One night in the building where The Washington Post was made for half a century, Rex Potts saw a man cook a rockfish on top of the lead pot, the cauldron of molten metal that was transformed each night into the story of our times.
The cooking method was not endorsed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but the men who manufactured this newspaper in a factory tucked amid downtown office buildings were accustomed to living dangerously. They worked double shifts in a cavernous room darkened by ink mist. (“You always looked like you had mascara on,” recalls Kevin Conner, who has been producing The Post for 39 years.) They washed down every lead page with gasoline from five-gallon jugs — smoking cigarettes all the while. (“How the hell nobody got blown up, I’ll never know,” says Potts, who started work on the paper 49 years ago.)
Potts spent six years as an apprentice printer, retyping stories onto the huge linotype machines that completed the process of turning hot lead into the individual letters that spelled out the articles that were printed in the basement, then stacked onto trucks that delivered the news to upward of a million subscribers. From four buildings at 15th and L streets NW, 4,000 people worked in a news factory, a place where nearly a hundred deaf people set type almost as fast as the reporters could bang it out on manual typewriters a floor above, a plant that employed a guy who had played cards with Jesse James and snowbirds who set type at Florida papers in winter and at The Post in warmer months. In the small of the night, the building was a demilitarized zone where Vietnam War veterans toiled side by side with dozens of South Vietnamese refugees the paper hired after the war’s ignominious end.
Here, reporters scored scoops about corrupt courts, Watergate and government surveillance; here, editors (at least twice) got to shout “Stop the presses!” The building rattled and hummed each night when the mammoth presses rumbled to life. The printing operation moved out to the suburbs in 1998. This week, the rest of The Post began its move, to rented space in a 1980s K Street office building that has housed mainly law firms. The downtown staff is a third of its peak size — mostly newsroom and advertising workers now. There’s no need for vats of molten metal anymore, nor for the hell box of spoiled lead type, nor the huge tank of photo-engraving chemicals. The Post, like most American newspapers, is moving to a sleeker, cleaner place, part of a cultural and industrial pivot, from paper to screen, from daily to constant, from hand delivery to social sharing.
The place that’s closing “was like a city of many neighborhoods,” says Donald E. Graham, The Post’s publisher from 1979 to 2000 and chairman of its parent company until the paper was sold in 2013 to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. Graham says he offered to sell the complex on 15th Street, but the billionaire buyer “looked it over and decided they would do better not owning it.”
The stolid box at 1150 15th St. NW was where Princess Diana stopped by to see her friend Katharine Graham, where prime ministers and presidents pressed their cases with editorial writers, where Elizabeth Taylor, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Brad Pitt turned jaded journalists into slack-jawed celebrity gawkers.
Like many of the stately, soaring newspaper headquarters of the past century, The Post’s 15th Street home will soon be empty. One by one they succumb to the march of progress, falling like The Post’s buildings to wrecker’s balls, or remaining as abandoned relics of a time when city halls, big banks and newspaper buildings were monuments to influence and authority. In New York, the Daily News left the News Building, Superman’s office. Forsaking its famous lobby with the revolving globe that generations of children visited on school trips, the News moved into a nondescript 1960s office building.
In Miami, the Herald’s landmark bayfront building was leveled to make way for a fantastical glass casino; gambling was also a plan for the Philadelphia Inquirer building. In Syracuse, N.Y., and Portland, Maine, grand old newspaper buildings were repurposed into apartments and hotel rooms. In Los Angeles, the Hearst corporation mothballed the playful Mission Revival home of the Herald Examiner, which died in 1989.
All told, the moves are “a noticeable, public symbol that traditional journalism is in decline,” concludes Nikki Usher, a George Washington University professor who studied how the departure from classic buildings affects news coverage. Her bottom line: “Saying goodbye to a building gives journalists the sense they may perhaps be losing their institutional relevance.”
Newspaper buildings of the industrial age were at the center of things, from New York’s Times Square to Chicago’s Tribune Tower to Post Plazas and Herald Squares nationwide. Their new quarters are usually light and airy, clean (at least on opening day) and designed for an era of instantaneous news.
But Usher’s study of the Miami Herald’s move from downtown to a much smaller facility 12 miles away found that less-prominent locations often lead readers to a sense of “lost glory.”
