Sunday, December 16, 2012

The National Building Museum: A Brief History

So my friend Patricia pointed out in a comment how absolutely beautiful the National Building Museum is.

I know, right?  Totally gorgeous.  

The building was originally built in the 1880's to host Inaugural Balls and to serve as the offices of U.S. Pension Bureau.  Multi-tasking!   In the years following the Civil War, the U.S. Government paid Union Soldiers increasing amounts for their past services.  This building is where hundreds of Pension Bureau employees worked.  

I teach a program where 6th graders with no knowledge about the history of the building develop the visual vocabulary necessary to figure this out.  There are plenty of good architectural and ornamental  clues that help.  Also plaques.  This is a great example:  

There is a terracotta frieze of Civil War soldiers running along the entire building.  I wonder why?  Do you think this building had something to do with Civil War soldiers?  It's a really neat program, because the kids really learn to look at old buildings in a different way.

I'm also really fascinated with the architect who designed the building, Montgomery C. Meigs.
He was trained at West Point as an Engineer and served for many years as the U.S. Quartermaster General.  Meigs was responsible for Arlington National Cemetery, which he intentionally built ON ROBERT E. LEE's FRONT LAWN.  One of my favorite history facts right there.  Meigs and Lee had served together prior to the Civil War, and Meigs was personally offended at Lee's choices.  That's some good revenge there.  

Aside from the story of Arlington National Cemetery, Meigs was very good at his job.  He designed the Pension Bureau with ventilation holes in the lower floors and opening celestory windows, so air would float into the great hall, be heated, and then rise out of the building through the windows.  Originally, the air in the Great Hall circulated fully within 3 minutes.  That's amazing for the late 19th century!  Partially because of this feat, Pension Bureau employees took on average 5 less sick days each during the first year they moved into the building.  Amazing!  


  1. We really need to have more buildings specifically for balls. I hope sometimes pension bureau employees came to work after really killer parties to find olde timey debutantes passed out on their desks and just ladies' petticoats EVERYWHERE.

    1. I wonder if there's any way to find out if anything like that really did happen. I love the mental image.