The Preservation of the Intelligence History of Navy Hill

 Original sign from the CIA's first building on E Street in Washington, DC. Source:  CIA

Original sign from the CIA's first building on E Street in Washington, DC. Source: CIA

A keystone of our nation’s intelligence heritage is at risk of being lost to development. The original headquarters of both the OSS and the CIA, where the first nearly 20 years of formal intelligence collection was forged, may be developed by the Department of State. Action is required to preserve the site and buildings for the history they represent.

Prior to WWII, the US had no coordinated effort on the intelligence collection front. The FBI was responsible for domestic security and domestic counter-intelligence operations. The Army and Navy had separate code breaking efforts (the Signals Intelligence Service and OP-20-G), the Department of State had a previous code breaking group called MI-8 and many of the executive branch departments had some form of intelligence collection effort, most actively at the War Department but even at the Treasury Department.

In 1941, as our nation was preparing for the eventuality of war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, began to worry about weaknesses in our nation’s intelligence collection efforts. He tasked Colonel William “Bill” Donovan to create of a single US intelligence service based loosely on the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI-6). This effort, “The Memorandum of Establishment of Service of Strategic Information”, lead to Donovan’s new role as Coordinator of Information (COI), leveraging primarily British intelligence collection efforts initially. Approximately 11 months later, Roosevelt established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), headed by now Gen. Donovan and absorbing the COI staff on the COI’s dissolution.

One of the earliest problems the COI/OSS faced was establishing a headquarters location. An almost 12 acre site, deeded to the US Government in 1791 and known alternately as Navy Hill or Potomac Annex, at 2430 E. Street NW in the District of Columbia proved to be the perfect spot. A collection of disparate buildings and architectural styles, the site had served as the home of the Old Navy Observatory from 1843 to 1893. The Navy retained the compound in various capacities (the Naval Museum of Hygiene and the Naval Medical Hospital, among others) of active use until 1942.

In 1902, the US Public Health Service (USPHS) built the first of the Navy Hill buildings, the North Building, as their Hygenic Laboratory. It was torn down in the 60’s to make room for the construction of the E Street Expressway. The Central building was built in 1922 and the East and South buildings were built in the 1930’s. The Central, East and South buildings that remain are one of Washington’s last significant WWII era sites.

     OSS/CIA Headquarters Source:  CIA


OSS/CIA Headquarters Source: CIA

From 1942 to 1947, the E Street Complex, as it is now known, served as the Headquarters of the OSS. Now General Donovan’s office was #109 in the East building, quickly nicknamed by wags “The Kremlin”. He had been promoted to General with the establishment of the OSS, as it was agreed the agency’s head needed to be a military officer. While it is no longer furnished in a manner Donovan would recognize as his, much of the original molding and paneling remains. A small display remains in his honor though, including a photo, statue of General Donovan, an OSS flag and some of his medals and ribbons.

In addition to Donovan, other future legends of the intelligence world would walk these hallways training for assignments, analyzing data collected abroad, encrypting or decrypting communications. Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby, William Casey, were all OSS officers long before they would become Directors of the Central Intelligence Agency (DCI), the OSS’ successor organization. Many other officers would form the backbone of the future CIA, such as Hugh Montgomery, John Waller and Virginia Hall, often toiling in lesser renown in spite of heroic achievements during the war.

And finally, there were those who were famous in their own right, but whose involvement with the OSS remained secret, only becoming known in some cases as late as 2008. Among these were historian Arthur Schlesinger, Hollywood director John Ford, Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche, baseball player Moe Berg, actor Sterling Hayden, and of course, Julia Child.

These and thousands of others like them passed through the doorways of these buildings. Here missions were planned and training was given. Intelligence was analyzed and sent to policy makers. Communications to and from the field were encrypted and decrypted. Technologies were developed and tested. And even the mundane clerical work that often drives the infrastructure of intelligence collection (payroll, banking, personnel records, and other administrative tasks.)

After the war, the OSS was disbanded and the CIA was established as its successor organization. Headquarters would remain on Navy Hill until 1961, when it moved to Langley, Virginia. According to the General Services Administration, the CIA continued to use Navy Hill until 1987, after which the GSA took control of the site and the Department of State began to use the three buildings.

The site is at risk though, and many of the veteran OSS and CIA officer who spent so much time on Navy Hill are coming back to fight for her preservation. Ambassador Hugh Montgomery, an early member of the OSS, with distinguished careers at both the CIA and State, is one of the more vocal proponents for the site’s preservation. He has spoken at several DC Preservation League meetings to that effect and is encouraging others in their own activism.

Today, the GSA is undertaking a master plan for the site, combining Potomac Annex and Navy Hill in to one site, Potomac Hill, under the control of the Department of State. The Potomac Annex Historic District, is already under some protection as it is listed on the District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites and has been deemed eligible for listing on the National Register as a historic district. The original Naval Observatory is a National Historic Landmark as designated by the National Park Service.

While both State and the GSA profess a desire to preserve the history of the site, it is also apparent from their statements, “Potomac Hill represents more a collection of buildings, pavement, and green space than a unified, functional federal campus meeting the modern needs of the government”, that some part of their plan will likely result in the removal of some of the Navy Hill facilities which provided the base for the seminal years of the CIA’s formation.

The GSA is currently scoping the project through July 21, gathering information and public comments on the site development plan. Now is the time to let your voice be heard for the preservation of this historic site. Please reach out to the GSA to ask them to preserve the site.

The OSS Society has partnered with the D.C. Preservation League to nominate Navy Hill as a landmark of both the District of Columbia and the United States. Filed with the District of Columbia Office of Historic Preservation Review Board on November 19, 2013, the 99 page nomination is the first step on the complex path to the National Register of Historic Places. The OSS Society’s nomination’s first objective is for the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board to amend the complex’s historical name and extend its official “period of significance” to include its service as OSS and CIA headquarters. With this accomplished, the D.C. State Historic Preservation Officer can recommend that the National Parks Service list the campus on the federal National Register of Historic Places in a way that recognizes its significance as OSS and CIA headquarters. Because local preservation law does not govern federal properties and the National Register does not forbid demolition, these listings will not be an absolute safety blanket. However, once a site is formally deemed eligible for a National Register listing, it falls under the protections of Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which for multiple reasons creates a significant barrier to the buildings’ destruction.

You can help to by sending your comments by email to (Subect: NEPA Scoping Comments) or mail to:

Jill Springer, NEPA Specialist

 U.S. General Services Administration, NCR

 301 7th St. SW, Room 4004

 Washington, DC 20407

Please also consider writing your congressional representative and both your senators to ask for their help in securing both a prompt hearing before the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office and appropriate historical recognition for OSS headquarters.  To avoid confusion, your letter or email should mention that the D.C. Historic Preservation Office lists the headquarters site under its current official name, the “E Street Complex.

Join us in helping honor the sacrifice of so many of our OSS and CIA predecessors by preserving this important piece of our nation’s intelligence history.

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