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Pension Building Timeline, 1881–1980

Categories: Articles

The Museum exhibitions close to the public from December 2, 2019 to March 2020 to safely replace its concrete floor with a modern foundation—with the overall goal of preserving the integrity of the building. We invite our Members and visitors to follow the process online to learn more about this unique preservation project. Stay tuned and join us in the spring as we open our doors to celebrate our 40th Anniversary.

Learn more about our majestic home’s story, beginning in a post-Civil War Washington, D.C.

Historic photo of the construction of the Pension Building, 1880s.
Historic photo of the construction of the Pension Building, 1880s. All historic building photos courtesy of the Library of Congress and/or National Archives and Records Administration.

1881
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 engineer for the building. The building is Meigs’ last and most important architectural work.

Historic photo of the construction of the Pension Building, 1880s.

1882
As construction begins, Meigs’s 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 the Harper’s Weekly.

1885
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 Grover Cleveland’s.

Historic photo of the Pension Building, a few weeks prior to completion, Nov 14, 1887.

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.

1930
The Pension Building becomes home to the U.S. General Accounting Office.

Image of offices in the Great Hall, circa 1960.

1967
Architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith authors a report suggesting the historic structure become a museum dedicated to the building arts.

1969
The Pension Building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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

1980
An Act of Congress designates the Pension Building as the site of a new museum celebrating American achievements in the building arts.

Read about our building’s preservation efforts and stay up to date on construction updates. 

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