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An American Palazzo

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The elegant façade of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome (now the French Embassy). © Alinari Archives/CORBIS

by G. Martin Moeller, Jr.

There is a spot in Rome along the Via dei Baullari, near the bustling Campo de’ Fiori, from which one can admire a portion of the Palazzo Farnese’s elegant façade, and then, pivoting to the right, catch a glimpse of the gracious courtyard within the Palazzo della Cancelleria. For anyone who knows the National Building Museum very well, this experience offers something of a frisson; for there, visible almost simultaneously, are the two great Renaissance palaces that directly inspired the design of the former Pension Building, the Museum’s historic home.

Guidebooks, architectural historians, and the Museum’s own docents and publications devote a good deal of attention to the Italian Renaissance precedents for our landmark building, and with good reason. Montgomery C. Meigs, the civil engineer and former Union Army general who designed the Pension Building, visited Rome twice—in 1867 and 1876—and was profoundly impressed by the city’s architecture. When he began work on the Pension Building in 1881, Meigs drew heavily on the sketches and notes he had made in Rome, which, by the time of his second visit, had become the new capital of the recently unified Kingdom of Italy. For him, the Palazzo Farnese, the Cancelleria, and other key Roman buildings were models for a dignified yet unpretentious architecture that he felt would be equally appropriate for the American capital.

Given this strong architectural lineage, it might be easy to cast the Pension Building as merely a skillful work of mimicry, but to do so would be a great disservice to Meigs. Although he was inspired by the architectural vocabulary, compositions, and details of specific buildings in Rome, he did not copy them slavishly. In fact, he showed remarkable ingenuity in adapting Renaissance forms to fulfill the practical requirements of the Pension Bureau, respond to broader goals of the federal government, and address specific concerns about the health and well-being of the building’s occupants, all while creating a structure that ultimately seems thoroughly suited to its own city.

The Palazzo Farnese and the Pension Building’s Exterior

The F Street façade of the National Building Museum (formerly the Pension Building), with its principal block modeled after the Palazzo Farnese. © Maxwell MacKenzie.

The Palazzo Farnese was built in the 16th century as the private palace of Alessandro Farnese, who had been made a cardinal at the age of only 25 and went on to become Pope Paul III. Initially designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, the building was modified by Michelangelo after Alessandro’s succession to the papacy. It now houses the French Embassy to Italy.

A masterpiece of the High Renaissance, the Palazzo Farnese has a perfectly symmetrical main façade, rows of discrete windows with individual pediments, and a heavy cornice providing a definitive cap to the composition. The principal façade is at once elegant, powerful, and restrained—ornament is concentrated around the windows and doors, with a burst of exuberance around the central window on the second floor, courtesy of Michelangelo.

It is easy to see how the Palazzo Farnese influenced the main façade of the Pension Building. Each has three stories separated by bold horizontal bands, an orderly array of punched windows, and a central doorway. The most telling similarity is found at the second story—in both cases, the pediments above the windows alternate between angled and curved forms, providing a rich and distinctive rhythm.

Yet the exteriors of the Pension Building and the Palazzo Farnese differ in several important ways. Perhaps most obvious is the difference in color—the Farnese is an essay in shades of beige, with buff bricks and light-colored stone, while the Museum is clad almost entirely in deep red brick (hence the building’s early, derisive nickname, “Meigs’s Old Red Barn”). Each building is thus characteristic of its region, since Rome is largely a city of cream-colored brick and stone, while red brick has long been one of the most inexpensive and readily available materials in the Washington area.

Because Meigs specified mortar to match the brick on the lower parts of the Pension Building, the structure might appear almost as if it were carved out of a single, enormous block of clay, but for a significant element that was clearly not derived from the Palazzo Farnese at all: the three-foot-tall, ornamental terra cotta frieze that circumscribes the building between the first and second floors. Created by Bohemian-American sculptor Caspar Buberl, this band depicts a continuous parade of Union military personnel from the Civil War. The frieze lends a unique and memorable flourish to the building, saving the dark red façades from dourness and adding a visual narrative that tied the design to the building’s original function, which was to process pensions for Union veterans, widows, and families.

