Jesse Heitz is a historian.
For years, the fate of the famed — or reviled — J. Edgar Hoover Building has remained mired in uncertainty. With a near- tidal ebb and flow, the FBI’s headquarters has been walked to the gallows of demolition, only to receive a last-minute stay of execution.
But, amid reports that the construction of a new FBI campus outside the stifling confines of Washington has fallen prey to presidential disfavor, the sun has ostensibly set on the potential preservation of the Hoover Building.
Undoubtedly, there are many who would view the structure’s disappearance as welcome, its absence marking our capital city’s liberation from the lamentable shackles of architectural excess. Its destruction — particularly if it were replaced with the universally heralded regality of a traditional neoclassical design — would be capable of transforming the moans of its detractors into the audible hope of nobility reborn.
Yet before we unceremoniously condemn something unique (and neglected) to suffer the wrath of the wrecking ball for its argued failures in vanity, or its apparent lack of cordiality with its sophistication-laden neighbors, perhaps the least we can do is hear one final appeal before rendering an irreversible verdict.
With the aim of disrupting the monotony of a derelict 1960s Pennsylvania Avenue, a testament to the modernity of a wished structural epoch was erected. Standing at 160 feet, encompassing several city blocks and spanning 2.8 million square feet, the enduring triumph of C.F. Murphy Associates architects Stanislaw Gladych and Carter Manny Jr. isn’t simply a magnificent citadel of unorthodoxy. No, the Hoover Building is the veritable ghost of an audacious plan to revitalize a decaying cityscape. It’s one of the preeminent American bastions of a long-since retired style, the embodiment of a stylistic revolution once championed by the likes of legendary Modernists Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. And perhaps most importantly of all, it’s arguably the purest governmental expression of Brutalist architecture in America.
Imposing, monolithic and, to some, downright intimidating. Fortresslike in its utilization of pronounced geometric masses of impregnable reinforced concrete. Faceless yet intense in its repeated use of deeply recessed windows. The top floors of its northern half — reminiscent of an observation deck — imbue passersby with the unshakable impression that they’re subject to the watchful eyes of something all-seeing.
Uncompromising yet plain-spoken. Brutish yet protective. Ominous yet honest. And while some may view the building’s “coldness” — its conceivable scorn toward the subjective Vitruvian theory of venustas, or “beauty” — as fiendish, the structure’s resolute nature forcefully refutes the superficial notion that a dearth of warmth and splendor necessarily equates to repugnance.
By replacing the grandiosity of ornamentation and the elegance of perfect symmetry — the traditional hallmarks possessed by its aged federal peers — with unadulterated ruggedness and simplicity, the Hoover Building effectively achieved what Brutalism had always intended. Unmistakably conveying not just overt functionality but also the awe-inspiring power of its institutional resident.
An indefatigable and enigmatic tenant known for “fidelity, bravery, and integrity.” A building anathema to majesty and rooted in unapologetic might. What better marriage between style and occupant could there be? And what endangered public structure is more worthy of preservation?