National Building Museum
Pension Building, now the National Building Museum
|Architect||Montgomery C. Meigs|
|Architectural style||Renaissance Revival|
|Governing body||General Services Administration|
|NRHP Reference #||69000312|
|Added to NRHP||March 24, 1969|
The National Building Museum, historically known as the Pension Building, in Washington, D.C., United States, is a museum of "architecture, design, engineering, construction, and urban planning". It was created by an act of Congress in 1980, and is a private non-profit institution; it is adjacent to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and the Judiciary Square Metro station.
The museum hosts various temporary exhibits in galleries around the spacious Great Hall. Past exhibitions have highlighted innovation in parking garages; green building and sustainable design; architects, including Eero Saarinen and Marcel Breuer; and tools as art. Exhibitions have included Designing Tomorrow: America's World Fairs of the 1930s; LEGO® Architecture: Towering Ambition, which includes 15 iconic buildings including the Empire State Building and Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater made entirely of LEGO bricks; and Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière, a retrospective on American Art Deco artist Hildreth Meiere.
Visitors from around the world come for exhibitions, public programs, family festivals, and tours to gain insight into the history and future of the world we create for ourselves. The Museum's lecture series such as Spotlight on Design and For the Greener Good welcome the architects and designers from around the world to discuss their work. Youth education programs such as Investigating Where We Live, CityVision, and Design Apprenticeship Program and a variety of school programs introduce kids and teachers to design education as a hands-on way of enhancing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), as well as language and art skills simultaneously.
The National Building Museum is housed in the former Pension Bureau building, a brick structure completed in 1887 and designed by Montgomery C. Meigs, the U.S. Army quartermaster general. It is notable for several architectural features, including the spectacular interior columns and a frieze, sculpted by Caspar Buberl, stretching around the exterior of the building and depicting Civil War soldiers in scenes somewhat reminiscent of those on Trajan's Column as well as the Horsemen Frieze of the Parthenon. The vast interior, measuring 316 × 116 feet (96 × 35 m), has been used to hold inauguration balls; a Presidential Seal is set into the floor near the south entrance.
After the Civil War, the United States Congress passed legislation that greatly extended the scope of pension coverage for veterans and for their survivors and dependents, notably their widows and orphans. This ballooned to over 1,500 the number of staff needed to implement and administer the new benefits system, and quickly required a new building from which to run it all. Meigs was chosen to design and construct the new building. He departed from the established Greco-Roman models that had been the basis of government buildings in Washington, D.C., until then and which continued after the Pension Building's completion. Meigs based his design on Italian Renaissance precedents, notably Rome's Palazzo Farnese and the Palazzo della Cancelleria.
Included in his design was a frieze sculpted by Caspar Buberl. Because a sculpture of that size was well out of Meigs's budget, he had Buberl create 28 different scenes, totaling 69 feet (21 m) in length, which were then mixed and slightly modified to create the continuous 1,200-foot (365-m) parade of over 1,300 figures. Because of the 28 sections' modification and mixture, it is only in careful examination that the frieze is seen to be the same figures repeated several times. The sculpture includes infantry, navy, artillery, cavalry, and medical components, as well as a good deal of the supply and quartermaster functions, for it was in that capacity that Meigs had served during the Civil War.
Meigs's correspondence with Buberl reveals that Meigs insisted that a black teamster, who "must be a negro, a plantation slave, freed by war", be included in the quartermaster panel. This figure was ultimately to assume a central position, over the building's west entrance.
Built before modern artificial ventilation, the building was designed to maximize air circulation: all offices not only had exterior windows, but also opened onto the court, which was designed to admit cool air at ground level and exhaust hot air at the roof. Made of brick and tile, the stairs were designed for the limitations of disabled and aging veterans, having a gradual ascent with low steps. In addition, each step slanted slightly from back to front to allow easy drainage: a flight could be washed easily by pouring water from the top.
When Philip Sheridan was asked to comment on the building, his biting reply echoed the negative sentiment of much of the Washington establishment of the day: "Too bad the damn thing is fireproof." A similar quote is also attributed to William Tecumseh Sherman, perhaps casting doubt on the truth of the Sheridan tale.
The completed building, sometimes called "Meigs Old Red Barn," required more than 15,000,000 bricks, which, according to the wit of the day, were each counted by the parsimonious Meigs.
