Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 17: Public Buildings and Grounds

Chapter 17. Records of the Public Works Committees

Table of Contents

Records of the Committees Relating to Public Works (1815-1988) from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, 1789-1988

Committee records described in this chapter.
Records of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds (1837-1946)

History and Jurisdiction

Hon. Henry L. Dawes, Mass, Office of the Chief Signal Officer, U.S. Army (Mathew Brady Studio), from NARA's National Archives Catalog  

17.33 The standing Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds was established in 1837, replacing the Select Committee on Public Buildings which had been created in 1819. This new five-member committee was empowered "to consider all subjects relating to the public edifices and grounds within the city of Washington which may be referred to them, and report their opinion thereon, together with such propositions relating thereto as may seem to them expedient.'' 1 In 1871, Representative Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts presented a resolution which increased membership on the committee to nine and gave it jurisdiction over "all the public buildings constructed by the United States.'' 2

17.34 Further changes were made in 1880, when the committee was expanded to 16 members and its jurisdiction expanded to cover "the public buildings and occupied or improved grounds of the United States, other than appropriations therefore.''3 The jurisdiction of the committee did not change after 1880, but the number of members was increased several times.

17.35 The committee reported legislation for the construction throughout the country of public buildings, including customs houses, post offices, and Federal court houses; the erection of monuments and memorials; the purchase of property for public use; improvements to public property; and compensation for workers erecting public buildings. During the early years of the committee, much of the legislation reported had to do with constructing and improving public buildings in Washington, DC, and commissioning artists to create art work for those buildings.

Records of the Select Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds (1819-37), and the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds (1837-1946)

Record TypeVolumeCongresses (Dates)
Minute Books22 vols.42nd-56th (1871-1901), 58th (1903-05), 60th (1907-09), 62nd (1911-13), 66th-73nd (1919-34), 77th (1941-42)
Docket Books30 vols.26th-29th (1839-47), 32nd-33rd (1851-55), 42nd-43rd (1871-75), 45th-57th (1877-1903), 59th-61st (1905-11), 69th-74th (1925-36), 77th (1941-42)
Petitions and Memorials7 ft.16th (1819-21), 18th-22nd (1823-33), 24th-39th (1835-67), 44th-46th (1875-81), 48th-50th (1883-89), 53rd (1893-95), 55th-56th (1897-1901), 63rd (1907-15), 65th-67th (1917-23), 70th-75th (1927-38)
Committee Papers3 ft.16th-18th (1819-25), 20th (1827-29), 23rd-33rd (1859-1938), 77th-79th (1941-46)
Bill Files41 ft.58th-79th (1903-46)
TOTAL:51 ft. and 52 vols. (4 ft.) 
Committee Records Summary Table

17.36 The minute books contain information on appointments made to the committee and its subcommittees, meeting times, attendance at meetings, legislation and amendments considered, yea-nay votes, committee resolutions, and reports of subcommittees. Some minute books have annotations of topics in the left margins, and/or alphabetical indexes. Alphabetical indexes are by topic and by the name of the city where a project was to be located.

17.37 Both scheduled and special meetings are documented. Special meetings were sometimes called to hear requests from individuals or groups outside the Washington area. Minutes for the 47th through 53d, 62d, and 66th Congresses (1881-95, 1911-13, and 1919-21) record meetings held weekly, if not more often during the various sessions of Congress, but those for the 60th Congress (1907-09) list only seven meetings during the entire Congress.

17.38 The docket books generally list in numerical order the petitions, memorials, bills, resolutions, and other documents referred to the committee, although entries for a few Congresses are arranged by State. Some docket volumes have entries which report committee activities, record committee votes, and identify members who spoke in favor of certain bills. The amount of detail varies greatly from one docket book to another.

17.39 The petitions and memorials contain a wide variety of requests from all sections of the country. During the committee's first 40 years (1837-1877) many petitions dealt with public buildings and other structures in the Washington, DC, area. Most of these petitions were received from workers, artists, and other private citizens, some from outside the city. The committee received a number of petitions, some from well-known architects such as Robert Mills and William Strickland, which dealt with warming, cooling, and ventilating the Capitol (27A-G18.1, 28A-G18.1) and the expansion and remodeling of the building and grounds (31A-G17.1, 34A-G16.1, 35A-G19.1, 44A-H14.1). Other subjects mentioned in petitions include a bridge over the Potomac (29A-G16.1, 32A-G18.1), a park (39A-H20.1), and fire-proofing (25A-G17.1, 26A-G17.1). After 1877 the quantity of petitions concerning public buildings in Washington, DC, decreased. Petitions after 1897 document support for a Hall of Records, backed by the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, the German American Historical Society, the Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies, and Gaillard Hunt of the Library of Congress (55A-H23.1, 62A-H25.2); the Park Commission's plan for Washington, DC, supported in 1908 by both the T Square Club of Philadelphia and the Boston Architectural Club (60A-H30.1); and an American Indian Memorial and Museum Building, supported in 1912 by the Improved Order of Red Men and citizens from several States (62A-H25.1).

