FOR YEARS, the General Services administrator was the bogeyman in good-design circles. The General Services Administration was the one who came in the night and tore down nice old buildings and came in the day and put up ugly new ones.
GSA got the blame for putting exit signs, clocks and neo-moderne water fountains where they disfugured ornate pateling and sculptured stone pillars.
GSA was blamed for acres of GI-green desks and filing cabinets. Say GSA, and most people thought of the Rayburgh building or FBI headquarters.
In the six months or so since Jay Solomons was appointed to the $52,000-a-year top job at GSA, he has gone, as they say inhis native Tennessee, "a peice" toward building a new reputation for the giant agency of 36,000 employees and spends about $5 billion a year.
GSA - the largest of the independent federal agencies - buys and doles out federal supplies, constructs and manages federal buildings, runs the computer and telecommunications services, preserves national records (including those at the Archives and the presidental libraries) and makes plans for the functioning of the government in a national emergency. Solomon, unlike previous administrators, attends the President's Cabinet meetings and reports to the President in a weekly two-page summary, and in other ways.
So far, those who deal with him agree he's a nice man. He likes modern art and ancient buildings, and he doesn't play hide-and-seek with the press and the public the way some of his predeccessors often did.
The first time he shook them up with his up-and-at'em ways was during presentations in a competition for the Old Post Office. How do I know what they're talking about?" He grabbed a nearby reporter and off everyone went to the old building on Pennslyvania Avenue.
He insisted on walking through the building, climbing up into the dirty clock tower. And he listened to the complaints about the building by some FBI employees who were then quarted there.
His staff says he insists on having everything explained to him before he'll sign off on anything. He hasn't missed a dedication of a federal art project since he came to the office, getting First Lady Rosalynn Carter (once) and Joan Mondale, the vice President's wife (several times), to come along with him as well. He seems to enjoy a public appearances and does them well. He has a good bit of the show-bizpizzazz he learned in his years running a chain of movie theaters.
It may only be that he has a soft, Chattanooga-way of speaking and the courtly manners that make Southern men so charming. Though his name is Joel, he goes by his nickname Jay because his son is called Joel. He has an easy, friendly way about him, as though he's hungry to make friends. He likes to talk about what he's doing and obviously keeps up with it all.
IT's far too early to say that Solomon is considered Santa Claus among architects, artists and preservers. His first Christmas isn't even here. But it's hard to find anyone who can think of anything to criticize him about. John McGinty, president of the American Institute of Architects, for instance, calls Solomon "dynamic." McGinty cheers Solomon for being "certainly more actively involved in the operations of the public building service than in the procurement if paperclips at the federal supply service."
McGinty says he is encouraged by Solomon's "sensitivity to good design, his support of the art and architecture program and the public advisory panels, and his concern for the impact of federal buildings on local communities." McGinty adds, of course, that he hopes Solomon keeps up the good works.
James Biddle, president of the National Trust,also adds that he likes what Solomon says and "hope he succeeds in conserving our great public buildings."
Put it this way: A man can't be all that bad whose prime requisite for a Washington apartment was that it accommodate his curved dining table/desk/sculpture by avant-garde artist/craftsman Wendell Castle.
Just because he comes from Tennessee doesn't mean he's just learning about art. He and his wife are long-time collectors. He's got a Castle desk at home in Chattanooga and in the subleased, two-bed-room (but with a sunken tub) Washington apartment, of a woman in copper, brass and lead - and several walls of 6-foot-high mural/photographs of rather decadent dolls by fine professional photographer who happens to be his wife.
Their real art and craft collection is at home in Chattanooga, in the contemporary house they built 23 years ago that hangs on the side of a hill. They keep the house - and Rosalind Solomon's photographic studio - open, though he's only had a chance to get home once since he took office.
Back in 1968, the Solomons began furnishing every office of his company, Arlen Shopping Centers, the nations's largest shopping-center development firm, with comtemporary crafts and paintings by artists of the Chattannooga region. This week in cooperation with Joan Mondale, the voice of the administration-art conscience, he added to three GSA supply stores a $28.000 selection of handmade craftwork from Appalachia: ashtrays, wastepaper baskets, lamps and such. Solomon was right there the minute the first ashtray went on sale and he was back again the next day to show potter Mondale the collection.
"Rosalind doesn't like me to say it, but she was really responsible for introducing me to arts and crafts," Solomon said the other say, showing a visitor their apartment. "Every weekend, we'd go visit another studio or craftshop to select something for the offices. We had a very good time."
His office here in the 1912 General Services Building at 18th and F Streets NW is the second-biggest-office in governemnt, originally intended as a hearing room. The yoke goes that while Harold's Ickes had office when he was Secretary of the Interior, Postmaster General James Farley measured it and had his built a foot larger on every side.
The administrator's old dining room, which has now been turned into an office for three people, is said to be where the Teapot Dome Scandal was hatched Solomon has replaced the rug, which matched the ceiling medallions, to the consideration of some of the oldtimers and added original artists' models of art works commissioned for public buildings. Solomon several years ago commissioned a large work of art by Jim Colans of Tennessee for the front of his tirm's building in Chattanooga.
He likes to say that the door of his office is literally always open, "I don't have anything to hide everybody is always welcome to sit on any meeting they want to." Some of his staff said they thought he just felt lonesome in that huge echoing Tudor-paneled office. Solomon doesn't care much for the executive desk, the fancy Knoll chairs and the big conference table of his predecessor. He prefers to run most meetings from the comfortable couches in front of the fireplace, the ultimate government status symbol.
