The National Building Museum is an often overlooked attraction in Washington, DC. Ruth and I went there, took a tour, and judged it a fine place for both a family and an architecture enthusiast to experience. Two of its 6 display areas are devoted to children, the well above-average gift shop has a lot of kid-oriented stuff, and helping them learn building skills is a stated goal. Home Depot is a big supporter.
Free tours of the building at 401 F Street downtown are offered daily at 11:30, 12:30, and 1:30. Taking this tour is the only way to gain access to the 4th floor for a knockout sight of the Great Hall, which is about 15 stories tall. The view may cause vertigo. This hall is so impressive that 18 presidential inaugural balls, from Grover Cleveland in 1885 to Barak Obama, have been held in it. If the ball has a military theme, it will probably be held here.
The building’s construction is distinctive. Its architect was Montgomery C. Meigs, a traveler, engineering genius, and Civil War Quartermaster General appointed by Abraham Lincoln. Meigs went to Italy, loved it Renaissance architecture, and modeled his Pension Building design on a Vatican structure. A display about him seen in the National Building Museum describes him as larger than life, cantankerous, and unusually tall by 19th century standards. He had $400,000 to spend on this innovative building that has built-in air flow that amounts to an early and clever form of air-conditioning. The U.S. Government still owns it. Built between 1882 an 1887 in a pre-steel era, Meigs design relied on cast iron and bricks. It was no easy feat to build the Great Hall, and he solved the problem of making it soar by erecting 8 enormous brick columns that are among the tallest in the world. They are painted to look like marble. This is just one fascinating feature for Meigs fire-proof building that was first used as a government pension bureau and Civil War memorial, then stuffed with government agencies, and is now a museum. As is typical of grand old buildings, it was threatened with demolition in the 1980s but survived thanks to a presidential committee.
It took 15,500,000 bricks to create “Meigs Big Red Barn”.