Graham is enough of a newspaper romantic that he took his office door — an artwork made of decorative letters from the hot-type printing era — when he moved his company to Rosslyn. But no one builds iconic homes for news organizations these days. There’s no need to: “The reason the newspaper had to own its building was the production facility, not the newsroom,” Graham says. “You couldn’t be at the mercy of a landlord to fix a water pipe; you had to be up and running around the clock.”
He misses it all the same. “I can still smell the smells and hear the noises,” he says. Asked if journalists overdramatize the meaning of their workplaces, his voice turns grave: “No. We do not.”
In the commemorative edition that The Post published on the occasion of opening its new building on L Street NW in 1951, a short article headlined “Facts Are Sacred” began: “The newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly. ...” That idea was that few enterprises could afford the massive presses and extensive staff needed to manufacture and distribute a new pile of printed matter every 24 hours.
With the digital revolution, news no longer had to be hand delivered. Although the printed paper still accounts for the great majority of revenue at print-legacy news companies, The Post’s seventh, vastly smaller home is designed for the digital culture. (Print editions will still roll off presses in Springfield, Va., the plant that opened the same week in 1980 when wreckers took down The Post’s building at 14th and E streets NW, the paper’s home from 1893 to 1950.)
When newspapers had a near-solid monopoly on newsgathering, they could get high and mighty about their role in a democracy, about what reporters called, both sardonically and respectfully, “the daily miracle.” On the cover of a 26-page special section about the new L Street building, the paper declared that “The making of The Washington Post, from pulp wood to printed page, from news break to headline, from shutter click to photograph, ... is the story of writers, artists and craftsmen of a hundred skills, laboring to produce each day a chronicle of history, a theater of entertainment, a college of instruction, an encyclopedia of information. ... It is the story of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of people who ...” — well, you get the idea.
Some values of the news business are enduring. In that same section, the managing editor, J.R. Wiggins, told readers that they were wrong to speak of “good news” and “bad news.” “All news is good news,” he explained. “It is not ‘bad’ that readers should know of murder foully done, of the rape of the innocent, the seduction of youth, the assault upon the guiltless, the persecution of the upright.” The editor argued that “the collective disapprobation of society can be more important than the punishments meted out by courts. ...”
The move to L Street led to an effort to improve the paper’s reporting and writing. But it wasn’t until 21 years later, when The Post expanded again, this time into a boxy, boring structure around the corner on 15th Street, that the paper cemented a bolder reputation, defying the government to reveal a president’s misdeeds. The more ambitious Post brought literary, magazine-style journalism to a daily newspaper, fielded a worldwide roster of correspondents and expanded its investigative might — achievements that seemed at odds with its new home, a bluntly practical factory with none of the grandeur of other newspapers’ headquarters.
The 15th Street expansion wasn’t supposed to be so dull. Katharine Graham, then new to the role of publisher, had commissioned the architect I.M. Pei, later renowned as designer of the National Gallery of Art’s daring East Building, to create a structure commensurate with The Post’s expanding circulation and flourishing journalism.
Pei spent nearly four years and 2 million of The Post’s dollars but made frustratingly little headway — at one point, his staff came up with a notion to construct the building in the shape of a typewriter, according to a 2010 book. Pei designed “an elaborate building that wasn’t going to work for the production of the paper,” Graham wrote in her autobiography, “Personal History.” “We decided to cut our already great losses and stop working on what certainly would have been the wrong building for us.”
Frustrated, she turned to what her top executives termed “the fallback plan” — the “less distinguished” architectural firm that had produced the L Street building. The result didn’t wow anyone. “I hated it,” Graham wrote, calling the new building “plain, dowdy and full of compromises.”
Despite his mother’s regrets, Don Graham was very much at home in the building others loved to hate. He started work at the paper in 1971 after a stint as a D.C. police officer. He arrived with childhood memories of watching President Truman’s Inauguration Day parade from the E Street building and of spending time in the pressroom at L Street.
“The L Street building was built by a paper that was losing its shirt,” he said. “The 15th Street building was built by The Post when it was one of three papers in town. We were not in a place to think about building monuments to ourselves. The Tribune Towers of the world were an example of newspapers getting carried away with themselves.”
So, no stone gargoyles, no towers reaching to the heavens, no gleaming globes. Superman, or rather the mild-mannered Clark Kent, did not work on 15th Street.