The Solomon beleive their feeling for art and people was broadened by Rosalind Solomon's years of work with the Experiment in International Living. She was director of the Southern regional office. Both of their children and Mrs Solomon have lived with their families abroad, and their home has practically been a hostel for international visitors . Old participants still turn up to see them.
It was on an Experiment trip to Japan that Rosalind Solomon began to take photographs, with an Instamatic camera. Today, her photographs hang not only in his office and their homes, but in the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris and in New York at the Metropolitian Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She will exhibit here at the Scander Gallery in February. Her photographs, including those shown here, are all copyrighted because she hopes eventually to have published as a book.
Solomon, who seem immensely proud of his wife's work, says his part in her photography "is to give people cigarettes to get them to pose for her."
Rosalind Solomon is a rather reticent woman who seems to be rather shy on the other end of the camera. On the other hand, she is obviously a woman with her won opinions and her own career, though just as obviously extremely fond of her husband and interested in what he's doing. She's the sort of woman who, when leaving for a few days to work in her Chattanooga aterlier calls from the airport to find out what her husband's going to do for supper. Solomon says his wife and daughter "have educated me on woman's work. I'm all for it. I know I'm not sending Linda to Northwestern to learn how to sweep floors."
The family's other consuming interest is, of course, politics. The Solomons met on a blind date at a Democratic Convention in 1952. They were married in 1953. Their two children, Salomon says, "really got us involved with Jimmy's campaign and talked me into taking job." Rosalind Solomon said she thought about moving to Washington "for about an hour, and then said yes."
The children had worked before in the senatorial campaign of James Sasser (D-Tenn), who heads the Governmental Affairs Subcommittee, GSA's over seer. The family last year contributed a total of $3,632 to Sasser's campaign. Both Joel Jr., 23, now an environmentalist in Driggs, Idaho, and Linda, 21, now a journalism student at Northwestern University lllinois, worked for Sasser, who introduced them to Carter.
In 1974 Joel worked for presidential assistant Hamilton Jordan, when Carter was chairman of the National Democratic Campaign Committee. During the Carter presidential campaign. Solomon and his wife each gave $1,000 to Carter and helped raise other money for him. Solomon was Democratic precinct chairman and a member of the Hamilton County Democratic executive committee as well. He and his wife remain close Carter friends.
Before Solomon came to GSA and Washington, he was chairman of the board and chief executive of Arlen Shopping Centers Co. and a top officer in Arlen's related companies. Arlen owns and manages 184 shopping centers, residential complexes, office buildings and communities.
At Solomons's Senate confirmation hearings, it was brought out that Solomon owned about 300,000 shares of stock worth $900,000 in Arlen. The firm leases space to GSA in 13 buildings, paying Arlen about $1 million a year. Before his Senate confirmation. Solomon agreed to resign from Arlen and pledged not to take part in Arlen/GSA lease agreements, turning them over to his deputy. He was confirmed unanimously.
Solomon got his start through his father's Tennessee movie-theater chain, established in 1912. He still remembers working five nights a week, when he and Rosalind were first married. Solomon joined his father's firm after graduating from Vanderbilt University in Nashville in 1942.
In Chattanooga, the Solomons wre busy in civic work. Solomon was chairman of the chattanooga Housing Authority and a board member for 14 years. Like Rosalynn Carter, he was interest in mental health serving as president of the local association. He also worked with the Jewish Welfare Federation and the Opera Association.
In Washington, the Solomons have been settling in by going to concerts every Sunday at the Phillips Gallery or the National Gallery. "Sometimes, when Jay is home early enough, we just walk over to the Kennedy Center," said Rosalind Solomon, "and take our chances on tickets." They try to see almost all the art shows in town. He bicyles often and walks to and from work every day.
Obviously Solomon isn't the first influence for good design in GSA. The Art in Architecture project has had prevous time of blooming at GSA under years of proding from career GSA officer Karel Yasko. The architectural competition for the Old Post Office remodeling was well under way before Solomon was confirmed.
But now that the Office of Management and Budget is looking into GSA's procedures for the first time since 1948, it seems to be high time that GSA looked to the repairs and remodeling of its own corporate structure.
Solomon likes to thinks he's made a start. He championed the selection of an innovative architectural design by Arthur Cotton Moore for the restoration of the Old Post Office Building, in response, he said, to a specific request from Carter to "look out for that building."
He upped to one-half of one per cent the amount of money GSA will allot for art in federal structures. He also worked out a way to allot a percentage of the repair cost on older buildings to add art objects.
Solomon has hired eight or nine women for high posts in GSA, including a black woman as a GS-18, the third-hightest post held by a woman in the government.
He has worked unusually hard to try to get new architects to design government buildings, recently calling a conference on the subject of architectural selection.
Solomon says he favors multi-use federal office buildings, not only so they can earn their keep and be better city neighbors, but also so they will be more saleable if the government outgrows its need for them.
And he greatly favors of the establishment of a National Design Center in the Old Pension Building, to be a showcase of American architecture and design. he and his wife have been to French, British and Scandanavian national centers and he thinks the United States should have one, too.
His current pet accomplishment is in finding a tenant for the New York Custom House. "I really believe it's a shame to preserve these great historic buildings and then leave them empty for vandals. We need to put them back into use." He has also returned hundreds of acres of unneeded federal land to the states and territories for parks.
Solomon says he is "trying to open up GSA, make it more responsive to people, in and out of government." At least he's going about the job with great enthusiasm, and as they say in Tennessee, with a whoop and a holler.
Most of us hope it's catching.