The National Building Museum celebrates the history of architecture and engineering through various permanent and special exhibits. Located on Judiciary Square, it might not seem an obvious choice for tourists, but its family-friendly interactive displays, educational programs, special installations and grand architecture make it well worth a visit.
Completed in 1887, the National Building Museum was then a government office building called the Pension Building. It was built to serve as the headquarters for the U.S. Pension Bureau, which administered benefits to military veterans and their families. General Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster of the U.S. Army, designed and built the structure to accommodate the exponential growth of claims in the years following the Civil War. Occupying an entire city block, it was built using over 15 million reddish bricks, a fireproof material needed to protect the veterans’ paper records from fire damage. Meigs was also instrumental in building the U.S. Capitol Dome and forming Arlington National Cemetery.
Meigs designed the Pension Building in Italian Renaissance Revival style, adapted to fit his budget and practical uses for the building. The magnificent inner court, called the Great Hall, is divided into three sections using eight enormous, 75-foot Corinthian columns made of brick and plaster, then painted to look like marble. Office space runs around the perimeter behind two levels of open arcaded gallery, while simple archways provide passage to the offices on the upper floors. With no air conditioning available at the time in a city that suffered from stifling summer heat, Meigs cleverly designed the structure to maximize light and air circulation, thereby improving the health and productivity of the workers. He made the space both functional and elegant.
The Great Hall doubled as an event space, most notably for Presidential Inaugural Balls. President Grover Cleveland held the first ball here in 1885 before the building was even finished, and many presidents to this day have used it for that purpose. The distinctive columns make the building easily identifiable in historic photos.
As a tribute to military veterans, Meigs hired sculptor Caspar Buberl to design a 1,200-foot terra cotta frieze that forms a band all the way around the exterior of the building. It depicts scenes of various units of the military, such as the infantry, medical corp and quartermaster.
By the 1960s, no longer being used by the government and in need of costly repair, the Pension Building had been slated for destruction. Preservationists successfully lobbied to have it converted to a museum instead, which opened in 1985 by a private, non-profit institution.
The museum offers guided and self-guided tours, special exhibits, educational programs and talks. Special installations are geared for interactive family fun, like this one:
Various spaces can be rented for events. Check the website for details and how you can become a member.