Meigs’s sketches for the Pension Building’s cornice reveal that its basic form was directly based on that of the Palazzo Farnese, detailed drawings of which were accessible in a widely circulated book by Paul Latarouilly depicting Renaissance architecture in Rome. Here again, however, Meigs put his own stamp on the design. In lieu of the decorative acanthus leaves and fleurs-de-lis that lined the Farnese cornice, Meigs used cannons and bursting bombs, further tying the Pension Building to the military origins of the agency for which it was constructed. (A side note: While the contemporary visitor might think that the fleurs-de-lis on the Palazzo Farnese were added after the building came into French hands, in fact the floral symbols were also long-time emblems of the Farnese family, and date to the palace’s early days.)

At a larger scale, Meigs also significantly altered the proportions of the Farnese when adapting the design for the Pension Building. At 400 feet, the north and south façades of the Pension Building are much longer than the main façade of its Roman antecedent. In this regard, the shorter end façades of the Pension Building, as seen from 4th and 5th Streets, are actually closer in proportion to the main façade of the Palazzo Farnese. Another noteworthy difference is the treatment of the corners of the two buildings—the façade of the Farnese is bracketed by stacks of stone quoins, while the Pension Building has none. In fact, the inset columns—again made of brick—that Meigs designed for the corners of the second and third floors of the Pension Building seem to be entirely without precedent.

The most substantial difference between the Pension Building and the Palazzo Farnese involves the overall massing of the two structures. When viewed from the piazza it faces, the Farnese appears as a simple block ending definitively in a robust, perfectly horizontal cornice. The principal block of the Pension Building, by contrast, is crowned by a large, pedimented superstructure. The semicircular-arched windows in this part of the building may suggest the influence of Romanesque architecture—at any rate, the addition of the superstructure certainly makes for an assemblage of forms that would have been unthinkable in Renaissance Rome, and serves as a reminder of Meigs’s independence as a designer.

The Cancelleria and the Great Hall

The courtyard of the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome. Photo courtesy of Scipione Semeraro.

Not far from the Palazzo Farnese is the Palazzo della Cancelleria, built between about 1486 and 1513 for Cardinal Raffaele Riario, who was camerlengo—a powerful administrative official—under Pope Sixtus IV. If you thought Alessandro Farnese was rather young to become a cardinal at 25, he had nothing on Riario, who was made a cardinal at the age of only 16! He was in his 20s when he commissioned this palace, which was partially financed with the young cardinal’s gambling winnings. Riario was forced to cede the property to the Holy See after he was implicated in a plot to assassinate Pope Leo X. The building was soon assigned to the Apostolic (or Papal) Chancery, whose duties included publishing papal bulls, and hence it became known as the Chancellery, or Cancelleria in Italian. Today, it remains an exclave of the Holy See—legally, it is Vatican territory even though it is physically separate from Vatican City.

The arcades within the National Building Museum (formerly the Pension Building), inspired by the courtyard of the Palazzo della Cancelleria

The most famous feature of the Cancelleria is its courtyard, notable for its two-tiered arcades, which may have been at least partially designed by Donato Bramante (though that attribution is disputed). Delicate and airy, the arcades contrast with the heavier, rather severe exterior façades. The two arcaded levels are treated almost identically, with simple, non-fluted columns and minimally decorated capitals. At the corners, the round columns are replaced by L-shaped pillars.

