Three Things About the CIA’s Langley Headquarters

Maybe it’s a little surprising that we haven’t yet done anything on the CIA headquarters at Langley … so, it’s about time we give you some great trivia on their headquarters.

1. Who designed it and when was it built?

The cornerstone for Langley was laid on November 3rd, 1959 by President Eisenhower and it took four years to complete the complex. Originally located down on E St. in Foggy Bottom, Allen Dulles pushed to move the CIA to a secluded and secure location in then-rural northern Virginia. The site selected was on a 258-acre plot of land on the former estate of Thomas Lee who had purchased 3,000 acres from the sixth Lord Fairfax, naming his estate “Langley,” after his family’s estate in England. The headquarters building is 1,400,000 square feet and has a second New Headquarters Building was built in 1991. The original headquarters building was designed by Harrison Abramovitz, the same firm that did the United Nations Headquarters building in New York City.

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CIA headquarters artist's rendering
CIA headquarters artist’s rendering


2. Anywhere but Langley

Like any major building project, the current location was certainly not a fait accompli. We’re posting some more on location selection later this week, but for now, here’s an interesting article that we found in the Washington Post, printed on December 7th, 1955 (14 years after Pearl Harbor).

“Approval” by the National Capital Regional Planning Council of the proposed Central Intelligence Agency site at Langley, Va., is typical of the confusion bordering on farce that has surrounded CIA’s efforts to bulldoze into this residential area. Because of the death of an Alexandria member whose vote against the Langley site would have reversed the position of the Council, a Falls Church alternate was enabled to cast an affirmative vote. Because of a decision attributed to the National Security Council that the CIA  cannot locate its new buildings in Washington proper, the CIA is looking for a site that is neither fish nor fowl–neither dispersed nor really convenient. Because CIA officials seemingly are dead-set against use of the Winkler tract in Alexandria–among other reasons because they say the four-lane high-speed Shirley Highway is overloaded–they are doing their utmost to obtain a site bordering on a two-lane road that is far more overloaded and that would require enormous new construction. Is it not time to end this absurd situation in which the CIA pushes around all sound planning concepts for the estate and park area upstream from Washington? If there is civil defense reason to disperse the CIA headquarters, then let it be really dispersed–to Cumberland or even to Kalamazoo, where it could be a companion piece to the lonely and very much dispersed Civil Defense Administration at Battle Creek. If access to the White House is more important than dispersal, then let the new buildings be located in Alexandria, where they would be  welcome and would not violate good planning; or in Washington, which was the first choice of CIA anyhow. Incidentally, with the new Constitution Avenue bridge, a CIA headquarters near its present site in Foggy Bottom would cause less of a traffic problem than almost anywhere else. And if the name of the area bothers clearsighted intelligence officials, no doubt it could be changed to accommodate them.

The deciding voter died? That sounds awfully suspicious (if you’re a conspiracy theorist).

CIA seal
CIA seal

3. Public confirmation of Langley location

1973 street sign for CIA
1973 street sign for CIA

The location of the CIA headquarters at Langley wasn’t exactly a secret, given that debate over where to put the headquarters happened with public discourse in the papers. Despite that, there were no signs pointing to the location. You could drive along GW Parkway or Route 123, and not know exactly where to turn off, unless you worked there. You had to know where to turn, and at various times, the exit was labeled FHWA or BPR. That all ended in 1973. Below is an article from the Washington Post signaling the CIA’s coming out and publicly stating its location.

For more than a decade, the George Washington Memorial Parkway exit south of Turkey Run has been variously labled [sic] “Bureau of Public Roads,” “Federal Highway Administration,” or “Fairbanks Highway Research Station.” This week parkway workmen finally put up signs showing where it really leads–to the mammoth headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, VA. Parkway superintendent David A. Ritchie said the request for the new sign “came down some months back from CIA.” A spokesman at CIA said the sign was ordered by James R. Schlesinger when he took over CIA for four months early this year. “He came in here and said ‘Where’s the sign?’ and there wasn’t one so we got one,” the spokesman said. He said the sign was part of a general policy of increased openness that Schlesinger ordered at the nation’s spy agency, where switchboard operators now answer calls with “CIA” instead of just repeating the phone number. Parkway superintendent Richey said the lack of a sign at CIA was “sort of a joke going back over the years. People know very well the highway station is not the principal agency down that road.” For years roadmaps have identified the location of the CIA. Ritchey said he never knew of anyone getting lost trying to find CIA, and that a greater problem was keeping sightseers and tourists out. The CIA spokesman said people in quest of the agency get lost all the time. “We get cab drivers who never find us,” he said. “They wind up circling around and around like some sort of Flying Dutchman on the Beltway.” Did Schlesinger ever get lost trying to find CIA? “I don’t thinks o,” said the agency spokesman. “That’s a piquant thought, but I don’t think that guy gets lost doing anything.” After four months as head of CIA, Schlesinger moved up last May to Secretary of Defense.

This might be one of our favorite stories of the past few months.

George Bush Center for Intelligence
George Bush Center for Intelligence

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  • WFY

    I remember the old alignment of VA 123 through there — pretty much an at-grade interchange with VA 193/Georgetown Pike and the CIA entrance. The middle sign was missing the 123 shield — was something more secret than the CIA in that lane? I think the 123 alignment was changed around 1987.

  • DB Bourgeois

    I grew up 2 blocks from the CIA in Rokeby Farms neighborhood (Orris St.) Seeing the 1973 photo of the signs that hung over Dolly Madison Blvd (now Parkway) really brought back the memories of my childhood. I once rode my bike down to the guard shack. I was told to go home immediately.

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  • zanmirrob .

    What an oxymoron! George Bush and the Centre for Intelligence???

    • KJ

      I thought the same thing! It conjured thoughts of future buildings called the DJtRump Center for Compassionate Humanity. Then when I saw it was named after George H.W. Bush, I doubled that thought – leaving the H.W. out was also not intelligent.