Now that the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters has become the William J. Clinton Building, the nation’s 42nd president will enter an even more rarified club than the one he’s belonged to for more than a decade: he will be one of just under two dozen people who have a federal building in the District of Columbia named after them.
Spoiler alert: If you want to test your knowledge of which presidents have buildings named after them, take this quiz before reading the rest of this story.
After all, despite the expansion of the federal government in recent decades, there are only a limited number of agency headquarters. With the exception of the Treasury and the Pentagon, the remaining powerful ones are taken: Former President Harry S. Truman got State, while former attorney general Robert F. Kennedy’s name graces the Justice Department. Herbert Hoover might not have won plaudits during the Depression, but he still got the Commerce Building named after him, and Lyndon Baines Johnson's name graces the Education Department's headquarters.
George W. Bush just picked up his first named federal building, though it's outside D.C., and he had to share the honor with his father. As part of the negotiation that led to Wednesday's naming of the EPA, Senate Republicans and Democrats agreed that they would rename a federal courthouse in Midland, Tex., after both Bush presidents, and would name a long-vacant Capitol Hill building undergoing renovation after the longest-serving House Speaker in history, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill. (While this marked a first for George W. Bush, O’Neill already had a federal government center in Boston named after him, and the Central Intelligence Agency named its Langley, Va. headquarters the George Bush Center for Intelligence 15 years ago.)
In some cases, Congress has recognized Cabinet firsts through agency buildings. Frances Perkins, who broke the glass ceiling by becoming the first female Cabinet secretary, now has her name on the Labor Department she lead. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is named after Robert C. Weaver, the first African-American Cabinet member. Stewart Udall, who served with Weaver under President Johnson as Interior Secretary, has his name on the department he once ran.
Health and Human Services can't get enough of naming its buildings after people connected to its mission. Former Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) became the first living person to have a federal building named after him when the headquarters of what is now HHS took on his name. But HHS has two other named buildings: the Mary E. Switzer and Wilbur J. Cohen Buildings. Switzer focused on people with disabilities, while Cohen served as a government employee between 1934 and 1969 with only brief stints away in academia.
Some former presidents have been honored by getting their names on federal buildings that house government employees performing a range of tasks: Dwight D. Eisenhower’s name is on the Old Executive Office Building by the White House, while the Ronald Reagan Building houses U.S. AID, U.S. Customs and Border Control and some State Department offices. John F. Kennedy has plenty of buildings named after him, but the only federal one is a government center in Boston. And Theodore Roosevelt ties George H.W. Bush by having two federal buildings named after him: the headquarters of the Office of Management and Budget in D.C., and a federal courthouse in Brooklyn, N.Y..
Sometimes agencies have their headquarters named after people who didn’t actually run them, which is the case of James Forrestal, the nation’s first Defense Secretary, and the Energy Department headquarters. In several cases there’s an obvious congressional connection, such as with former Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.), whose name is on the Agriculture Department’s headquarters, and former Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.), who has another Agriculture building named after him. Whitten and Yates were both long-serving members on the Appropriations Committee and supporters of the farming community.
And while the Transportation Department's headquarters, which is leased, isn't named after anyone, the Federal Aviation Administration has two separate buildings in D.C. named after Orville and Wilbur Wright.
It normally takes an act of Congress and the president's signature to get a federal building named after someone, and this process has continued even the current partisan climate in Washington: On Tuesday the House passed legislation to name the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters after Douglas Albert Munro, the only member of the Coast Guard ever to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions in World War II's Second Battle of Matanikau. Munro shielded 500 Marines during their evacuation there.
And if opting for the Capitol Hill route seems too hard, the General Services Administration has the authority to name buildings on its own under certain circumstances. Fair warning that that almost never happens. So running for president might be a safer option. Just do it soon, before Treasury, Homeland Security, Transportation, Defense and the Small Business Administration headquarters are taken.