Artist, Donor, and Member: Raymond Kaskey’s Varied Contributions to the National Building Museum

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National Building Museum, Corner Marker Maquette. Kaskey Studio. Photo by Museum staff.

The largest group of objects featured in the Museum’s exhibition Cool & Collected: Recent Acquisitions is from the studio of architect and sculptor Raymond Kaskey. Anybody who has walked around the National World War II Memorial here in Washington, D.C. is familiar with his work, but he has also designed architectural ornament and civic sculpture for concert halls, airports, public buildings, and memorials across the country. His influence on the Museum goes beyond providing significant works, he has long been a member and supporter. National Building Museum Online spoke with Kaskey to learn more about his affinity for the Museum.

National Building Museum Online (NBM Online): When did you first learn about the National Building Museum, and what has been your involvement over the years?

Ray Kaskey (RK): I knew and admired the Pension Building before it became the National Building Museum. I think it is one of the grandest buildings in Washington, second only to the Library of Congress. I particularly admire the bold eclecticism of Montgomery Meigs’s design influenced by the Palazzo Farnese and the Cancelleria as well as the Parthenon frieze. And the totally original interior space is a great lesson in how palpably different a great architectural space is from everyday enclosures. It really makes you feel ennobled to be there.

Aside from the experience though I’ve been a member of the Museum for more years than I can remember and had the good fortune to participate in an exhibition, a symposium, and gave a talk at the Museum.

NBM Online: Tell us about the development of the design for the corner markers here at the Museum. What was the original plan for the location of these markers? What do they depict?

RK: The origin of the corner markers was to be a sign announcing that the Pension Building was now the National Building Museum. They were to be located on either side of F Street, which was to become a service road and closed to vehicular traffic and the markers would be like a gateway. After waiting several years for the authorities that be to make up their mind it was decided to locate them on the four corners of the Museum property as boundary markers.

I was influenced by one of Meigs’s sketches of a classical urn that would become the model for a structure that could incorporate images from the building trades. Hence the plumbob and skyhook supported by the six construction workers, which—by the way—contain portraits of me and several studio assistants as well as a professional model. You have to work with the people at hand as well as the objects around the studio for props.

NBM Online: Some of the pieces you recently donated to the Museum are being included in our Cool & Collected exhibition. Why did you choose to donate these works to the Museum? Tell us about a favorite piece of yours that we will see in the exhibition.

RK: Originally I planned to donate the materials from the sculptures on the Portland Building, the Chicago Public Library and the WWII Memorial as these are significant American projects. But after thirty plus years of doing monumental public sculptures my studio was getting filled up with maquettes, models, drawings, etc. and when Chase Rynd, executive director of the National Building Museum, decided to accept anything I would part with I jumped at the chance to have my archive in the most appropriate venue that I could imagine.

Portlandia, Maquette. Kaskey Studio. Photo by Museum staff.

My favorite piece in the exhibition is the original plaster maquette of the Portlandia sculpture. It was the beginning of my career as a professional sculptor and I will never forget the day I began rolling out the clay. Unfortunately it was the day the Florida Airlines plane crashed into the Potomac. A macabre way to mark a start but definitely unforgettable.

NBM Online: What have been some benefits of your involvement with the Museum? What would you tell others who might be interested in becoming involved at a greater level?

RK: As I think I made clear it’s just a joy to be in the space but beyond that the programs, lectures, and exhibitions are a source of continuing interest in my profession like the recent exhibit Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces on the Guastavino tile company. (Not to mention dinners and cocktails in the Great Hall). But for anyone with the slightest interest in the built environment there is just no other place in D.C. to expand your knowledge in such an inspiring example of the built environment.