17.40 From 1875 to 1889 the committee received a significant number of petitions from cities requesting public buildings. Some, including those from San Francisco in 1884 (48A-H24.1) and Lynn, MA, in 1883 (50A-H24.1), contain thousands of signatures. Several petitions from this period suggest that a formula based on municipal populations be used to determine the location and cost of Federal buildings. The formula, it is argued, would be preferable to the prevailing practice of providing for specific buildings by means of special legislation (50A-H24.1). Very few petitions exist for most years between 1889 and 1907, but many requests for public buildings were received between 1907 and 1938. During the 1930's petitions requested that public buildings be designed by local architects, rather than architects employed by the Treasury Department (72A-H13.1), and that local materials be used (73A-H18.1, 74A-H15.1, 75A-H15.1).

17.41 Petitions also concerned monuments and memorials. Petitioners proposed monuments to George Washington in 1838 (25A-G17.1), to the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1846 (29A-G16.1), and to the Marquis de Lafayette and other French officers who fought during the American Revolutionary War in 1875 (44A-H14.2). One petition, dated 1848, requests that the Federal Government purchase Mount Vernon as a memorial to George Washington (30A-G17.1). This subject came up again in the early 1900's (62A-H25.2, 66A-H16.1). Other petitions include an 1898 request from the Vermont Society of Colonial Wars for the Federal Government to purchase and restore Fort Ticonderoga (55A-H23.3) and a 1930 request from a chapter of the American Association of Engineers for the Federal Government to purchase the building in Georgetown in the District of Columbia that George Washington had used as his office while surveying the area (71A-H15.1). Proposals in the 1910's support plans to construct the Lincoln Memorial (62A-H25.2, 63A-H23.2) and to preserve the Washington Monument (66A-H16.1).

17.42 During its first half century (1837-77) the committee handled petitions concerning labor problems and requests for compensation. Groups of workers petitioned the committee for more pay (27A-G18.1, 35A-G19.1, 44A-H14.3) and fewer hours (25A-G17.1). Some petitioned for payment for services rendered, such as performing extra duties (29A-G16.1, 36A-G16.1) and painting the Capitol (30A-G17.1, 37A-G14.1). Others sought compensation for job-related injuries or fatalities. Samuel Atchisson, whose hand had been crushed while he was working on the Treasury Building, asked for $1,000 in 1839 to start a small business (26A-G17.1). Atchisson's file contains his petition, letters from two doctors certifying that he was disabled for life, and a statement from his supervisor that the accident had not been Atchisson's fault. Another individual petitioned the committee for compensation after his son, who was his source of support, was killed while helping construct the Patent Office (26A-G17.1).

17.43 Petitions received in the late 1890's from religious and temperance organizations supporting legislation forbidding the sale of intoxicating liquor in Government buildings (55A-H23.2) comprise the greatest number of petitions the committee received on a single subject. Other petitions relate to promotions for mechanical voting devices for the House, 1846-76 (29A-G16.1, 30A-G17.1, 44A-H14.3); an 1877 request from the city of Philadelphia that it be allowed to keep the Declaration of Independence on permanent display (44A-H14.2); and a suggestion during World War I by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that more housing be built in war production areas (65A-H15.1).

17.44 The committee papers generally contain correspondence, reports, and other documents relating to subjects under the jurisdiction of the committee, including many topics found in the petitions and memorials.

17.45 A great number of committee papers pertain to the construction of public buildings in Washington, DC. Construction of the Treasury Building (25A-D20.1, 25A-D20.4, 27A-D17.1, 29A-D17.1) and the Patent Office Building (25A-D20.1, 25A-D20.4) are well documented in the records from the committee's first decade, 1837-47. Cost estimates and appropriation requests are available for many years between 1837 and 1871, but rarely thereafter, for altering, improving, and furnishing the Capitol, White House, and several other public buildings (25A-D20.3, 26A-D21.2, 27A-D17.1, 29A-D17.1, 32A-D16.2, 38A-E17.1, 41A-F21.3). During this same period there are a number of documents concerning the poor ventilation in the chamber of the House of Representatives (25A-D20.4, 27A-D17.1, 28A-D23.1, 38A-E17.1, 39A-F22.1, 40A-F21.5).

17.46 After 1871, committee papers cover proposals from Government agencies for a Hall of Records, 1879-1931 (45A-F28.2, 47A-F24.3, 54A-F36.1, 60A-F43.2); rent costs and space requirements of agencies of the Federal Government, 1878-1914 (45A-F28.8, 47A-F24.5, 58A-F30.1, 63A-F31.1); and housing for Government officials, 1921-1931 (67A-F34.1, 70A-F29.1, 71A-F31.1).

