February 2017

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Our Historic Building


The National Building Museum's Fifth Street entrance. Photo by Maxwell MacKenzie.

The historic home of the National Building Museum stands today as one of the great American buildings of the nineteenth century and one of Washington, D.C.’s most spectacular works of public architecture. Built between 1882 and 1887, the project began following a Senate Appropriations Committee approval of $250,000 to purchase a suitable site and construct a fireproof building for the U.S. Pension Bureau’s headquarters. U.S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs was appointed as both the architect and engineer for the building. The building was Meigs' last and most important architectural work and the one of which he was most proud.

The Palazzo Farnese, Rome, Italy. Collection of the National Building Museum.
The National Building Museum's exterior was modeled after the Palazzo Farnese in Rome.

The building was designed for two distinct functions: to house the Pension Bureau and to provide a suitably grand space for Washington’s social and political functions. 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.

The Great Hall measures 316 feet by 116 feet, and is 159 feet at its highest point. The fountain is 28 feet across and still has its original terra cotta trim.

Brick was the primary building material for the Pension Building, a choice largely driven by the affordability of brick and the directive that the building be fireproof. Despite the use of such a functional, ordinary material Meigs employed expert bricklayers and used pressed red brick to achieve the building's regular, smooth face. The decorative elements of the building were also accomplished in an "economic" fashion with ornamental terra cotta and painted plaster on brick surfaces rather than expensive building materials such as carved stone or fine marble. Decorative terra cotta details include the frieze along the building’s exterior, relief spandrels and decorative keystones over the doorways, and the detailed bases of the Corinthian columns.

The interior of the building is dominated not by offices and storage facilities, but by a grand central space, the Great Hall. Measuring 116 x 316 feet, the Great Hall features a central fountain and is divided into three courts by two screens of four colossal Corinthian columns—among the tallest classical columns in the world.

From the design of the roof to the ingenious ventilation system that created a continuous flow of fresh air throughout the building, the Pension Building is a marvel of engineering. An ingenious system of windows, vents, and open archways allows the Great Hall to function as a reservoir for light and air.

General Accounting Office workers in the Great Hall, 1920s.
General Accounting Office workers in the Great Hall, 1920s.

The Pension Building continued to serve as office space for a variety of government tenants through the 1960s. The government began to consider demolishing the building as it was badly in need of repair, but then came under pressure from preservationists and commissioned architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith to explore other possibilities for its use. In her 1967 report, “The Pension Building: A Building in Search of a Client,” Smith introduced the idea that the building be converted to a museum of the building arts. In 1969, the Pension Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Congress passed a resolution in 1978 calling for the preservation of the building as a national treasure, and a 1980 Act of Congress mandated the creation of the National Building Museum as a private, nonprofit educational institution.

Workers remarbelizing columns in the Great Hall.
Photo by Gary Griffin

The glorious building that you visit today is the result of years of careful renovation and restoration. In 1997, the historic building was officially renamed the National Building Museum.

Take a 360° tour of the Museum's Great Hall!

For more information about the National Building Museum's historic home, the Museum Shop offers excellent publications about its history. You can also check out our National Building Museum quick facts.

Learn more about the National Building Museum's connection to the Civil War.