When the $25 million plant was dedicated in 1972, the city closed 15th Street so 500 leaders in politics, business and the arts could listen to the Wilson High School band play John Philip Sousa’s “Washington Post March” and hear speeches by D.C. Mayor Walter E. Washington and Secretary of State William Rogers.
The Post’s public relations office couldn’t resist pointing out that Rogers spoke on the same day that the Nixon administration slammed the paper’s aggressive coverage after White House operatives were caught burglarizing Democratic party offices at the Watergate complex. The dedication ended with a reception on the new building’s roof deck featuring fantail shrimp, relish platters stocked with kumquats and radish roses, beef bourguignon and mints decorated with The Post’s initials. The catering bill came to $2,462 and included the services of bartenders, waiters and “2 pantrygirls and 2 checkroom girls.”
The new building opened just four years after riots burned an ugly, penetrating wound along some of the city’s most important commercial boulevards, leading to massive white flight and raising serious doubt about whether the District’s economy could flourish again. The Post’s decision to stay in the central city meant that its largest remaining manufacturing business would remain. But all would not be peaceful inside the new building; the next searing battle would develop from within.
For decades, newspaper buildings were home to constant friction between journalists and blue-collar workers, some of it good-natured, some pretty raw. The Post’s fourth floor was a battleground between those who wrote and edited stories and the men who set their words in type. Longtime Metro columnist Bill Gold, a perfectionist who had his own printer’s tools, insisted on checking his copy each evening as a printer built it. Each time Gold touched the lead letters, a printer, guarding his union-guaranteed privilege to be the only one to handle the type, would pick up the metal tray and dump the column into the hell box, the refuse pile on the floor. The column would have to be set all over again.
A reckoning was a long time coming. Many workers believed they had to protect their authority over a production process that was dangerous and complicated. Management was convinced that the company could not remain profitable paying enormous overtime, often to workers doing phantom work. Featherbedding was endemic to newspaper plants. At The Post, when advertisers brought in ready-made ads, the union had the right to reset the ad, piling up the overtime. Then they would dump their handiwork and use the advertiser’s original — night after night, year after year.
When The Post’s unions went out on strike in 1975 — the action began when pressmen vandalized all nine presses, setting one on fire — the company was determined to keep the presses rolling. Managers worked double shifts — their own job, then that of a production craftsman. Editors wrote headlines by day and laid out pages and moved massive reels of newsprint by night, sometimes sleeping on cots in the newsroom. Some pressmen were flown in from out-of-town papers. The Post missed one day of publication.
The Post hired hundreds of replacement workers — scabs, the unions called them. After 139 days, the strike ended when the union rejected the company’s final offer: a big pay raise in exchange for giving management more control over work rules and staffing levels. The replacements became permanent employees. Only 18 out of more than 200 pressmen defied their union and accepted The Post’s invitation to return to their jobs.
Some of those replacement workers still work at the plant in Springfield. Roddy MacPherson was making $1.25 an hour as a waiter at a Holiday Inn when he was hired as a press operator trainee during the strike. He got about a 600 percent raise: “I thought I was a rich man,” says MacPherson, now the assistant plant manager. But those who crossed the picket line were cursed, shoved and worse. “It wasn’t unusual to have tires cut on your car, windows smashed,” MacPherson says.
Potts, who now runs the newsprint operation, worked in the composing room during the strike and kept a baseball bat in his pickup “because we got followed home,” he says. “If you were producing the paper, you were the enemy.”
Today, the cavernous rooms where presses once roared are a parking garage and storage and meeting space. In a sub-basement, along halls whose walls still bear ink smudges, there are hundreds and hundreds of boxes — old accounting records, reporters’ files on stories long forgotten, magnificent works of fiction (foreign correspondents’ expense reports), piles of Post-branded paraphernalia (Mugs! T-shirts! Frisbees!).
In the dank underground, there is history destined for the bulldozer and the landfill, and there is history that will soon land at the Library of Congress and other repositories. Inside the Yosemite National Park folder in The Post’s old photo library, a reporter stumbled upon a dozen original prints made by Ansel Adams when he was a publicity photographer for the park. Retired editor Tom Wilkinson opened a box of negatives from the old Washington Star photo collection and found an image of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller alighting from a train at Union Station.
