Remembering and Honor Where We Began — 60 Years Ago
The first Peace Corps HQ was at 806 Connecticut Ave across from Lafayette Park and within view of the White House. It was called the Maiatico Building and immortalized in the famous Washington Post photograph showing how the Peace Corps was working far into the night in the first days of the new agency.
When the Peace Corps was “launched” JFK did so by signing an ‘executive order” to create the agency, an idea of Bill Josephson, co-author of the memo “Towering Task,” who told Kennedy he had the power to create the new agency by using the existing Mutual Security Act of 1954. Kennedy claimed that the establishment of the Peace Corps was an emergency. And it was. By doing so, the Peace Corps was created immediately without going through months of congressional debates.
With the signing to create this new agency, Shriver, with the help of Warren Wiggins, obtained three rooms on the sixth floor of the ICA building, the Maiatico Building. Both Wiggins and Josephson worked for The International Cooperation Administration (ICA). This government agency operated from June 30, 1955, until September 4, 1961, and was responsible for foreign assistance and “nonmilitary security” programs. It was replaced by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), by JFK on November 3, 1961.
The Maiatico Building was the ‘home’ of the Peace Corps for more than two decades before moving to a larger space at 1990 K Street, and then to 1111 20th St NW. It is now out of downtown DC in North East Washington in a building that is, I believe, named after one of our lesser Peace Corps Directors, Paul D. Coverdell.
Now as we have celebrated 60 years of the Peace Corps, it is time to remember our history and register the creation of the agency as a historical site by seeing if it is possible to place a plaque on the building at 806 Connecticut Avenue.
It is a job the NPCA might be able to do.
We need a simple and poignant declaration that says it all:
Ask not what your country can do for you
– ask what you can do for your country
First Headquarters of the Peace Corps
Established March 1, 1961
Director Sargent Shriver
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An excellent–and timely suggestion, for a plaque on 806 Connecticut Ave., N. W. After PC/Colombia, it was my home for 5 years, a landmark that introduced me to the sometimes rough and tumble politics of Washington D. C., yet providing me with a lifetime of useful experience on ways to maneuver around professional life’s often uncertain road. It was where I learned that when someone said “no, you can’t do that”, it simply meant find another way.
Actually the Miaiatico building was the Peace Corps headquarters for more than two decades—well into the early 1980s. It was a very “Peace Corpsish” building—within site of the President’s White House, it had all the rugged no frills “charm’ of the Peace Corps. A lobby with a sign on the wall–“if they mean to have peace, let it begin here” a quote form Sargent Shriver. The elevators were creaky, slow and manually operated. The floors were all linoleum tile (probably filled with asbestos) and the heating system struggled in winter and the air conditioning was imaginary throughout much Washington’s infamous swampy summers.
That said, in the mid-60s and the late ’70s when I toiled there, the Regional Offices were all decorated with brightly colored national flags, kinte cloths, painted donkey carts, ceramic pots, masks and more, all reflecting the staff members’ pride in the countries and cultures Peace Corps served Unlike any other federal agency, almost none of the staff wore dark suits and ties—it was “rolled up blouse and shirt sleeves” kind of place and even in 1980 the lights still stayed on well into the night as Desk Officers responded to late cables from countries around the world, Placement Officers processed applicants to fill training programs, Travel Officers booked new groups on to flights to Africa & Asia and Special Services Officers responded to family emergencies, medevacs, early terminees and Volunteer deaths overseas.
When staff or Volunteers came to Washington in the 1960s they were put into the “infamous ” National Hotel” where the rate was $7.00 per night. Lunch was bought at the counter in the People’s Drug Store on the first floor of the building next door on H street (sandwich and a soft drink–$1.29) Starting salary for Desk Officers and such was $6,900/year—which after two years as PCVs seemed like a “king’s ransom”. Shriver and Jack Vaughn were the early directors and Peace Corps and the world were “on-fire”. We had a mission and by-god we were going to get the job done. An amazing time and the Miaitaico building was the “scene of the crime” if they meant to have peace, then by good it was going to begin here at 806 Connecticut.
