The House That Sam Built

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Not far from the Capitol in Washington sits a brand-new fortress of granite and marble, the Rayburn House Office Building, a memorial to the late Speaker of the House of Representatives. Though we do not suggest that there was graft in its construction, the Rayburn Building is also a memorial to waste, which is always with us. Like the house that Tweed built, the Rayburn Building got off to a modest start when, in 1955, Sam Rayburn offered an amendment to a minor bill concerning planning for a new House office building. The amendment authorized construction of the building and appropriated $2,000,000 and “such additional sums as may be necessary.” Authority for the building was put in the hands of the three-man House Office Building Commission and the Architect of the Capitol, J. George Stewart. It happens that the Architect of the Capitol is not an architect but a construction engineer, and that the Building Commission has a habit of meeting in executive session, which conveniently keeps out any nosy taxpayers.

The way the appropriations grew would have made Tweed green with envy. The first estimate of “such additional sums as may be necessary” was $63,000,000. But as construction continued, underestimated bids and the addition of such utter necessities as a swimming pool and tennis courts drove up the price to nearly $90,000,000, making this the most expensive United States government building in history. Quite a few of the expenditures that contributed to this grand sum sound almost as exorbitant as the costs of Tweedledom: it cost $10,000 to furnish each of the 169 office suites; a 700-foot subway to the Capitol had a $7.7 million price tag; the bill for each of the 1,600 parking spaces in the underground garage was $5,800. And as in Tweed’s courthouse, there were lots of mistakes. For example, so that congressmen can reach their staffs without going through a crowded waiting room, doors will have to be cut through their office walls. The price for this will be $200,000. But the most striking similarity between the Tweed and Rayburn buildings is their mutual hideousness. The Rayburn Building has been called “Corrupt Classic,” “the apotheosis of humdrum,” and “the worst building for the most money in the history of the construction art.” There have been demands for an investigation, but so far nothing has happened, and the Rayburn Building sits on Capitol Hill, a bloated dragon spawned by bureaucracy.

David G. Lowe