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Washington Post

Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

The Washington Post commission came in an early peak of Pei’s independent career, just months after he was catapulted to international celebrity by his selection as architect of the Kennedy Library. The two projects were not entirely unrelated as Phil Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, had close ties with Kennedy. Graham was also responsible for bringing Zeckendorf and Pei to the redevelopment of Southwest Washington in 1953, and remained an ardent supporter of the project with detailed newspaper coverage for years. The high-profile Washington Post commission solidified Pei’s already strong connections with the power structure in the U.S. capital.

The project included renovations to the Post’s existing office building and 570,000 square feet of new construction, including additions to the adjacent printing plant and a new 8-story building to provide offices and other sophisticated facilities appropriate to the newspaper’s stature. The crux of the project was not the newsroom but the all-important production facility which had to be up and running around the clock, with massive presses, uninterrupted maintenance, and the large staff required for “the daily miracle” of producing and distributing huge volumes of new printed matter every 24 hours. Hundreds of meetings and vast amounts of time were spent on detailed architectural and engineering investigations of phased construction scenarios and exacting programmatic needs, from specific departmental requirements for paper handling, storage, and production to vibration and acoustical control, conveyor belt technologies, and structural loading, with special attention to truck maneuverability, column placement, and materials selection to protect against the corrosive effect of printers’ ink. More than any other project, the architectural process was here a painstaking equation of operational logistics.

Ground floor plan / Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

After Phil Graham died unexpectedly at age 48, his wife Katharine Graham became publisher of The Washington Post (one of the first women to run a major American newspaper). After nearly four years of work, amid inflation and rising building costs, she canceled the project – on the same day that thousands of working drawings were dispatched for construction. Kay Graham recorded in her autobiography that “It was the right decision – but I hated it.” In an August 6, 1969 letter to Pei, she explained that the change in plans followed “a long and agonizing reappraisal due to the final estimate.”

Graham and Pei remained good friends and indeed, he arranged for her to buy an important painting by Morris Louis, one of two he had purchased for Everson Museum but which the museum deaccessioned for budgetary constraints. As for the building designed for the Washington Post, all was not lost. Pei’s associate and future partner, James Freed, who played a leading role in the project, later used the office building as the basis of his design for the National Bank of Commerce in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Design Team: I. M. Pei, Design Partner; James Ingo Freed, Design Architect
I.M. Pei & Partners