seven acres and measures about 3.9 million square feet, making it the government's second-largest structure, after the Pentagon. (By comparison, New York's Empire State Building totals 2.1 million square feet.)
There are 21,000 light fixtures, 13,000 doors, 1,900 underground parking spaces, 904 windows, 94 stairways, 85 elevators, 26 underground loading docks and eight escalators, according to its owner, the General Services Administration. The building's 250,000 cubic yards of concrete could pave 106 miles of two-lane highway. As a skyscraper, it would stand 155 stories high. There's an acre's worth of glass in the skylight.
"It is beautifully constructed," said Jo-Ann Neuhaus, executive director of the Penn Quarter Neighborhood Association, who pushed for years for the building's construction. "It's certainly more open than most federal buildings."
After years of disagreements over its size and scope, "we did end up with a building that does have a really good food court and a wonderful exhibition center and some private office space," said Robert Peck, GSA's commissioner of public buildings.
Tenants have reported few problems through the years, GSA said, though bedbugs recently infiltrated USAID's offices .
In the building's main atrium, a bronze bas-relief of Reagan's profile hangs near a plaque that quotes from his second inaugural address: "There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams."
Around the corner, visitors can view display cases with Reagan campaign buttons, photos, commemorative postage stamps and a glass bowl of jelly beans, his favorite sugared snack. Upstairs, a slab of the Berlin Wall sits near the entrance to the Woodrow Wilson Center International Center for Scholars, a government-backed "living memorial" to Wilson, the nation's 28th president, that includes a small museum with his overcoat, glasses and some of his books.
Customers will find few hints of Reagan inside the building's three gift shops. Recently, one was selling a commemorative edition of Life Magazine with his face on the cover, and another stocked magnets featuring the portraits of all 44 presidents. The third had no sign of him (but did sell jelly beans).
Not counting the Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Washington memorials, four of Washington's federal buildings are named for presidents. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building sits next to the White House; the Harry S. Truman Building houses the State Department; the Office of Personnel Management headquarters is named for Theodore Roosevelt; and Herbert Hoover's name is affixed to the Commerce Department, across the street from Reagan's building. None of those buildings is nearly as accessible to the public, and each was named long after its namesake had died.
"Reagan himself was never one for naming things after people when they were alive," said his biographer, Lou Cannon. "He was embarrassed sometimes by that. I don't think he would have been a big enthusiast to name things after him. It's not like he's going to be forgotten."
In 1987, long before anyone suggested naming the building for him, Reagan signed legislation authorizing its construction. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) - eager to capstone a downtown redevelopment project started by his former boss, John F. Kennedy - pushed for the building's construction, arguing that building and owning such a structure would be more economical than maintaining dozens of separate leases.
As construction costs ballooned, plans for an IMAX theater and other cultural offerings were scrapped in favor of the trade offices. The building's final price tag exceeded the original estimates by more than $350 million.
A bill naming the building for Reagan passed unanimously in 1995, just months after the former president announced he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Beyond its official government functions, the building is also a popular venue for business conferences, dinner receptions and weddings. A party marking Reagan's birthday will be held there in late May, according to the Reagan Library. The private management office responsible for booking parties didn't return calls, but parties with 300 guests start at about $12,000, according to veteran wedding planners.
"It's the one part of the Federal Triangle that's pretty lively and gets visitors both in black tie and people schlepping cameras as tourists," Peck said. "Maybe that reflects two sides of the Gipper: equally comfortable in fancy settings but also pretty down-to-earth."
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.