Skip to main content

The House That Sam Built

March 2023
1min read
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

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "October 1965"

Authored by: Milton Lomask

Carrying the Stars & Stripes unfurled, from Vicksburg to Washington, and Gretna Green to London

Authored by: Gene Smith

Half a century ago the glitter of the prewar world was extinguished forever in a 400-mile-long quagmire of barbed wire and mud, dead men and dying hopes. Recently AMERICAN HERITAGE sent a perceptive journalist-historian to revisit the scenes of that longest of all battles. Here is the peaceful present at such places as Verdun and Belleau Wood: the lawns are neat and green, but scaring memories remain.

Authored by: Alvin M. Josephy Jr.

That was what the white men called it, but the Indians could see how the wind was blowing. Would they abandon the hunting grounds of their forefathers without a fight?

Authored by: Thomas Fleming

—OR—Through the American Revolution with Pluck & Cheek

Authored by: Henry C. Pitz

The great illustrator found giants in clouds and inspiration in the classics of fiction and history. And, like old Charles Willson Peale, he founded and trained a dynasty of fine artists

Authored by: Oliver Jensen

AMERICAN HERITAGE takes part in announcing an astonishing discovery at Yale—the earliest map ever found that shows any part of America. Traced to a copyist in Basel about 1440 A.D., it shows, long before Columbus, the New World lands discovered by the Norsemen. Authenticated by painstaking scholarly detective work at Yale and the British Museum, it opens the door to tantalizing historical speculations

Authored by: The Editors

An American Heritage Portfolio

Authored by: The Editors

The petticoats were heavy, the collars stiff and high, but middle-class American families of the 1880’s enjoyed themselves keenly at their summer homes—and no one even broke into a sweat. A group of remarkable photos preserves the memory of those innocent days

Featured Articles

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

The world’s most prominent actress risked her career by standing up to one of Hollywood’s mega-studios, proving that behind the beauty was also a very savvy businesswoman. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.