General Anson Mills And His Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue

In January 1902, The Washington Post reported that General Anson Mills (1834-1924)—a Civil War veteran, inventor, and Washington resident—was planning to start work on a "mammoth nine-story steel-frame office building" on the southwest corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The general had paid over 100,000 dollars to acquire the prime construction site near the White House, and the distinguished building he put up on the site, completed in 1903, stood for more than 60 years, its life and death emblematic of an earlier era in the city's development.

The Mills Building (on the left) as seen from the grounds of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building shortly before the Mills Building was torn down in 1964 (Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Washington, D.C.).

Born in Indiana, Mills had a lifelong affinity for the military. He entered West Point in 1855 but was soon kicked out for "deficiency in mathematics." Moving to Texas, he became a surveyor and in that role helped lay out the city of El Paso. Still longing for a military career, he traveled to Washington at the outbreak of the Civil War and worked his connections to get a commission as a first lieutenant in an Ohio army regiment. Mills participated in several campaigns, and at the end of the war stayed on with the army. He then had an extensive career traveling in the west as part of various campaigns against native Americans. He rose to the rank of Colonel and finally was named Brigadier General in 1897, shortly before he retired.

Gen. Anson Mills (Source: Library of Congress).
What Mills may have lacked in military prowess, he made up for in entrepreneurial tenacity. What he called his "greatest material achievement" was his invention and gradual perfection of the woven ammunition cartridge belt for soldiers to wear in combat. Bullets manufactured with cartridges of gunpowder attached to them became standard after the war, and Mills took on the not-insignificant challenge of designing a practical belt for soldiers to wear that would hold these cartridges comfortably and securely. It took years of effort, including much haggling with the military bureaucracy, but Mills' cartridge belt finally became standard issue in the 1890s. With additional sales to the British fighting the Boer War in South Africa, Mills became a rich man.

Mills moved with his family to Washington at the time his manufacturing business was starting to pay off. In 1894, he bought and moved into a large brownstone townhouse (now demolished) on the southwest side of Dupont Circle and began hobnobbing with Washington's social elite. Soon the question arose as to how he should invest his growing wealth. Real estate beckoned, as it has for so many other Washingtonians.

The Anson Mills house on Dupont Circle (Source: My Story by Anson Mills).
This is where the Mills house was located (photo by the author).

In the early 1900s, dense commercial development was just beginning to spill out from its traditional downtown concentration along Pennsylvania Avenue and F Street between the White House and the Capitol. The biggest selling point for the site Mills chose was that it was directly across the street from the State, War, and Navy Building (which we previously profiled here) with its burgeoning workforce in perpetual need of additional space. In 1902, while the Mills building was still being constructed, Navy officials began eyeing it; they signed a lease for 23,500 dollars per year (plus 20,000 more for maintenance) even before the building was completed in 1903.

The 8-story, steel-frame, "fireproof" building was faced with white granite on its first two stories and buff brick above that. Topped with a neoclassical balustrade, the Beaux-Arts building's rusticated façade gave it a look of solidity. The main entrance on 17th Street featured a great, columned portico two stories tall, crowned with a third-floor balcony. Architectural historian James Goode points out that the building captures the spirit of the Chicago commercial style of the 1880s and 1890s. Ornamentation is restrained and elegant, and the large windows on the 4th through 7th floors in particular recall the Chicago style.

The building's architects, Douglas H. Thomas, Jr. (1872-1915) of Baltimore and his partner, J. Harleston Parker (1872-1930) of Boston, had both trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Together they designed many distinguished hotels, banks, and office buildings—mostly in Baltimore and Boston—that mirrored the Beaux-Arts style. The McMillan Commission's Beaux-Arts-inspired plan for the public spaces of Washington, which would set the tone for development of the city's public spaces, came out in 1902, the same year work began on the Mills Building.

An unknown individual poses in front of the Mills Building on 17th Street (Author's collection).

The same approximate location today (photo by the author).
The Navy began moving in to the new building in March 1903, amid endless squabbles among its bureaus and offices over who would be forced to relocate to the "annex." The Navy's hydrographic office was one of the groups that drew a short straw; it occupied the first three floors of the Mills building. Other tenants included the bureaus of yards and docks, the office of naval intelligence, the headquarters of the U.S. Marine Corps, and the office of Admiral George Dewey, the hero of Manila Bay, who lived in a nearby mansion at 16th and K Streets.

No sooner was the building fully leased than Mills built a large extension along G Street, resulting in a snake-like structure that wrapped itself around Pennsylvania Avenue, 17th Street, and G Street, with a courtyard in the middle. The George A. Fuller Construction Company boasted that it completed the steel-frame addition to the Mills Building in just seven months, from May to November 1904, which it said was a record time. The Panama Canal Commission moved into the new space.

In 1913, when the Navy's ten-year lease expired, Mills hiked the rent up to 30,000 dollars, which the Navy declined to pay, opting instead to move its annex offices to a new building on New York Avenue. The newly-formed Department of Labor was quick to take up the space vacated by the Navy. And with the onset of World War I a few years later, demand for office space was greater than ever. The War Department took over the Mills Building throughout the war years.

