If only: As Wash Post mulls a headquarters move, a reminder that I.M. Pei might have been its architect

That building is one of three Post properties that publisher Katharine Weymouth, Kay Graham's granddaughter, told her staff on Friday would likely be sold.

Here’s a bit of the backstory:

Pei’s design — in the shape of a typewriter,  according to a 2010 book on the newspaper — was to cost upwards of $50 million.  

Ben Bradlee persuaded Graham, who had commissioned Pei to draw up plans,  that the cost was too high and that moving forward with it would rob the newsroom of the budget Bradlee needed for his plans to turn the Post into a world-class newspaper. That ambition involved recruiting big-name reporters with high salaries, opening more bureaus, etc.

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Bradlee’s nemesis was John Sweeterman, an efficient, old-style businessman who did not like to waste money. He had been brought to Washington from running the Journal-Herald in Dayton,  Ohio, by Phil Graham, who eventually bestowed on Sweeterman the title of publisher. (Phil Graham committed suicide in 1963, leaving his inexperienced, shy widow to take over.)

Several people told me that Sweeterman didn’t think Kay Graham or any woman should be heading the business side of a newspaper; he stupidly did a poor job of hiding that belief, and although he surprised some by embracing and promoting Pei’s big and beautiful plan, Graham sided with Bradlee.  

Sweeterman was eventually humiliated into early retirement. Ben Gilbert, a reporter and editor who joined the paper in 1941 and sat on the building committee, told me that it was not the plans for the building that Bradlee wanted to destroy, it was Sweeterman.

Designed by  the Albert Kahn firm (Kahn himself had designed the Post’s 1515 L St. NW building , opened in 1950 at a cost of $6 million), the current headquarters cost $25 million instead of $50 million-plus,  but Kay Graham was evermore embarrassed by its ordinariness. 

“When you build a building that you outgrow in five years, that’s not something you can forget,” she said.  She also told a reporter, “We set out to give the town a distinguished building, and look what we got.” 

I suppose one could argue that a building in the shape of a typewriter—the IBM Selectric was the height of high tech back then—might be dated, but I’d argue not.  Forget tablets and laptops and smartphones. The typewriter still  represents the romance of journalism better than any other tool of the trade.

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