Administration Building Unites Past, Present and Future
by Vicki M. Boatwright
Panama Canal Review - October 1, 1979

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The arched window at the third story landing of the central staircase is typical of Italian Renaissance architecture.

The powerful scenes of Canal construction that dominate the walls of the Rotunda of the Balboa Heights Administration Building hold employees and visitors alike in their thrall.   For the murals depict in bold brushstrokes of pale ocher, bright orange and brick red the monumental labor that went into building the Canal.  They tell us of what used to be.  But the very quiet of the rotunda and the air-conditioned coolness distance us from the realities of construction days.  They seem far away in time and space.

But face north in the rotunda and walk forward a few steps.  All of a sudden the gap between past and present is bridged.  In the central staircase, laid down in pink Tennessee marble in 1914, the steps are grooved from the treading of thousands of pairs of feet that have passed this way since the building was completed.  As you take hold of the mahogany banister and begin to climb, you become part of that throng:  hurrying to work on a breezy dry season morning in 1915; carrying blueprints up to Engineering in 1923; worrying about war news in 1942; or trudging back to work in 1957 after a 5-cent cup of coffee in the cafeteria.  The steps, the banister, the building, all link us in an unbroken chain with those who walked this way before.

In 1912, about the same time that the finishing touches were being made to Gatun Locks and Gatun Lake was filling up, the Chief Engineer George Goethals, who by the this time was also Chairman of the Isthmian Canal Commission, turned his attention to the construction of a permanent building that would centralize the administration of the waterway.  The engineering department had moved to Culebra in 1906, the disbursing and accounts offices were in Empire, and most of the offices concerned with material and supplies had been relocated at Cristobal.

Unaware, surely, that he would be the first Governor to occupy its executive office, Goethals named a high-powered committee boasting such notables as colonels Gorgas, Hodges and DeVol to find a suitable location on the Pacific side for a building that would be "well fitted to the purpose and character of an edifice which is to guard and direct the interests and operation of the Canal, overlooking ... what will be the first permanent town of the Zone."

They considered five locations, four on or near Sosa Hill and one on a knoll of Ancon Hill west of the quarry that gave Quarry Heights its present name.  When the committee decided on the latter site, which they described more precisely as "30 feet back of the former triangulation station on Lone Tree Hill," Goethals approved the choice with the stipulation that not a spoonful of earth was to be moved until a competent architect had gone over the ground.

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In January 1914 the exterior of the Administration Building neared completion, but Albrook Field was still a swamp and the Ancon Cemetey had yet to be moved to what is now Corozal to make way for new houses.   Miraflores Locks is visible in the distance.

Goethals' idea of a "competent architect" was Austin W. Lord, head of the department of architecture at Columbia University and a senior member of the firm of Lord, Hewlett and Tallant of New York.  But theirs was to be a difficult association.

Lord spent the month of July 1912 on the Isthmus studying the topography of the land and local conditions that would affect the design of the buildings.  The agreement was that he would return to New York to work out a general scheme in which all of the buildings "from Toro Point to Taboga Island would be of a prevailing style."   He was to visit the Isthmus every couple of months during the construction period.

The arrangement never suited Goethals.  The Chairman wanted the architect to leave his 5th Avenue offices and come to the Isthmus until the job was completed.  Their correspondence reflected the basic conflict — the hard-driving Goethals sent curt memorandums demanding to know what the hold-up was and complaining of delays caused by having to do business by mail; Lord wrote long letters back, explaining that the Commission hadn't authorized him enough draftsmen, and more importantly, Canal officials had made no decisions as to how the offices would be laid out.

The Canal Record was later to comment, "The entire building was planned without any definite knowledge of what offices were to occupy it, how much space they would require or how they would be correlated...."

