Is this the ugliest building in Washington? HHS doesn’t think so.
But a social media debate this past week about the city’s ugliest buildings may have been a tweet too far for HHS’s current leaders.
“Hey, there. Be nice,” the Cabinet agency said Tuesday. “They call this concrete chic and we’ve been serving looks to the American Public since 1976.”
Hey, there. Be nice. They call this concrete chic and we’ve been serving looks to the American public since 1976. https://t.co/0n2Iv6mL2y
— HHS.gov (@HHSGov) July 24, 2023
The agency’s response — amplified by HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, the agency’s top lawyer, Samuel R. Bagenstos, and other HHS staff — spoke to a tension familiar to many Washingtonians. Government workers are proud of the work they do, but they are sometimes touchy about where they do it.
Few D.C. buildings are judged more harshly than the health agency’s 803,555-square-foot headquarters — home to officials who oversee about $1.7 trillion in federal spending through programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act — particularly when compared with the elegant U.S. Capitol that sits just up the hill. Some longtime officials are still abuzz about a 2014 BuzzFeed News story that ranked the Hubert H. Humphrey Building as the third-ugliest government building in the city.
Brutalist-style buildings dot the Washington skyline, with many built between the 1950s and 1970s as federal jobs boomed and agencies ran out of space. And those buildings’ designs were, well, by design: The federal government was instructed to construct offices that “reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American National Government,” according to a 1962 government report delivered to President John F. Kennedy by the Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space.
But as the health agency’s hulking headquarters slowly emerged in the early 1970s, it developed a reputation that might surprise Washingtonians today: It was considered too opulent.
Designed by famed architect Marcel Breuer and intended to house what was then known as Department of Health, Education and Welfare, or HEW, critics repeatedly questioned whether the building was too luxurious for workers overseeing the nation’s safety-net programs. President Richard M. Nixon’s first HEW secretary ordered workers to reconsider their design for the building in 1969, saying that its $40.5 million price tag was too high; four years later, HEW officials would kill plans to build squash courts and a sauna inside their in-progress headquarters.
The reports angered members of Congress, who worked several blocks away in offices that felt increasingly cramped compared with the eight-story building rising nearby at 200 Independence Avenue SW.
“I am almost ashamed to let somebody walk through that thing, where the head of the welfare money sits as he administers his agency,” said Rep. Teno Roncalio (D-Wyo.), who chaired a 1975 congressional hearing in which he and other lawmakers said the spacious building was being wasted on bureaucrats and proposed taking it for themselves.
The health agency successfully fended off Congress, and in 1977, its headquarters was dedicated to Hubert H. Humphrey Jr., the longtime senator and former vice president who would soon die of cancer. The dedication ceremony prompted public assessments that tended toward raves — if not rapture.
“The windows are deep set, shielded from sun and glare, and the concrete surfaces textured and grooved to age and weather well,” Sarah Booth Conroy wrote in the Nov. 5, 1977, issue of The Washington Post, praising the newly designated Humphrey Building’s “combination of sun and shadow.”
The agency’s top official offered a more critical review. “There were leaks all over,” Joseph A. Califano Jr., HEW’s then-secretary, told a Post reporter, adding that his predecessor had begged officials to deal with the building’s rat problem.
Recent staff members have similar frustrations. More than a dozen current and former officials vented to The Post this week about the Humphrey Building’s patchwork and mismatched carpet, scarce natural light and confusing layout. The pest problem that plagued the building in its earliest days hasn’t gone away: One former official described trapping about a half-dozen mice, often herding them into offices that were empty during the first year of the pandemic.
The building’s woes have even helped Obama and Trump health officials find common ground.
“It’s so ugly, it’s beautiful,” said Andy Slavitt, who led the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services during the Obama administration and has publicly lamented that the building’s narrow windows prevented its occupants from seeing the U.S. Capitol across the street.
“As former HHS Chief of Staff, I’d like to formally endorse the Humphrey building’s candidacy” as Washington’s ugliest building, Brian Harrison, a former Trump official and current Texas state lawmaker, echoed in a tweet. “#BrutalismIsUgly.”
Biden officials this week tried to mount a defense worthy of the fortresslike building they have occupied.
“So it’s gray on the outside but explore inside,” Sarah Lovenheim, who served as HHS assistant secretary for public affairs before stepping down in January, wrote in a text message, touting the building’s “state-of-the-art TV studio,” art from children around the world and other enticing visuals. “HHS was rated the #2 fed agency to work at last year by the Partnership for Public Service so whatever your architectural preference, it’s getting a whole lot right on the inside.”
Within the Humphrey Building, “there’s a bunch of beautiful people doing beautiful things,” added Kamara Jones, the current assistant secretary for public affairs who helped coin the agency’s “concrete chic” tagline. “Their work has resulted, at least at one point, in the lowest uninsured rate in history. The successful launch of [mental health hotline] 988 … vaccines, tests and treatments to fight against covid … there’s a lot of beauty inside the building that I wish people would focus on.”
On Wednesday, several staffers standing outside their aesthetically challenged headquarters mustered up some praise for it.
“I think it’s a functional building. There’s light inside and the interior is actually much better designed than you would anticipate,” said Emily Evans, who works in the agency’s policy and research office.
“I actually do really enjoy working in the Humphrey Building. I find it convenient and like working with my colleagues,” added Marilyn Cabrera, a senior equity coordinator at the agency. “When I saw the tweet, I [thought], ‘I guess it is kind of sad-looking, but I don’t feel sad when I’m here.’ ”