Why Is It Named Federal Triangle?

So, this isn’t exactly the biggest mystery in the world. Still, it’s interesting to know the origins of the rather bland name “Federal Triangle.”

First, let’s state the obvious, that the area bound by Pennsylvania Ave., 15th St., and Constitution Ave. (why is it named Constitution Ave.?) is a right triangle and it is occupied by federal government buildings. We could end this post there, but how about a little digging into some etymological history?

The site used to have some of our most notorious and seedy neighborhoods like Murder Bay and Hooker’s Division.

“Pennsylvania Avenue Triangle” first appeared in The New York Times, on November 18th, 1926 in an article outlining the plans for public buildings and beautification of Washington, D.C. It details the plans for a $50,000,000 appropriation by Congress approved the previous winter and outlines the future location of the Department of Justice, Department of Commerce, General Supply Building, and National Archives. Senator Reed Smoot (the first Mormon senator) stated that the Commerce and Archives buildings were to be the first constructed on the site.

In his first post-inauguration speech, President Herbert Hoover formally pledged the support of the Administration for the federal construction project. Below is an excerpt from his address.

This is more than merely the making of a beautiful city. Washington is not only the Nation’s Capital, it is the symbol of America. By its dignity and architectural inspiration we stimulate pride in our country, we encourage that elevation of thought and character which comes from great architecture.

Throughout the late 1920s, the area was referred to as the Mall-Pennsylvania Avenue triangle, the Pennsylvania Avenue triangle of Government buildings in Washington, among a few other uncreative names. The Associated Press first labeled the area “Federal triangle” (not capitalized) in The New York times on August 4th, 1935 in an article titled “Capitol Triangle at Last Completed.” Below is an excerpt from that piece.

The gigantic Federal triangle, stretching from White House to Capitol, is an actuality at last–a maze of classic columns, courts and corridors challenging explorers of the new Washington.

The $75,000,000 downtown wedge has as hypotenuse historic Pennsylvania Avenue, as “altitude” a new and beautiful Constitution Avenue, and Fifteenth Street along old “White Lot,” back of “President’s House,” as base.

Throughout the 1930s, the area was regularly referred to as “Federal triangle” (no capitalization) and “The Triangle.” Finally, toward the end of the decade, the official, capitalized name “Federal Triangle” seems to have stuck in the newspapers, and has remained the name ever since.

Federal Triangle never officially was named. It owes its name to the journalists of the time adapting and evolving the name over time.

Like most of our photos, this one is great and has amazing details. Click on it to see a larger version and zoom in on it.

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Aerial view of Pennsylvania Avenue looking west, showing Federal Triangle and the National Mall. (2006)
Aerial view of Pennsylvania Avenue looking west, showing Federal Triangle and the National Mall. (2006)

Source: Library of Congress

Make sure you read our story about the Commerce Department’s building, which includes a tale about alligators! And, we have another story about alligators here.

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • ZZinDC

    And there’s the Federal Triangle Metro station, which came later, but certainly pins the name down. Any info on whether other names were considered for the station?

  • JJJ

    Was this area once referred to a ‘Murder Bay’, way back when?

  • alohaloaha

    Great story! Had no idea there were alligators in DC. Going to read that next