An aerial view, circa 1939, shows the Mills Building (center right) wrapping from Pennsylvania Avenue around 17th Street to G Street. Note the AAA sign on the side of the building. (Author's collection).
By the 1920s, the office market was still very strong, but the military's needs had declined. Thus began a long era of commercial tenants for the Mills Building. Mills had hired Arthur Carr (1873-1933), a native of England, to manage his building. Carr was a highly successful real estate executive; he collaborated with Mills on other office projects and eventually gained partial ownership of the Mills Building. Under Carr's tenure, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was temporarily headquartered in the building. After it moved out in 1925, the powerful American Automobile Association replaced it. The AAA grew dramatically in the early 1920s; by 1928 the D.C. club expanded its lease to build a new state-of-the-art customer service center. The battery of operators at the new "speedoserve" telephone switchboard could receive 12 emergency roadside assistance calls at a time and relay each to one of 49 local service stations "within a minute and a half." In addition, "huge throngs of visitors" were reported to regularly descend on the AAA office for assistance in planning their visits to Washington. Trained staff could provide suggestions and route directions for any destination in the metropolitan area.

A May 1925 advertisement for the building from The Washington Post.
Twenty years later, the AAA was still in the Mills Building. One night in June 1948, a thief climbed into the locked office through an overhead transom window. The office safe was his target, but how to break into it? It wasn't difficult; the burglar found a slip of paper on a nearby desk with the combination on it. After relieving the AAA of about 2,000 dollars, he returned the slip of paper to the desk where he had found it. He (or was it a she?) was never apprehended.

The building had a wide variety of occupants at mid-century. Franz Bader (1903-1994), the legendary D.C. art dealer, opened his bookstore and gallery in the Mills Building in 1953. It became a center of art and culture in Washington, exhibiting works by the Washington Color School and other artists (Gene Davis worked at the AAA in the Mills Building) and hosting book signings by Aldous Huxley, Dylan Thomas, Rachel Carson, among many others. Less famous but equally important to the Mills Building's tenants was Flora Fedeli's gift and card shop, Jack Bird's florist shop, Paul Pearlman's second-hand bookshop on G Street, a Fanny May candy store, and a barber shop.

Rounding the corner at Pennsylvania Avenue stood a Whelan's drugstore, which had a commanding view of all the activity on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. On November 1, 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists intent on assassinating President Harry Truman attacked Blair House across the street and got into a gun battle with White House police. Bystanders crowded into Whelan's for cover. Reportedly, two stray bullets whizzed into the store, one of them smashing a plate glass window. No one at the store was seriously injured.

The Mills Building in 1960 (Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Washington, D.C.).
By the early 1960s, the aging building, which lacked air conditioning, was suffering mechanical failures and was sorely in need of renovation. In 1963, the General Services Administration proposed purchasing the Mills Building and other adjacent structures for future replacement with government offices, but Congress rejected the idea. The politically well-connected majority owner of the building, Oliver T, Carr, Jr., had other ideas for the site. Carr, who was the grandson of Anson Mills' partner, Arthur Carr, wanted to tear down the venerable old building and replace it with a new office box.

There was talk of saving the building—or at least its façade—but that would have been more expensive than a new building. Ironically, this was the same time that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was championing efforts to preserve the historic buildings of Lafayette Square, only a block away from the Mills Building. The Mills Building was even eyed for inclusion in the government's preservation plans, but Carr, who would become one of DC's most powerful real estate developers, made sure that it was ultimately passed over. Historic preservation was still in its infancy in those days; it would be another 15 years before DC's historic preservation law was enacted. In 1964, Carr proceeded with demolition of the Mills Building.

The new Mills Building that Carr built in its place—a blocky and unremarkable heap sheathed in pre-cast concrete—was designed by the firm of Weihe, Black, and Kerr, and completed in 1966. The Washington Post reported that Carr said the incongruous new structure was "conceived in a manner consistent with the Grand Plan for Pennsylvania Avenue" and "will serve as a complementary counterpoint to the historic Court of Claims Building [the Renwick Gallery of Art], Blair-Lee House and the Old State Building." A counterpoint the building surely is. Whether it is complementary, however, is another matter.

The current Mills Building (photo by the author).
In an admission that the demolition of the old building was not merely an architectural loss but a cultural one as well, the Carr company said it would lease retail space in the new structure "to shops that seek to recreate the atmosphere of the former art, book, and flower marts that attracted browsers," according to the Post. But instead of bookshops run by the inimitable Franz Bader or the quirky Paul Pearlman, a generic branch of the Brentano's bookstore chain opened up. The old atmosphere was lost for good. Marvin Caplan, former executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, wrote in 1986 that "the whole neighborhood gradually came apart in the wake of" the Mills building's demolition. All the old restaurants, shops, and apartment houses were replaced with office boxes like the new Mills Building, and an entire vibrant era in the city's history came to a close.

Today the new Mills Building still stands at the vanguard of many blocks of architectural banality to the west. Having destroyed this landmark on the west side of the White House grounds, the Carr Company went on in 1984 to destroy another one on the east side—the historic Rhodes Tavern at 15th and F Streets NW. We are surely worse off for both these losses.

* * * * *

Special thanks to Jessica Smith at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., for her assistance with historic images. Sources for this article included: Anson Mills, My Story (1918); Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (2007); James M. Goode, Capital Losses (2003); Henry F. and Elsie Rathburn Withey, Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (1970); and numerous newspaper articles.

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