17.47 Committee papers relating to public buildings outside of Washington, DC, do not appear until about 1875, when debate centered on whether to construct new buildings or to continue to pay rent for space used by the Government (44A-F29.2). Files concerning these legislative proposals contain copies of the bills, committee reports, and a variety of other documents. Within the files are requests for compensation for sidewalks and other improvements made to property around public buildings (46A-F29.3), reports and communications from the Treasury Department and other Federal agencies on criteria to be used to determine which cities would receive public buildings (51A-F33.1), and records of the committee's inspection tour of Norfolk, VA, and vicinity in 1941 (77A-F31.1).

17.48 Most committee papers concerning monuments and memorials date from 1837 to 1855. Questions involving statues of Thomas Jefferson for the Library of Congress (25A-D20.4) and George Washington for the Capitol Rotunda (26A-D21.2) were discussed by the committee as well as a proposed National Mausoleum for the burial of presidents and those Members of Congress who died in office (31A-D17.1). One proposal from the 1850's, complete with drawings, calls for the erection of a monument to be entitled Union Chain, which would symbolize "the Never-Ending Union of the American States'' (33A-D15.1).

17.49 The committee papers contain correspondence, hearings, and reports of committee investigations of misconduct charges against public officials. In the 1860's the committee investigated charges against both Captain Montgomery Meigs, Superintendent of Public Buildings, (38A-E17.1) and Silas Seymour, Chief Engineer and General Superintendent of the Washington Aqueduct (38A-E17.5). Between 1867 and 1879 the committee studied charges against Nathaniel Michler, Commissioner of Public Buildings (40A-F21.4), Samuel McCullogh, a Superintendent at San Francisco (44A-F29.5, 45A-F28.4), and Edward Clark, Architect of the Capitol (45A-F28.1). Documents for the Clark case include transcripts of testimony before the committee, letters from Frederick Law Olmsted and others who supported Clark, and the findings of the committee.

17.50 For the period 1837 to 1870 the committee papers contain information on labor problems of workers constructing public buildings and making improvements in Washington, DC (25A-D20.4, 26A-D21.2), requests for compensation (25A-D20.4, 27A-D17.1), the purchase of additional space for Government operations (31A-D17.1, 32A-D16.1), and, in 1866, the need of a new house for the President (39A-F22.4). Following 1870, documents are available covering methods for fire-proofing buildings (45A-F28.1, 63A-F31.1, 66A-F33.1), expenses incurred at the Executive Mansion in connection with the final illness and death of President James A. Garfield (50A-F32.1), locating a summer residence for the President (54A-F36.1, 70A-F29.1), and the shortage of family housing across the country (79A-F32.1).

17.51 The bill files for the committee contain printed copies of bills, correspondence, printed and unprinted transcripts of hearings, reports, and other documents concerning particular bills. Much of the correspondence related to bills providing for public buildings for certain cities contains statistical data such as population figures, postal and tax receipts, and manufacturing capacity. A number of promotional pamphlets describing various cities are also in the bill files, as are many petitions and memorials concerning particular bills.

17.52 For each Congress the bill files are arranged by type of legislation--House bills, House resolutions, House joint resolutions, House concurrent resolutions, Senate bills, and Senate joint resolutions. The arrangement thereunder varies according to Congress. Files for the 58th through 64th Congresses (1903-17) are arranged alphabetically by the city named in the bill if an appropriation for a public building is involved. Located at the end of the files are bills relating to Washington, DC, and general legislation. The bill files for the 65th Congress (1917-19) are arranged alphabetically by State. For the 66th through 79th Congresses (1919-46) bill files are arranged by bill or resolution number.

17.53 Bill files vary in completeness and content, but nearly every individual bill file contains a copy of the bill in question. Many files also have reports from the Treasury Department containing cost estimates and other information requested by the committee and/or correspondence related to the bill, often from Congressmen and other political and business figures. In some instances, site plans, drawings, and newspaper clippings are included, as well as hearings, reports, and petitions and memorials.

17.54 The vast majority of bill files are for bills providing for the construction in a specific city of a public building, usually a post office or customs house. Other files with substantial documentation include: H.R. 7014, a 1919 bill creating a Bureau of Housing and Living Conditions within the Department of Labor (66A-D26); H.R. 1409 and S. 1129, bills introduced in 1935 to extend and complete the United States Capitol (74A-D32); and H.Res. 209 and H. Con. Res. 36, two 1941 resolutions to decentralize the Federal Government by moving those agencies that were least vital to the national defense out of Washington, DC (77A-D31).

Table of Contents


1 Congressional Globe, 25th Cong., 1st sess., Sept. 15, 1837, p. 34.

2 Congressional Globe, 42nd Cong., 1st sess., Mar. 10, 1871, p. 53.

3 Congressional Globe, 46th Cong., 2nd sess., Jan. 6, 1880, p. 205.

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.