Thursday Doors – The Building Museum

National Building Museum
National Building Museum

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:


  1. “Letting someone else pay for them” is the basis of many of our country’s woes, Dan. Of course, the “someone else” is us, a fact too many people don’t really seem to realize. “The government will pay for it” just means someone dipped his/her hand into your wallet. :-)

    BTW, I enjoyed the building, too. :-)


    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Janet. Given all the things they reach into my pocket to fund, I wouldn’t mind paying for this. The sad thing is that so many of these stories start with “Congress approved” then they proceed to “used for many years, falling into disrepair” and finally “donations by private individuals to restore.” I just wish they would maintain what they start.

      Oh well, if my $10 helps keep this place going, I’m all for it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. When there is a specific need to prohibit photography, I get it, but sometimes I really wonder what the issue is. This is one of those cases. It looks like a beautiful building, even if the contents are rather underwhelming.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a beautiful building. The staging for a new exhibit kept me out of the main hall, and prevented my taking some pictures, The rules prevented my taking other ones. The weird thing is, you can’t take photos, but their own photos are published under Creative Commons and allows derivative works and even commercial use!

      I toned down my initial post a little. I thought maybe I was too hard on them. Iguess they’re just trying to make a living. I was just hoping to see a lot more building stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. At least in my mind, buildings back then were built to last through the ages. It is why they invested in decoration. Today, buildings are like toothpaste, made to last until the tube is empty. In 200 years, the buildings in core of our cities will still look like they do today, the only thing that will last in the sheetrock and vinyl siding suburbs is the concrete basements.

    They could have done better with the doors, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Actually, a huge problem in northeast CT is that concrete foundations are crumbling.

      This building was clearly meant to last. It bothers me that Congress lets these places fall into disrepair and then hopes that private groups will rebuild them. It’s a good thing they aren’t in charge of our healthcare…oh, right.

      You’re right about modern construction, though. Even some of the non-distinct steel and glass buildings in our cities won’t last as long as these places.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It really is a lovely building. I would have been happy to tour “the old pension building” but it needs more permanent exhibits for me to think of it as a museum. I guess the periodic exhibits are grand things, unfortunate timing on my part, to be visiting in between exhibits.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. *listens to Muppet song on repeat*
    It’s a WOW building, with a GRAND hall, and even though you didn’t get $10 worth of entertainment, the post is priceless. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha – I won’t say how many times I’ve listened to the Muppet theme, but it might be playing in the background. I’m OK giving them $10 to fund the effort it must take just to keep this place open. It is a really cool building. I wish they would let companies like Stanley and Caterpillar put standing exhibits in some of the, apparently empty rooms.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I may have been a bit harsh. I think it was worth $10, but it was the way they marketed the admission. You can wander through the building for FREE (which I didn’t know). You would miss the one interesting exhibit on historic construction techniques. I’m not sure that exhibit is worth $10, but I do think it’s a good cause and I did enjoy seeing it. At a minimum, I’d add the free walk around tour to the list of things to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Whoa, those pillars having the height of 4 stories are incredible! And I love the arches (top right). Am intrigued how weight in buildings is dispersed – am glad I don’t have to deal with that in painting!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The arches are very effective in transferring weight to the columns. It’s amazing to me that just about everything is brick. I don’t even want to think about how many bricks were consumed. And yet it looks like marble and stone. Quite an accomplishment. Thanks for looking.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “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.” Dan, that should have been your one-liner for yesterday. That’s not a political statement, that’s an indictment of the way politicians think, regardless of political party.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. ALL exhibits…instead of both exhibits? Okay, so they’ve already learned to speak Trump ;-)
    Regardless it is still a beautiful building and I would give them my ten bucks to explore the place.
    And of course ANY blog post can only be enhanced by The Muppets – nicely done!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. On Monday, I took a two mile walk on the boardwalk at Myrtle Beach. The entire length is resort after resort. I was thinking about you when I saw this crane that would have stopped you in your tracks. By looking at the building next to it, I estimated it was about 20-22 stories high. We stopped and looked at for a few minutes as it was moving this huge floor of steel into place. Then all of a sudden whistles start going off and we realize something is not going well. It apparently wasn’t sliding into place as desired. We watched a while, then took our walk, and on the way back they were still struggling. Whistles blaring, men pulling it on chains, and we headed to our car to get out of the way. All I could think of was Dan would love this. :-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. I did get to learn a lot about the way it was built, but there wasn’t much on display to see. Still, it is an amazing building and it was interesting to walk through,


  10. I think this was high on my favourite posts of yours, Dan. It was the Muppet Show that did it, ;) How on earth did you remember the scene that matches the interior of the museum so well? I do think you were a bit hard on the poor old museum, it looks great from the photos. I love all those arches and those huge pillars are fantastic. That video gave me such a laugh this morning, started my day off nicely, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’re right, Jean, I was a bit too hard on the museum. It is a beautiful building and once tagged with being a “private non-profit institution” they really have no choice but to charge admission.

      Having seen the opening of The Muppet Show so many times, I couldn’t think of anything else. I’m glad you enjoyed that.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. It looks like this post was a hit, Dan — sorry to be so late.
    “this one came with a $10 admission charge, and it wasn’t really worth it.” That’s been my reaction to everything here.
    Loved all the columns though. Have a fabulous Friday. Hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. The photo on the easel in that one office has given me an idea for my writing project. Architecture is important, right?

    I wish I had the funds to visit the New England states. It all looks so interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. What a spectacular building this is, Dan. Loved it and thank you for allowing your readers to take a virtual tour of the building through your images. The bust image kind of reminds me of the Game of Throne poster.

    Liked by 1 person

      • It is not exactly the same, but it sort of reminded me of Game of Thrones Season 6 poster. I wasn’t a fan of this TV series but now that I and Sarah have watched it, we are die-hard fans of it. Although it is criticized for nudity and gore, but keeping that aside I believe the plot is stupendous and sucks you right in from the word go.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Dan, I really liked the grand hall! I wish I could see the next new exhibition.
    I am excited about the different shots, despite your feeling only 2 exhibits are worth your time. The outdoor photographs are pretty as well as the celebration photo. :)

    Liked by 1 person

      • Okay, well just goes to show you that I read too quickly! :) Dan, thank you for clarifying this and it seemed very interesting! I hope another time they will open more exhibits. . . That main hall is like a beautiful palace ballroom!

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Oh! The arches! The arches! That is one fabulous building, Dan. It would almost be worth the ten bucks, just to ogle the architecture. Fantastic, that that opulent effect was made with brick. I love those stairs, too!

    Liked by 1 person

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