It was this courtyard that inspired Meigs’s design for the Great Hall of the Pension Building, though once again there are significant differences between the two spaces. Most obviously, the courtyard of the Cancelleria is open to the sky, while the Pension Building’s Great Hall is roofed. Rome had a long-standing tradition of open courtyards in its urban buildings (the Palazzo Farnese also has one), but the primary reasons for Meigs’s decision to roof the courtyard were pragmatic. First, he intended the space to be usable year-round both for large, official events and as a kind of “banking hall” where Pension Bureau employees could conduct business with their constituents. Perhaps more important, the enclosed hall was an integral component of the innovative system he devised for providing fresh air to the perimeter offices. Air would be drawn in through small openings in the exterior walls (and warmed over radiators when necessary), flow through the large openings facing the courtyard, and be vented out through clerestory windows at the top of the Great Hall by means of a chimney effect. Meigs was extremely proud of the fact that absenteeism due to sickness among Pension Bureau employees declined dramatically after they moved into the building he designed, an achievement that he attributed primarily to his efforts to ensure that they were breathing fresh air.

Meigs also adapted the architectural details of the Cancelleria’s arcades, deciding, for instance, to treat the two levels differently. The columns on the first floor of the Pension Building have Doric capitals, while those of the second floor are Ionic—a common design move, but nonetheless a departure from the direct model in this case. In addition, above the second floor, the walls of the Pension Building’s courtyard are set back from the outer plane of the arcades, providing a greater sense of spaciousness than in the Cancelleria courtyard, where the upper-level walls are flush with the arches below.

Of course, Meigs had to look to other precedents when designing the roof over the large, rectangular Great Hall, since no such structures existed in Renaissance Rome. His solution was a practical one, consisting of iron trusses—rather like those one might find in a late 19th-century train shed—supporting a sloping roof painted light blue to suggest the sky. The resulting atrium-like space is a curious architectural hybrid, in which the Renaissance meets the Victorian era.

Santa Maria degli Angeli and the Colossal Columns

The sanctuary of the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome, built within the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian. ©Giovanni Dall’Orto.

There was a third Roman building that directly influenced Meigs’s design of the Pension Building, though it is often overlooked in discussions of the structure’s origins.Rome boasts a bewildering number of churches, and yet there is no other like Santa Maria degli Angeli. It was built within the ruins of the ancient Roman Baths of Diocletian, very near the present site of Rome’s main train station, Termini (in fact, the name of the station derives not from “terminus,” as many people assume, but from terme, the Italian word for “baths”). The interior was designed beginning in 1561 by none other than Michelangelo, who died in 1564 before it was finished. The project was completed under the guidance of Jacopo Lo Duca, who had been one of Michelangelo’s students, though the interior was later heavily modified during the Baroque period.

The Great Hall of the National Building Museum (formerly the Pension Building), with colossal columns inspired by those in the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. © Hoachlander Davis Photography.

Meigs greatly admired the colossal Corinthian columns—some of them original to the Roman baths, some of them replicas—that graced the church’s sanctuary. Over 17 meters (about 56 feet) tall, these columns not only emphasize the height of the space, but also help to define subspaces within the vast interior. These columns were the inspiration for the eight gigantic Corinthian columns that punctuate the Great Hall of the Pension Building. Of course, Meigs had to outdo the Romans, and so he ensured that his versions, at 75 feet tall, were larger than their predecessors. (In fact, he went even further than that, checking the height of the famously impressive columns at the ancient Roman Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek, now in Lebanon, and made sure that the Pension Building’s were bigger.)

Budgetary restrictions prevented the use of actual marble for the columns in the Pension Building, so they were built of brick, plastered, and painted to resemble Siena marble, whose caramel color appealed to Meigs. These eight huge columns do serve a function—they help to support the roof over the Great Hall—but they are also the most memorable architectural elements of the entire building, and the primary reason that the National Building Museum is today one of the most beloved landmarks in Washington.

A Unique Work

For all its debt to Renaissance precedents, the Pension Building was an unprecedented work of architecture. Meigs drew inspiration from various structures that were centuries old, yet he created a building that was in many ways at the cutting edge of design theory and construction technology. It is fitting that this building, with its complex history, diverse antecedents, and innovative design, is now home to the world’s only museum dedicated to all aspects of the built environment and the talented people who create it.