Pension Building Timeline, 1881–1980

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Learn more about the majestic home of the National Building Museum, beginning in a post–Civil War Washington, D.C.

Historic photo of the construction of the Pension Building, 1880s.
Photo of Pension Building construction, 1880s. All historical building photos courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress or the National Archives and Records Administration.

After the U.S. Civil War, a tremendous growth in pensioners prompts Congress to commission the Pension Building. U.S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs is appointed as both the architect and the engineer for the project. The building is Meigs’ final and most important architectural work.

Photo of Pension Building construction, 1880s.

As construction begins, Meigs’ design aims to provide natural light and fresh circulating air for employees and visitors. Meigs chose to use bricks for their low cost and fireproof qualities, employing expert bricklayers to achieve the building’s regular, smooth facade.

Illustration of Grover Cleveland’s inaugural ball, as featured in Harper’s Weekly.

While the building comfortably houses the pension workers, it also provides space for grand public events—specifically, presidential inaugural balls. Despite construction being incomplete, the first ball held in the Pension Building was President Grover Cleveland’s.

Photo of the Pension Building a few weeks prior to completion, November 14, 1887.

Construction is complete. The exterior was modeled closely on the monumentally scaled Palazzo Farnese, in Rome, completed to Michelangelo’s specifications in 1589. The building’s interior, with open, arcaded galleries surrounding a central hall, mirrored the early 16th century Palazzo della Cancelleria.

Offices in the Great Hall, circa 1960.

The Pension Building becomes home to the U.S. General Accounting Office.

Architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith authors a report suggesting that the structure, which was under consideration to be shut down by the U.S. government, become a museum dedicated to the building arts.

The Pension Building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

An Act of Congress designates the Pension Building as the site of a new museum celebrating American achievements in the building arts.


Pension Building, exterior view. Courtesy of the National Building Museum Postcard Collection.