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Above:  It's 1916 and a payday at the building, where employees line up at the pay windows located at the west wing to receive their wages in gold.  Down the hill the First Baptist Church is under construction.  Below:  Males were still in the majority at the building in 1929, judging from this scene in the Record Bureau.  The group seemed to be divided right down the middle on the bow tie versus the four-in-hand.  The Record Bureau handled the Canal organization's general files and was situated on the second floor in the space now occupied by the Personnel Bureau.

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Goethals had been very firm on one issue, however,  He informed the architect that the Administration Building was to cost, when completed, "$375,000 and not one cent more, as we have no more and are going to ask for no more."  No final costs are recorded in the detailed on the building that appeared in The Canal Record on December 30, 1914, but memoranda indicate that the final figures far exceeded the estimates.  At $25 per square foot, the rotunda's Van Ingen murals alone would run nearly $25,000.

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The murals, executed by artist W.B. Van Ingen at the request of Col. George W. Goethals, depict, starting at top left and going clockwise, the digging of Gaillard (Culebra) Cut at Gold Hill; the erection of a lock gate; the construction of Miraflores Locks; and the construction of the spillway at Gatun Dam.

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Lord's direct involvement with the Isthmian Canal Commission apparently terminated in 1913, but not before he had developed the plans for the Administration Building, the layout and design for the Prado-type quarters and terminals buildings of the town of Balboa, and the plans for the hydro-electric station at Gatun, as well as the three locks control houses.

He had decided on the "E" shape for the building to keep it narrow enough to maximize the efficient use of natural light and because, had it run end to end in a line, the amount of floor space required would have made the building too long.  The style he chose is Italian Renaissance.

With Lord out of the picture, his assistant at Culebra, Mario J. Schiavoni, was given the title of architect.  With it came the responsibility of carrying out the plans of his predecessor and all the headaches associated with the undertaking.

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The overpowering beauty of the high domed ceiling, the dramatic murals and the marble columns and floor make the rotunda the main attraction of the Administration Building.

Schiavoni had an artist's imagination, a quality not altogether appreciated by either Goethals or the resident engineer in charge of construction, Frank Holmes.  With the latter, Schiavoni became engaged in a feud carried on by memorandum, centering mainly around the architect's tardiness in getting final drawings for the building completed.   At one point, apparently fed up by Holmes' habit of sending a copy of every memorandum to Goethals, Schiavoini let fly this memo to Holmes:  "I beg to state that I consider your attitude in making repeated written statements about my work very unco-operative and uncalled for."

Among the suggestions made by Schiavoni was that decorative title panel in honor of the Canal builders be placed above the main entrance to the Administration Building.  It would be sculpted to show an American construction worker flanked on either side by a Negro, a Spaniard, a Frenchman and a "Hindoo," with a steam shovel at one end of the panel and a dredge at the other.

Th Chairman turned down the proposal with one sentence: "...I am of the opinion that all that will be necessary will be a plain inscription with letters, V-shaped inset, reading 'Administration Building, Panama Canal, 1914'."

The architect's recommendation that the Seal of the Canal Zone be laid in marble mosaic tile in the center of the rotunda floor met with a similar fate at the hands of Holmes, who declared it to be too costly and time consuming.

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After winding his way up the spiral staircase located off the central stairway, Panama Canal photographer Kevin Jenkins examines the remains of a safelight in what was once the darkroom of the Canal's first Official Photographer.
Below:  The building's "E" shape is apparent in this aerial view.

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But despite personality clashes and delays for which each blamed the other, the construction work progressed steadily.  Not withstanding his caution about spending, Goethals applied the same imagination and foresight to the construction of the Administration Building that he had to the Canal itself.  He brought Albert Pauley, the developer of a new process for making concrete tile blocks, to the Isthmus to oversee the erection of a plant to manufacture the blocks for all the permanent buildings in Balboa.  Artist W. B. Van Ingen of New York, famous for his work in the Library of Congress and the Philadelphia Mint, was hired to paint murals for the rotunda that would preserve in art form something of the monumental labor involved in building the Canal.