I say AMEN —put the plaque up!
I, too, spent a wonderfully formative five years in the Maiatico Building, like Jerry and so many others whose names pop up frequently here on John’s PEACE CORPS WORLDWIDE blog — first in the Office of Volunteer Support and then in the Africa Region. As a young RPCV, I always thought I had already reached the peak of my working life being able to look out my office window and for a year see where Lyndon Johnson lived and worked followed by four momentous years of Tricky Dick. Gads, what a view!! Several years later, I came back to 1990 K Street for another three years. With the exception of those eight years, I lived and worked overseas in a half dozen countries, nurturing the seed that was planted just out of college as a PCV in Liberia. It is funny the effect that a building seems to have had on my attitude toward work — but the Maiatico Building certainly did!!
John, Great idea. Count me in. How about a Peached Corps anthem- maybe with the words “if they mean to have peace, let it begin here”.
Should we be fortunate in those our life arts
where we serve continuous apprenticeships,
segueing through our journeyman-ships that
sail beyond these (& beyond their masterships)
surfing-jonquils, through joys and buried griefs,
we climb up onto variant new discharged shores
(C) Copyright Edward Mycue 5 January 2022
N.B. The building that now exists at 806 Connecticut is not the original Maiatico building. It was torn down in the late ’80s and has been replaced by a very expensive new building housing law and lobbying offices. all the more reason to put up the plaque.
I’ve seen the new building, John. You’re right. A bigger and better building. But the location is the key. This is where the Peace Corps started sending Volunteers overseas.
Margurette Norris says:
Of my wonderful memories re working in this building after Volunteer service in Thailand, two stand out at the moment:
1. It was where my heart was taken up in the highlands–and remains there today;
2. one day, when getting on the 6th elevator stop, only one other person was on board. It was Neil Armstrong, back from a trip representing Peace Corps as a Member of its National Advisory Council. On one of those trips, he had gone to my former site in Surin, NE Thailand, hard up on the Cambodian border. In visiting my former site, he was the only PC official that did so while I was a volunteer. Now, here he was, standing right next to me on the elevator after the moon! However, knowing from his media presentations how much he cherished ‘privacy’, and I was so over the moon anyway by his presence, I smiled and nodded to him all the way down to the first floor. I felt very fortunate to be with him in an elevator.
Lovely story, Margurette
The building already has a plaque – at least in my heart. I worked there after PCV service in the Philippines; it was my first job that didn’t include waiting on tables and cleaning people’s houses. I learned the ropes of bureaucracy from people who were, for the most part, very kind.
I had a note from Bill Josephson, remembering those first days of the Peace Corps and the Maiatico building and the people who worked there. As Bill says, “No one who knew her will ever forget Rosie the elevator operator, a true American original. Nonstop gab, provocative and uniquely charming.
“How is the President today, Mr. Shriver?” Equally memorable was the gleam in Sarge’s eyes as he gabbed with Rosie.
Another important person, Bill says, was Judith Lewis. “She was the first person one saw as one stepped off the elevator on the fifth floor, always cheerful, helpful and knowledgeable. She is now and established and published photographer, teaching at Emerson in Boston, living in Cambridge with her husband, Christopher Ricks, the English scholar. She is professionally known as Judith Aronson. ”
Bill adds this note, “Apropos about the discussion of new forms of organization for the Peace Corps. Some consideration was given in January/February 1961 to organizing it along the lines of the Red Cross. I wrote a memorandum on that subject, but we decided that the President and the Congress should have direct responsibility for the Peace Corps. Also, in light of my extensive experience with the Red Cross when I was head of the New York State Law Department Charities Bureau after 9/11 and subsequent work with the Senate Finance Committee in its efforts to exercise some oversight over the Red Cross, I’m not so sure that that is still an idea worth pursuing.”