The Old Executive Office Building, one of Washington's monumental structures and a workplace for thousands of White House and federal employees over the decades, got a new name yesterday: the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
After President Clinton signed legislation renaming the building in an Oval Office ceremony, John Eisenhower, son of the former president, said the new designation is appropriate because his father worked in the building as a young military aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur and, later, as Army chief of staff.
"My father spent as much time over there as he did over here," John Eisenhower said, standing in a driveway at the White House, where his dad served two terms as a Republican president.
Congress last month approved legislation to change the building's name, making OEOB, as it is popularly called, part of the recent groundswell to honor former presidents by adding their names to local landmarks.
The local airport and a federal building at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue have been named after Ronald Reagan. In April, the CIA's 258-acre Northern Virginia compound was named the George Bush Center for Intelligence.
Eisenhower has had an aircraft carrier, a highway and a theater at the Kennedy Center named after him, but "nothing of this individual distinction," Susan Eisenhower, Ike's granddaughter, said yesterday.
OEOB's massive, granite structure has been an imposing building since its 17-year construction ended in 1888. Its French Second Empire architecture, a departure from the classical revival style used for many federal buildings here, has invited criticism for years. Mark Twain called it "the ugliest building in America." President Harry S. Truman described it as "the greatest monstrosity in America."
Adjacent to the White House, OEOB has nearly two miles of black and white marble tile corridors and spacious offices with 16-foot ceilings that continue to defy modern comforts such as air conditioning. Designed during the Grant administration, it was occupied by the State, War and Navy departments. The original tenants were gone by 1947, and the building became known as the Executive Office Building. The name was changed to OEOB in 1965 when the New Executive Office Building opened nearby.
At one point in the late 1950s, a presidential advisory committee recommended that the six-story building be torn down so that it could be replaced with more efficient office space. According to last month's congressional debate, the architect in charge tried to persuade then-President Eisenhower, who had recently suffered a heart attack, that a new building would not have as many stairs to climb.
"Nonsense," Ike replied, pointing out that his doctors wanted him to get plenty of exercise.
The idea of renaming the building began in 1997, when James O'Connell, a fan of both Ike and the OEOB, contended in a Washington Post article that it was time to find a more appropriate name.
OEOB, as a name, "diminished what was really Washington's most famous building after the White House and the Capitol," O'Connell said yesterday.
The breakthrough came earlier this year, when O'Connell and friends enlisted the support of former senator Robert J. Dole (R), a World War II veteran from Eisenhower's home state of Kansas. Dole called Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), a veteran of Guadalcanal, who agreed to sponsor legislation to rename OEOB. Chafee died two days before the House, on Oct. 26, gave final approval to the bill.
"Eisenhower was my hero," Dole said yesterday. "We had heroes in those days."
Lincoln Chafee, appointed to complete his father's Senate term, joined the Eisenhower family, retired Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster, Dole and members of the Kansas delegation at the bill signing.
The White House staff, always sensitive to the need for new acronyms, went to work on a replacement for OEOB. One of the first proposals came from White House counsel spokesman James Kennedy, who quipped, "IkeOB."
CAPTION: John Eisenhower walks outside the former Old Executive Office Building, now named after his father, with his wife, Joanne, and ex-senator Robert J. Dole.