At Schiavoni's request, each week's progress on the Administration Building was recorded by Commission photographer Red Hallen,, whose work on the Isthmus using bulky glass plate negatives was to later become invaluable in visualizing the history of the construction era.

On July 15, 1914, a little more than a year from the day the first steel beam was erected, the Administration Building had its first occupants.  The timekeepers' offices at Culebra, Balboa and Cristobal were assigned one large room extending from the rotunda to the west end of the building on the first floor.  All the heavy construction work had been completed at that point, but the 50 employees who were paid in gold and the complement of clerks and messengers who received their wages in silver moved in amidst the sawing, hammering, mortaring and painting that accompanied the layers of the pine flooring, the red tile in the corridors, and the mosaic tile in the rotunda, and the finishing up of the carpentry work and electrical wiring.  No landscaping would be done until the following December, so outside the building the grounds were a gigantic mudhole.  Temporary wooden steps led downhill to the Prado level, where by June of 1915, the houses had been completed and construction on Barnebey Street begun.

As with any construction project, not every detail had gone according to plan.   The Administration Building's third and final architect, Samuel M. Hitt, wryly pointed out that fact in a memorandum, concerning payment due on the eight marble columns in the rotunda.  Commenting that the columns were a first class of of marble work, he added that the supplier was not to blame for the fact that construction workers had set the top member of the column bases in upside down.  Visitors to the rotunda today will notice that with the exception of one column, the outer edge of the round marble disc upon which each of the columns rest if ridged, indicating that side would be facing downward against the octagonal lower base.

Between July and September of 1914, the offices at Culebra, Empire and the administration building at Ancon were moved into the new building.  By June of the following year, the building housed 425 employees, 49 of them women.

Both the location of  offices and the daily routine of the employees that occupied them were, in most cases, quite different in 1914 from what they are today.  In regard to the offices, only a few have remained in their original locations.  When Governor Goethals, his Lieutenant Governor (formerly called the Engineer of Maintenance) and their secretaries moved into the second floor north front corner overlooking Balboa and the Canal, they set a precedent for the location of those offices that has continued to today.

The Chief Health Officer and Chief Quarantine Officer moved out of the old administration building at Ancon into the Health Department, on the second floor, which has since become the Health Bureau.  Its offices have been enlarged, but like the Balboa Heights Post Office, the Health Bureau is where it has always been.

Office hours were from 8 to 12 a.m. and 2 to 5 p.m. the first two years after the building was opened, and most employees walked to work.  Judging from a circular from Governor Goethals issued to all Administration Building employees, at least one temptation of office life has not changed at all.  Goethals reproved employees for the practice of leaving work early at noon and in the afternoon "in order to secure an advantage in being served in the lunch room or securing seats on the motor buses."

While the opportunity to leave during the two-hour lunch break was obviously available, it would appear that many employees chose to stay in the building during the heat of the day.

Offices were locked during the noon hour; but with commissary coupons employees could buy a light lunch consisting of sandwiches, coffee, and pie from the basement restaurant that ran the length of what is now the Graphic Branch.  Pool and billiard tables were set up in the basement for the men.  The female contingent at the building must have complained about wanting equal consideration, for a short time later two rooms on the third floor now occupied by the Office of the General Counsel were set up as reading and sitting rooms for the women.

Employees could find plenty to read in the library located on the third floor in what is now the office of the director of the Engineering and Construction Bureau; but there was no room to sit down.  The Canal Record reported that "The Canal library is so filled with reading matter as to leave little room for readers."   Not long afterward, it was moved to the first floor area now occupied by the Press and Information offices.

Kathleen McGuigan, retired administrative assistant to the Comptroller of the Panama Canal Company, recalls that when she went to work at the building in 1934, the coffee break, now a mainstay of Administration Building life, was non-existent; abut an employee could buy cigars and candy from a stand that had been in existence in the small room on the landing between the first and second floors since the building opened.