Becoming a museum
The building was used for federal government offices until the 1960s when it had fallen into a state of disrepair and was considered for demolition. After pressure from conservationists, the government commissioned a report by architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith of possible other uses for the building. Her 1967 report suggested a museum dedicated to the building arts. The building was then listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. In 1980, Congress created the National Building Museum as a private, non-profit institution. The building itself was formally renamed the National Building Museum in 1997.
Every year, the annual Christmas in Washington program is filmed at the museum, with the President and First Lady.
The National Building Museum Shop has been recognized in local and national media as the "best museum shop". The Museum Shop sells books about the built environment and an array of housewares, educational toys, watches, and items for an office, all with an emphasis on design. The National Building Museum Shop was honored in 2007 as the "Best Museum Store" in the country by Niche magazine, "Best All-Around Museum Shop" in the region by the The Washington Post, a "Top Shop" by the Washingtonian, and named best museum shop in D.C. by National Geographic Traveler's blog, Intelligent Travel, in July 2009. In 2010, The Huffington Post included the National Building Museum in a story, "Museums with Amazing Gift Shops".
On June 7, 2008, Hillary Clinton suspended her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination with a farewell rally inside the museum. Several of Clinton's most recognized quotes and sayings were first spoken on this date to several hundreds of supporters, including "If we can blast fifty women into space, we will someday launch a woman into the White House."
The National Building Museum presents three annual awards: the Honor Award for individuals and organizations who have made important contributions to the U.S.'s building heritage; the Vincent Scully Prize, which honors exemplary practice, scholarship, or criticism in architecture, historic preservation, and urban design; and the Henry C. Turner Prize for Innovation in Construction Technology, which recognizes outstanding leadership and innovation in the field of construction methods and processes.
Investigating Where We Live
Investigating Where We Live is a summer program for teens from the DC metropolitan area at the National Building Museum. Students spend four weeks in teams equipped with cameras, and sketchbooks to discover the local communities. Students are given an introduction to photography and then investigate neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. Documenting history, landmarks, and residential areas, students assemble the community's identity. The original photographs and writings are incorporated into an exhibition at the Museum. Since 1996, more than 500 students have participated in learning about different communities within the District of Columbia. Participants upon completing the program:
- Receive a digital camera
- Develop relationships with professional photographers, designers, museum staff, and fellow participants
- Keep photographs for use in future projects, portfolios, or high school and college applications
- Fulfill community service requirements for school
2005 Vincent Scully Prize ceremony
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2008-04-15.
- Cynthia Hobgood (9-22-2002). "National Building Museum exhibits expanding role in education". San Antonio Business Journal.
- "Teens & Young Adults". National Building Museum.
- "National Building Museum Facts". National Building Museum. Retrieved 2008-07-15.
- "Our Historic Building". National Building Museum. Retrieved 2008-07-15.
- National Building Museum Web Site retrieved 27 June 2010
- "And the Winners Are...". Washington Post. 12-8-2000.
- Mary Clare Glover (7-1-2007). "Top Museum Shops". Washingtoanian.
- Sarah Aldrich (7-29-2009). "10 Best Museum Shops in DC". Intelligent Travel, National Geographic.
- "Museums With Amazing Gift Shops, Ripe For Holiday Shopping (PHOTOS)". Huffington Post travel. 12-3-2010.
- Nagourney, Adam; Mark Leibovich (June 8, 2008). "Ending Her Bid, Clinton Backs Obama". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-07.
- The Washington Post. "44 - Clinton's Last Hurrah." Anne E. Kornblut. 7 June 2008. Retrieved 12 May 2012.
- Lyons, Linda Brody, Building a Landmark: A Guide to the Historic Home of the National Building Museum, National Building Museum, Washington D.C., 1999
- McDaniel, Joyce L., The Collected Works of Caspar Buberl: An Analysis of a Nineteenth Century American Sculptor, MA thesis, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, 1976
- Weeks, Christopher, AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C., 3rd ed., Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, pp. 73–74.
- Schiavo, Laura Burd. National Building Museum: Art Spaces. New York: Scala Publishers, 2007.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to National Building Museum.|
- Official website
- National Park Service - National Historic Landmarks Program - Pension Building listing
- General Services Administration page on the Pension Building (National Building Museum)
- National Building Museum Investigating Where We Live
- Washington City Paper
- Washington Post
- Downtown DC