National Building Museum Is A Change Of Pace In Washington D.C.
On one's first, second, and third visits to Washington, DC, one must concentrate
on the memorials - Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, Vietnam, the new WWII
Memorial on the National Mall, and a little known treasure, the T. Roosevelt Memorial
on an island of the same name on the Virginia side of the Potomac.
Don't even think about skipping the Smithsonian (although you could go
there every day for years and not scratch the surface), the Capitol Building,
White House, U.S. Mint; and FBI Headquarters. It is a fabulous city for visitors
- it is even a fabulous city for those little people that get dragged
along by their parents; they will appreciate the carrousel on the Mall, the
huge locomotive in the Museum of Science and Industry and especially the insect
room in the Museum of Natural History (tarantulas, scorpions, and Hissing Cockroaches
- oh my.)
But if you live in DC or have visited there many times you may be a bit jaded
by the tourist spots so we offer an offbeat suggestion; The National
Builders Museum. This little known attraction is managed by the General
Services Administration but largely funded by donations from the public and
the building industry. Admission is free although a $5 donation is requested.
We visited primarily to see the Green House which opened in
May of this year and will run through June 3, 2007. Green House is a small but
fascinating exhibit featuring The Glide House and dozens of innovative green
homebuilding products and practices.
We will pay a lot more attention to the Green House over the next few weeks,
but the National Building Museum is worth a few mentions of its own.
The NBM is easily accessible; located directly across from
the Judiciary Square Metro Station (Red Line) and the building alone is worth
the trip. It was originally constructed to house the U.S. Pension Bureau (at
the time the government's largest funded agency accounting for almost one-third
of the nation's budget) and was built between 1882 and 1887. A local acquaintance
maintains that its real reason for being was to serve as a location for Presidential
Inaugural Balls and there is some credence to his claim as this is the only
place outside of the Oval Office where the Presidential Seal is permanently
installed - in the rotunda floor. The first inaugural ball to be held there
was Grover Cleveland's in 1885 and fifteen have been held there since including
George W. Bush's in 2001.
The building's architect, General Montgomery C. Meigs, a West Point
grad and lifelong Army engineer (he was also responsible for building the Washington
aqueduct system and the Capitol dome) designed the building. Charged by Congress
with constructing a fireproof and cost-efficient building he used over 15.5
million bricks, which were economical and easily available. At this time it
was built the Pension Building was the largest brick structure in the world.
The Great Hall is reminiscent of the 15th Century Palazzo della Cancelleria
in Rome and the exterior of the building is patterned on the Palazzo Farnese
built in the 16th Century. The hall is cavernous - supported by huge columns
at each end - reaching multiple stories toward the vaulted ceiling. Shorter
columns support four stories of galleries that ring the hall and contain permanent
exhibition space and classrooms for the museum's active program on building
arts for DC school children.
Yet, in spite of the huge space, the museum feels comfortable and accessible.
A small restaurant allows visitors and workers from the many nearby office buildings
to buy sandwiches and salads and eat at tables in the great hall. A fountain
and benches invite visitors to sit, rest, and enjoy the statutes representing
the various building trades which are nestled in niches above the center bay
of the Great Hall. The museum gift shop, which was named best museum shop in
the city by The Washington Post, features a huge collection of books on building
styles and design, green building, and architectural history. There are also
innovative building tools, a large collection of products from recycled materials,
and lots of inexpensive and creative children's toys.
Meigs did some interesting things in constructing his building.
Congress did not appropriate enough money to allow elevators so he included
elevator shafts so the machinery could be easily installed when funds were available.
Lacking elevators he made the stairs deep with shallow risers which made the
building accessible to disabled veterans who had to visit the building.
He wanted a healthy office building and designed a system that allowed fresh
air to enter through the office windows while stale air could exit through clerestory
windows above the fourth floor. He estimated that, under prime conditions, the
total volume of air in the hall was replaced every two minutes. The building
was originally lighted with gas which is notoriously dim, thus workers must
have appreciated the natural light that permeates the space. Meigs also designed
a system using a metal track with a basket suspended from a wheel or trolley
on the track; this served to move documents from office to office while a dumbwaiter
in one corner of the building moved paper work between floors.
The building fills an entire city block and is surrounded by a 1200-foot terra-cotta
frieze of Civil War military figures. The 70 foot panels making up this long
frieze are repeated in one of the internal stairways of the building.
The Pension Bureau moved out of the building in 1926 and by the 1960's
it was considered obsolete and considered for demolition. A study, however,
recommended that the building be restored for its present use and the museum
officially opened in 1985.
The museum, on a blustery weekday, was crawling with kids, most appearing to
be in the first to third grade age group. They were obviously having a great
time. The fall programs for kids at the museum include a Festival of the Building
Arts in which children work side-by-side with craftspeople to discover "the
skills and secrets of the building arts and learn what it means to build green."
Halloween featured a haunted house workshop in which kids were invited to build
a miniature spook alley from wood and cardboard.
While the reason for our visit was the Green House, the several more or less
permanent exhibits in the museum are worth noting. We will visit "Cityscapes
Revealed" and "Washington, Symbol and City" before talking
about Glide House and its products and innovations.