As a matter of fact, very little about the Administration Building's offices or routine had changed when the 20-year-old daughter of two Roosevelt medal holders got her first job with the Canal as a clerk in the Claims Bureau, which took up the area now assigned to the Budget Branch.

The Paymaster's Office with its two large vaults occupied the end of the west wing that now belongs to the Office of Internal Security.  When Miss McGuigan received her monthly pay receipt, she walked outside to the porch to cash it at one of the barred pay windows still visible today, just as her parents had done since 1914.  Only back then, she remembers them saying, the payroll was delivered by horse-drawn wagon and their wages were paid in gold.

As a child, she remembers climbing the winding stairway to the photographer's studio located in the attic at the center of the building directly above the main staircase.

The photographer Hallen took her portrait using the north light coming through the paned skylight window that since has been covered over with the red tile of the roof.

Many years later the Graphic Branch was to find several thousand tiny glass plate negatives of employee identification photos stored in the wooden filing cabinets of what must have been Hallen's office under the sloping eaves.  To get to it he had to walk around the top of the rotunda dome, which rises out of the attic floor like something from the science fiction film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."  The Graphic Branch was able to distribute a few hundred of the negatives to relatives still living on the Isthmus.

Today the attic is a storage place for old engineering plans, bound volumes of Canal studies, civil defense supplies, and the bulky air-conditioning equipment that cools the building.  But the peeling black paint on the walls of what was once a darkroom is a silent witness to its original use.

C.A. McIvaine, Excutive Secretary under Governor Goethals, still held that position when Miss McGuigan came to work for the Company.  To employees, she says, he was "like God."  Governors came and went but C.A. McIvaine endured, carrying such broad responsibility as to make him, in effect, the working governor.  His office was located in what is now the Governor's Board Room.  The Correspondence Bureau, much later to become Administrative Services, took up the space on both sides of the hall that now belongs to the Office of the Executive Secretary.

Nearly all of the secretarial work for the Administration Building and a great deal of the writing was handled by employees of that bureau.

Office supplies were kept in a stationary storeroom, Miss McGuigan recalls, just as they had always been.  Government forms and writing paper, as well as the ubiquitous paperweight to anchor them against the dry season breezes that blew through open windows, were among the items requisitioned on a weekly basis.

The present Director of the Company's Office of Equal Opportunity Bruce Quinn, who grew up on Barnebey Street in Balboa, says his most vivid memory of the Administration Building is when as children he and his sister stood at the bottom of the stairs each afternoon, starched and pressed, waiting for their father get off work.  At closing time, Quinn recalls, great waves of people poured out the building and down the broad expanse of stairs.

Indeed, the stairs played a significant role in community life at one time.  On Memorial Day in years gone by wreaths were placed against the bronze plaque embedded in the base of the original flagstaff to honor the Canal's World War I dead.  On the Fourth of July refreshment booths were set up on the concrete terrace around the building, and the stairs were alive with people watching the marching band on the circle of grass below.

Today, only a few hardy souls come and go by way of the 113 stairs that architect Lord had so carefully designed to emphasize the majestic sweep from the building to the Prado, an effect now broken by the presence of the Goethals Memorial.

The years have brought many changes to the Administration Building.  Offices have been moved from one floor to another and in come cases to other buildings.  Windows have been blocked with concrete, and others have been created where no windows existed.   Billiard tables and reading rooms are a thing of the past.  Paychecks are cashed at the basement vault that once housed valuable records.  The scars in the concrete retaining wall at the end of each wing of the building are all that remain of the hitching rings of the horse and buggy era.

Governor Parfitt will walk down the stairs one last time and the Office of the Governor will become the Office of the Administrator.  But the grandfather clock there that dates back to the French canal effort will go on ticking away the passage of time.   And the grooves in the pink Tennessee marble stairs will keep getting deeper, reminding us that past and present are one.

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Col. George W. Goethals was the first Governor of the Canal Zone to use this second-floor office overlooking the town of Balboa, and Maj. Gen. H.R. Parfitt is the last.

July 16, 2003