The CIA Campus: The Story of Original Headquarters Building
Search for a Permanent Home
On the Virginia side of the Potomac River, the picturesque parcel of land that is the current site of CIA headquarters has a long and varied history. Did you know, for example, that the first settlements in the area occurred as long ago as 11,000 years? Native American bands chose the site because of its water access and the abundance of nearby natural resources, especially quartz, from which they fashioned tools and spear points.
In 1719, Thomas Lee purchased a nearly 3,000-acre tract from the sixth Lord Fairfax and named it "Langley" after his family's estate in England. During the Civil War, Langley's proximity to Chain Bridge made it an important Union Army position. Several defensive works with heavy artillery, notably Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen, were constructed in the vicinity, and two infantry camps, Griffin and Pierpont, were established on the site itself. The excavation work for what is now the original headquarters building (OHB) turned up a number of relics, including bullets, coins, and a mule shoe from the period.
Even before the National Security Act of 1947 created the Central Intelligence Agency, DCIs Hoyt Vandenberg and Roscoe Hillenkoetter pressed for "a single, permanent, fireproof building" in Washington to house the agency's precursor, the Central Intelligence Group. This request was described as an urgent need, as the CIG then occupied 10 different buildings.
At first, CIA headquarters was located in Washington's Foggy Bottom in the E Street complex that had been used by the OSS during World War II. The Agency also found space in former OSS offices in the old temporary buildings along the National Mall. These "tempos," as they were called, were difficult to secure and uncomfortable to occupy, as they proved extremely hard to heat in the winter and impossible to cool in the summer.
The overflow situation steadily worsened, and, by the time the first occupants moved into their permanent home, as many as 40 CIA offices were scattered around town.
A Site is Found
Allen Dulles took up the cause of a new headquarters when he became DCI in 1953. Dulles decided that a campus-like setting would afford greater security and privacy and, in addition, help to attract strong candidates to the Agency. A number of sites were considered, but Dulles settled on Langley, primarily for its security and privacy.
It was surrounded by parkland and government-owned property on three sides, and only a few privately owned houses on the fourth side, and he considered it to be the most accessible area based on where most CIA employees lived—about 50 percent in the District, 20 percent in Maryland, and 30 percent in Virginia. He also knew that if CIA needed to expand in the future, there was plenty of room to do so.
In 1955, Representative Carl Vinson and Senator Richard Russell introduced legislation for the purchase of the land and the construction of a CIA building. Congress made clear that its intent was to locate the CIA headquarters in Langley, and testimony at subsequent hearings established that local authorities and residents were overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal. In 1956, the National Capital Planning Commission granted approval for the new campus and structure.
Building a Superstructure
On July 5, 1956, the contract with Harrison and Abramovitz was signed. (This firm designed the United Nations Building and Lincoln Center in New York.) Forty architects and designers were given Secret clearances.
In October 1957, site clearing began. And in March 1958, final blueprints and specifications for an H-shaped building were approved.
Laying the Cornerstone
In May 1959, with the site under security surveillance and contractors wearing security badges, work on the original headquarters building began. On Nov. 3, 1959, President Eisenhower came to Langley to place the time capsule and to lay the cornerstone. The box and cornerstone were later removed and held for safekeeping until they were permanently installed more than a year later. Eisenhower gave a short speech in which he publicly affirmed the need for intelligence, both in peacetime and in war.
When the press asked Dulles after the ceremony what was in the box, he smiled and said, “It’s a secret.” Despite the DCI’s joke, everything in the copper-covered steel box was unclassified, although there was considerable discussion about whether classified material should be included. (Learn more about the contents of the Cornerstone in our CIA Headquarters Virtual Tour.)
The year 1960 was a busy time for construction at headquarters. The concrete roof of the north penthouse, the highest point of the building, was poured that year, and, as was customary, the workmen held an impromptu flag-raising ceremony.
When the curved steel girders for the roof of the cafeteria were delivered that year, an article appeared in the June 13 edition of Washington Evening Star. The newspaper had been sending periodic flights over the construction site to photograph and report on the progress, and they printed a photo with the caption: “The crescent-shaped objects at left are decorative waterfalls!” The “waterfalls” were actually the cafeteria, which was ready for full operation in February 1962.
Offices began to move into the north half of the headquarters building in September 1961. Buildings “M” and “Q” were the first to move from downtown. Unfortunately, the south side of the building was still open to the elements, and the place became infested with mice. Many disagreements and complaints emerged during this transition time.
On Sept. 18, 1961, the new telephone switchboard facility was put into service, and the operators were instructed to answer an incoming call, “Central Intelligence Agency.” As this drew considerable attention from the public and the media, the previously used “Executive 3-6115” response was resumed after a few weeks.
Original Headquarters Building is Finished
Dulles designed his own office, but insisted that he would not move in before all the offices had completed their transition to the new building. However, after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion (April 1961), he was replaced as DCI; Dulles never worked in the building he created.
President Kennedy presided over the dedication of CIA's new home on Nov. 28, 1961. During the ceremony, he presented Dulles with the National Security Medal. The next day John McCone was sworn in as DCI, and he and his staff moved into temporary offices on the third floor. The seventh-floor director’s suite was finally completed in March 1962.
By May 15, 1962, the new CIA headquarters building was fully occupied. Due to staffing growth and demands, the CIA leadership soon began to consider whether an “auxiliary” building was needed.