CHAPTER 7

JAMES FORRESTAL BUILDING, 1969
A LANDMARK IN FEDERAL ARCHITECTURE

LARGEST FEDERAL OFFICE BUILDING IN WASHINGTON, D.C.

Click on the image to enlarge.

Forrestal Building, Washington, D.C.
Sketch by Curtis, nd.

The James Forrestal Building in Washington, D.C., designed by our firm, was dedicated on 18 November 1969. It houses 7,500 workers for the top echelon of the Department of Defense and is located on Independence Avenue and the 10th Street Mall, directly across from the Smithsonian Institution. It was the largest Federal office building in the city when built and the first truly contemporary architecture ever approved for construction there.

In 1961, when our group was awarded the commission for the building, it was considered to be one of the most important plums that an architect could have. Most architectural firms have never had an opportunity to design a building in the nation's capital, and those considering themselves eligible for selection were much older with more years of practice and, even more important, more politically oriented than we. No Southern firm had done a significant building in the capital since Benjamin Latrobe (1766-1820).

Latrobe, an Englishman by birth, is generally acknowledged as the founder of the professional practice of architecture in the U.S. Appointed by Thomas Jefferson in 1803 as Surveyor of the Public Buildings in the U.S., Latrobe was charged with the completion of the Capitol at Washington. He also did work in Philadelphia, Norfolk, Richmond, and New Orleans. In New Orleans, he designed the city's water system, the U.S. Customhouse [the building he designed in 1807 failed], monuments for Governor Claiborne's first and second wives in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, and the Louisiana State Bank in the French Quarter. The bank was Latrobe's last design. He died in New Orleans of yellow fever and was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, but his gravesite has been lost.


THE ROBERT TROUTMAN CONNECTION, BEGINNING 1955


The story of our selection and the construction of the building in the face of tremendous opposition begins, strangely enough, in the British West Indies in 1955, fourteen years before the Forrestal Building was completed. In that year, I met Robert Troutman of Atlanta, a graduate of the University of Georgia and Harvard, a lawyer and promoter.

Troutman pursued two careers at the same time, throwing himself wholeheartedly into both. In one career, which he worked from 3:00 a.m. until 9:00 a.m., he assembled on tape jazz, swing, classical, opera, and Broadway plays. In the other, which he worked from 9:00 a.m. until late at night, he developed a string of hotels in the British West Indies.

This remarkable man had decided that the American tourist in search of sunshine, warmth, and the sea would, upon the advent of the jet plane, fly in great numbers to the islands south of Miami. He reasoned there would be a need for resort hotels. The British Tourist and Development Commission, in search of ways to improve the depressed economy, agreed to finance the project. Because of its experience in New Orleans, Atlanta, Nashville, and Birmingham, the Dinkler Hotel chain would be the operator.

On numerous trips, Troutman, Carling Dinkler Jr., and I traveled all over the West Indies and selected prominent sites for hotels in Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, British Honduras, British Guiana, and Trinidad. One such site was a beautiful hilltop in Trinidad overlooking the sea. The design called for the entrance lobby to be at the summit of the top floor with the room floors arranged below, stepping down the side of the hill. When the plan was announced, the natives called it the Upside-Down Hotel, and a calypso song was written about it.

We were in Trinidad when we heard the tragic news that Dinkler Sr. had jumped out of the window of the Dinkler Plaza in Atlanta. This project had dragged on much longer than expected; the British were slow to act; interest on the money invested in land was mounting; and the death of Dinkler Sr. caused the ambitious project to disintegrate. Troutman and Dinkler Jr. flew home to Atlanta, and I came back to New Orleans. I didn't see Troutman again for six years.

 

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