Field Trip :: The National Building Museum


The National Building Museum during an Inauguration Ball - Photo from gepettocatering.com

By Ian Hester, BArch Candidate

While Washington, D.C. was being dominated by the locally popular Greco-Roman architecture in the late nineteenth century, the massive Pension Bureau building, now the National Building Museum, was designed and built in the rapidly popularizing Italian Renaissance Revival style by General Montgomery C. Meigs.

Exterior during winter - Photo from tripadvisor.com

The Italian Renaissance Revival style, which developed during the end of the Victorian period, is characterized by arches, arcades, and balustrades with classical columns and pilasters. Symmetrical facades, masonry construction, and impressive size and scale further define this architectural style that was widely used for public buildings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Classical design elements enhance the Italian Renaissance Revival style - Photo from wordpress.com

Meigs employed all of these traits in his design, with the most impressive feature undoubtedly being the eight massive Corinthian columns that are 8 feet wide and 75 feet tall, rising to large decorative capitals and arches. Their impressive size accentuates the 159 feet tall ceiling at the top of the expansive interior space.

75 feet tall Corinthian columns - Photo from examiner.com

The design of the exterior was strongly influenced by Michaelangleo's sixteenth century Palazzo Farnese. Built with a brick masonry facade, the pediments, doors, and many windows are aligned in a symmetrical fashion. The most notable element of is the continuous, 1200 feet long frieze that encircles the building depicting scenes from the Civil War.

The continuous 1200 feet long frieze encircles the building - Photo from johnsonmatel.com

Another distinctive feature is the expansive interior space. The layout of the series of open arcades surrounding the central hall on each side was derived from another influential Renaissance work, the Pallazo della Cancelleria. The arches are reflected in the numerous windows that cover the upper reaches of each of the building's walls.

The central hall, surrounded by arcades and arched windows - Photo from kstreetmagazine.com

Aside from stylistic and aesthetic reasons, these windows served a practical purpose. One of the primary considerations in the design process was air flow, especially regarding circulation and cooling to counter the oppressive heat in Washington summers. The wide doors on the ground floor of each side of the building, combined with the numerous upper windows, created a stack effect ventilation and cooling system that made the building much more comfortable.

Numerous windows allow ventilation and air circulation - Photo by Kim Baker, from flickr.com

Another major consideration was accessibility for aging and disabled Civil War veterans. Since many had great difficulty walking and climbing stairs, Meigs implemented even paving around the exterior of the building and designed staircases with long runs and very short rises.

Stairs that were accessible for Civil War veterans - Photo from flickr.com

In 1980, eleven years after being added to the National Register of Historic Places, Congress commissioned the building to be repurposed as the National Building Museum, a non-profit museum that is "devoted to the history and impact of the built environment," including exhibits of architecture, engineering, planning, and design.

National Building Museum, with distinctive Italian Renaissance Revival characteristics - Photo from loc.gov

The next time you are in Washington, take a few hours to check out the National Building Museum at 401 F Street NW, just a few blocks from the National Mall. You can hang out and sketch in the hall for free, and if you want to see the fantastic exhibits admission is only $5 for students. It is open from 10:00-5:00 Monday through Saturday, and 11:00-5:00 on Sunday.

If you can make it during the summer, they have an amazing mini golf course right in the museum with holes designed by architects. 
If you are looking for a fun summer trip, think about Washington. There are innumerable great museums, almost all of which are free, and a lot of phenomenal architecture. Find a friend with a car and hit the road!