I mentioned this museum in an earlier blog post, but not an earlier Doors post. I’ll be the first to admit that the doors are unremarkable, as was the entire museum experience. Unlike a lot of Washington, D.C. museums, this one came with a $10 admission charge, and it wasn’t really worth it. This was one of those times that you consider your admission charge to be a donation to a worthy cause.
When I paid my $10, the brochure I was given informed me that I now had access to ALL the exhibits! They could have said BOTH interesting exhibits and still been accurate. One exhibit was an interesting look at building technology over time, but unless I wanted to wait for the guided tour, for which I was both too late and too early, there wasn’t much information provided. I’d share photos of the exhibits, some of which were interesting, but big signs made it clear that photos were not allowed.
In many ways, I think the Building Museum is a bit of a testament to one of the things that is wrong with government. – Don’t worry, this is not a political statement – As long as I can remember, governments from Washington to Harrisburg to Olympia to Hartford, have been making grand decisions and letting someone else figure out how to pay for them.
The Building Museum started out as the offices of the Pension Bureau, in 1887 and to provide a grand space for Washington’s social and political functions. The four floors of offices served mission #1 and the large open space satisfied #2. Except for periods of time in which, judging from old photos, the common area was chockablock full of desks, occupied by pension clerks.
Congress commissioned the building, and in mandating that it be a fire-proof place to house the Pension Bureau, dictated the material of choice, brick. Fortunately, U.S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs who served as architect and engineer on the project was able to make brick look like marble. He was also able to borrow from history and create a stunning design where a utilitarian building would have worked just as well. According to the museum’s website:
“The design was inspired by two Roman palaces. The exterior is modeled closely on the brick, monumentally-scaled Palazzo Farnese, completed to Michelangelo’s specifications in 1589. The building’s interior, with its open, arcaded galleries surrounding a central hall, is reminiscent of the early-sixteenth-century Palazzo della Cancelleria. For the colossal Corinthian columns that divide the Great Hall, Meigs took his inspiration from the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome built by Michelangelo in the mid-sixteenth century.”
Those grand columns are made from brick. They were decorated with terra cotta and covered in plaster, which was painted to look like carved stone and marble.
The building served as government office space into the 1960s, by which time it was in need of repair and the folks a few blocks away in the Capitol were considering tearing the building down. Preservationists pressured Congress, and Congress commissioned architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith to “explore other possibilities for its use.”
In 1967, Ms. Smith suggested that the building could converted to a museum of the building arts. The building was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1969. Moving with their usual alacrity, Congress passed a resolution in 1978, calling for the preservation of the building as a national treasure, and in 1980 established the National Building Museum as a private, nonprofit educational institution. Hence the $10 entry fee.
Perhaps I’ve been a little hard on the museum. It is a beautiful building. They have staged over 200 exhibits, I just happened to visit during a setup period. I wish they would have allowed photos, but fortunately, the National Building Museum is on Flickr, where they share many of the photos I which I could have taken. You can also wander around the building for free.
This post is part of Norm Frampton’s weekly series – Thursday Doors, which is a kind of private non-profit (just guessing) digital museum of doors from around the world. If you want to curate some doors for Norm, pass a resolution and move yourself up to Norm’s place. Check out his doors, then click the blue frog. You will then enter the Grand Hall of Doors. You might want to move a little faster than Congress, but you have until noon Saturday to post your doors.
The gallery below includes some historic photos I found in the NRHP proposal and other sources. Below that is what might have been the real inspiration for this building. Or, perhaps another building inspired by the same historic sources.
I just had to add this: