Professional architects have a thin track record of shaping federal legislation favorable to their interests. The Tarsney Act of 1893 is the rare exception, marking the first time practitioners organized to gain an economic and cultural foothold. But like the Sherman Antitrust Act of three years earlier, the measure ultimately accomplished the opposite.
Prior to the passage of the Tarsney Act, a single office presided over the design and construction of nearly all public buildings—post offices, customs houses, courthouses—in the United States. Based out of the top floor of the Treasury headquarters in D.C., the Office of the Supervising Architect oversaw a small army of over 100 architectural workers. Their labors created and moved markets, instituted widespread building practices, and set a basic standard of architectural quality, not to mention concretized an increasingly grandiose national narrative.
In her book Architects to the Nation: The Rise and Decline of the Supervising Architect’s Office, Antoinette J. Lee tells of how this design body came to represent “a center of culture and design in the federal government well before there were National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities and before the Smithsonian Institution served as a national source for learning.” Due to its high visibility, the office attracted intense criticism from professional, private sector architects, particularly those in the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The organization and others like it used the pages of their national and local publications to continually disparage the credentials and work of public architects, which they claimed paled in comparison with the output of an Adler & Sullivan.
After years of AIA lobbying, Congress passed the Tarsney Act, opening up the design of the most prominent public buildings to competitive bidding by private firms. Although it did not do away with the Office of the Supervising Architect, the act initiated its long, slow decline. By the New Deal era, procurement of federal design commissions was heavily mediated by private practice. The Office of the Supervising Architect persisted for a few years longer, only to be absorbed into the General Services Administration (GSA) after World War II. When public sector workers were finally allowed to form labor unions during the Kennedy administration, there were relatively few architectural workers left within the GSA to unionize.
Today, the federal government employs roughly 1,839 architects in total, with 181 on the GSA’s payroll and 132 on the staff of the Department of the Interior. The Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force employ the highest number of architects—roughly 1,000 between them—with the remainder distributed throughout various federal departments. It isn’t clear how many of these workers are unionized.
What is clear are the pernicious effects the Tarsney Act had on the culture and practice of architecture. By undermining the Office of the Supervising Architect, it foreclosed the public sector as a significant bastion of unionized political organization for architectural workers to come. And by instituting a regime of competitive bidding for federal building projects, it helped to solidify a race-to-the-bottom fee structure that persists to this today. In the case of the Tarsney Act, we see how the private sector instrumentalized competition, creative cost-cutting, and even matters of taste to hinder the potential for collective power among designers. It will do so again if we let it. ⬤
ANTONIO PACHECO is a critic and aspiring historian from Los Angeles attempting to write about New York.
This article appeared in our February 2022 Issue, #26. Click here to purchase a copy. Click here to receive the current and future issues.