The newsroom contains more urban legend than valuable artifacts — tales of editors who managed to live in their offices for a time, of decades-old meals found buried deep among stacks of notebooks, of sex in the stairwells, of bottles in desk drawers, of legendary reporters who boasted of not writing a single line of copy for six, eight, 18 months on end. “There’s nothing you can say or do that will make me write a story,” one city desk reporter told her editor in 1988, and in those days of fabulous profits and generous management, the reporter could be confident that her promise would stand. The clutter — twisting towers of notebooks, government reports, takeout menus — got so bad that in the 1980s, executive editor Ben Bradlee took to leaving hand-scrawled notes on reporters’ desks: “Clean it or I will.”
Now, everything must go. The move, exciting for some, wrenching for others, may seem an anticlimax to many. Seen from the street, The Post building lost a vital part of its connection to the city in 1999, when the presses fell silent downtown.
An eight-press, $230 million printing plant opened in College Park that year (just a decade later, it was sold for $12 million to the University of Maryland). The closing of the last major manufacturing business in the District was plain for all to see: The Post had given readers a free show for decades, an expansive plate-glass window onto the presses.
With that closing, Washington’s nightscape became more barren. A building that had run three shifts, 24 hours a day, with 900 printers, 125 massive linotype machines and trucks lined up around the block, became one more standard office building. The hundreds of people — students and domestics, immigrant mothers and homeless men — who lined up to work as inserters, assembling the paper’s sections by hand, no longer spent nights downtown.
The nightly queue for freshly printed papers ended as well; now the embassy workers, government officials, aides from competing media and night people who used to line up for the first look at the next day’s paper could see what The Post had from the comfort of their home computers.
Yet when huge news struck, people kept coming to the building — a tradition that goes back nearly a century. Old photos show huge clots of men in hats clustered around the E Street building, reading accounts of war battles; awaiting each inning’s updates, transmitted by telegraph from World Series games to The Post’s wire room; or standing by on election night for the latest returns. As recently as 2008, crowds queued around the block to buy papers the day after Obama was elected the nation’s first black president.
The Post’s last three extra editions — published during the day — also drew crowds, on the afternoon in 1995 when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder charges; on the morning after the 2000 presidential election, when dawn failed to shed light on the results of the battle between Al Gore and George W. Bush; and on the crystalline day when New York and Washington suffered the devastating terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The era of crowds lining up to get the print paper isn’t necessarily over, says The Post’s publisher, Frederick J. Ryan Jr. Although the company is using the move as a signal that digital delivery is The Post’s present and future, print accounts for most of the revenue and holds the hearts of many readers. “There’s still something about the way a print publication captures a moment, in a way that a screen grab or download doesn’t,” Ryan says. The Post sells 529,000 copies on Sundays and 340,000 on weekdays.
Tourists regularly stopped for photos of themselves with the old linotype machine at the entrance to the 15th Street building. The new headquarters won’t have that symbol of the industrial past out front. The next building is meant to send a different message, embracing the digital age. There’s to be no mess in the new place — managers have warned reporters against taking their documents with them. The new quarters will feature smaller desks, smaller offices and hardly any storage space, an effort to complete The Post’s transition to a digital-first culture. People will work under screens displaying real-time metrics, guiding decisions about what to cover and how to cover it.
But as The Post reaches for — and finds — a larger national audience, Ryan also wants to send the message that traditional values endure: The “Seven Principles for the Conduct of a Newspaper” that Post owner Eugene Meyer — Katharine Graham’s father — espoused will be displayed in even larger form in the new lobby than they were in the old.
The Post will retain a strong local focus, Ryan says: “Being broader nationally doesn’t mean being less important locally. Our local readers are the most loyal, the most valuable to our advertisers.”
The new building is a rental, a structure that real estate brokers said is almost impossible to rent to law firms today because of the opulence of the marble-clad lobby. Not the message lawyers want to send to cost-conscious clients these days.
John Kyle, senior vice president of Cresa, which represents tenants in real estate deals downtown, said that if The Post hadn’t rented the empty space at 1301 K St. NW, it would either have remained vacant, been rented to “tenants with lesser creditworthiness than The Post” or “defaulted to government use.”
But Ryan says The Post has acquired the rights to several long-term extensions of its lease in a home “that is no generic Washington building. It has a presence. It makes a statement.”
Starting now, it’s the place where, as they said in 1951, we create “the story of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of people who ...” — well, you get the idea.
Senior editor Marc Fisher has worked at The Washington Post’s downtown plant since 1986.
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