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A Monument to the Civil War

National Building Museum
A historic postcard image of the building.

The historic home of the National Building Museum is one of Washington, D.C.’s most spectacular works of public architecture. It was built between 1882 and 1887 for three distinct purposes: to house the headquarters of the United States Pension Bureau, to provide a suitably grand space for Washington's social and political functions, and to commemorate the service of those who fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War.

In 1881 the U.S. Congress directed General Montgomery C. Meigs (1816-1892), Quartermaster of the U.S. Army and a graduate of West Point, to design a new home for the growing Pension Bureau. The agency moved to the building in the spring of 1885, before the structure was complete, and remained until 1926. Over the next half-century, the building was home to various government agencies, including the General Accounting Office (GAO), the Civil Service Commission, and the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

The structure that you see today has undergone years of careful restoration and renovation that began once the building was designated as the home of the National Building Museum in 1980. The Museum opened to the public in 1985, and the building was officially renamed the National Building Museum in 1997.

Free docent-led historic building tours are available daily.

What was the Pension Bureau?

The historic Pension Building was Montgomery C. Meigs (1816-1892) last work of architecture and is widely considered his most important.
In 1776, the Continental Congress of the United States authorized pensions, in the form of money or land grants, for Revolutionary War soldiers who had been disabled in the course of military service and to the widows and orphans of officers killed in the war. Since many soldiers served in state militias, state governments, rather than the federal government, paid out most early benefits. Later laws expanded eligibility for pensions.

Of the 51,135 pensioners on the rolls in 1864, more than 48,000 had served in the Civil War. By 1871, new claims and new eligibility provisions added over 250,000 new pensioners to the rolls—and the numbers kept increasing.

Not only did the Civil War greatly increase the number of pensioners, the war also created a demand for federal workers and office space to administer the pensions.  This tremendous growth is what prompted Congress, in 1881, to commission the Pension Building. Upon its completion, the space accommodated approximately 1,500 clerks and officers. 

In the early 1880s, less than 20 years after the war, 890,000 pension claims had been filed on behalf of those killed or wounded in the Civil War, though not all were approved. By the time the new Pension Building was completed, there were 324,968 Civil War pensioners on the rolls.

Pensions made up a large percentage—almost a third—of the federal budget in the 1880s and took up much of the business of the 49th Congress (1885-1887), a group that included many Union veterans. Forty percent of the legislation introduced in the House and 55% in the Senate consisted of special pension acts.

Confederate veterans and their dependents were not eligible for pensions from the Federal Government until 1958. Many states that had joined the Confederacy, however, did pay out pensions. Pensioners from southern states who were eligible due to their service in other wars—particularly the Indian Wars and the Mexican-American War—were dropped from the federal pension rolls during the Civil War, but reinstated in 1872.

World War I brought many changes to the Pension Bureau, leading eventually to its consolidation with other agencies and its move out of the Pension Building. The Bureau of War Risk Insurance took over administration of some veterans benefits.

In 1921, just before the Pension Bureau moved out of this building and 56 years after the end of the war, there were still a half-million Civil War pensioners on the rolls. Of this number, 218,775 were “survivors and invalids,” 102 were nurses, and 281,225 were widows and other dependents.

Veterans and the Pension Building’s Design

  • The Museum features an elaborate, 1,200-foot-long, 3-foot-high frieze depicting a parade of Civil War military units around its exterior; it was designed by Caspar Buberl (1834-89).The architect of the Pension Building, Montgomery Meigs, was a Civil War veteran himself, having served as the Union Army’s quartermaster general. In this position, he had dispatched the army’s equipment and supplies, including uniforms, knapsacks, blankets, tents, rifles, cannons, ammunition, horses, wagons, tents, pontoon bridges, food, and gear of every description. Altogether, Meigs oversaw contracts worth $1.5 billion, an immense sum in the 1860s.
  • A 1,200-foot-long terra cotta frieze (left) on the building’s exterior— designed by Bohemian-born sculptor Caspar Buberl (1834-1899)—commemorates the Union infantry, cavalry, artillery, naval, quartermaster, and medical units that fought in the Civil War. The portion of the frieze above each entrance is unique: the western (5th Street NW) entry is the Gate of the Quartermaster, the southern (F Street NW) entry is the Gate of the Infantry, the eastern (4th Street NW) entry is the Naval Gate, and the northern (G Street NW) entry is the Gate of the Invalids.
  • The federal government stipulated that the Pension Bureau be housed in a fireproof building to protect soldiers’ records, which led to Meigs’ decision to construct the “New Pension Office” out of bricks—15,500,000 of them.
  • The stairs between the first three floors of the building were designed with wide treads and low risers to accommodate wounded veterans who might arrive on crutches.
  • Meigs claimed that the Pension clerks moved “over a ton of documents in the course of the working hours of the day.” To facilitate distribution of that paperwork, he designed a metal document track on which a suspended basket of papers, operating via a pulley system, could be ferried around. Dumbwaiters in the northwest corner of the building transported the baskets between floors.