Friday, April 13, 2018

Cool 19th Century Places to Visit: National Building Museum

I discovered this gem recently when I traveled to the nation’s capital. The National Building Museum is run by a non-profit organization set up by Congress. The red-brick façade appears solid and sturdy, but if you look closer, you can see a marvelous frieze showing every type of regiment in the Union army, all valiantly marching around the outside. Still, nothing prepares you for what awaits inside.

What is now the National Building Museum was originally completed in 1887 to house the Pension Bureau, those hard-working individuals attempting to manage the claims of the hundreds of thousands of men who had served the Union in the Civil War. The order from the government was clear—besides allowing for processing these claims, the building had to have a grand central space for use in civic and social functions. Accordingly, the central space was patterned after an Italian palace, with columns sweeping four stories into the air and a fountain playing in the center. This space was used for a number of inaugural balls in the 1800s.

I was fortunate enough to arrive on a day when tours were being given, so I received an inside look at this wonderful national treasure. Here are some of the high points.

As they were restoring the building, they discovered that part of the director’s suite had this marvelous painted ceiling. It has been cleaned and is being refurbished. It reminded me of the Regency.

A thin metal track runs along the entire ceiling of the walkway along the tippy top floor. Our guide said that when papers must be moved from office to office, the workers would place them in a basket, hook the basket up over the track, and push it along over their heads by use of a paddle until they reached the right office. I stared at her, amazed. They were the first paper pushers!

At the very top are alcoves to house the busts of those who had served in the Civil War. Unfortunately, when the director appealed to the Smithsonian for busts, he was refused. The National Building Museum purchased multiple sets of 8 busts to represent those involved in buildings (architects, builders, etc.). Those are now placed randomly to fill the holes.

The walkway around each floor is edged with columns that are apparently hollow. This is known because someone carved a hole in one. A special camera was brought in and inserted into the hole to confirm materials, only to find that the column was filled with copies of the Declaration of Independence, newspapers from the 1880s, and other documents. More digging through the director’s papers from the time led to the discovery that he had intended several of the columns as time capsules. He’d reasoned that the building would not stand forever, and, when some future people tore it down, he wanted them to know about the people from long ago who had built it.

The various displays in the building are well worth the price of admission, but it should be noted that the building itself, the museum shop, and the café are open to the public free of charge. You can find the National Building Museum at 401 F Street NW in Washington, D.C. It is open from Monday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday from 11am to 5pm. For more on its illustrious history, see


QNPoohBear said...

I'm embarrassed to say I have never been there though I lived in DC off and on for 5 1/2 years. I was a busy student and poor young adult so I didn't get downtown often. I'll have to pop in on my next visit.

Regina Scott said...

Don't feel bad, QNPoohBear. I worked in DC 1 week out of every month for 4 years, and I never knew about the museum, even though it's near one of my favorites, the National Portrait Museum. It is a hidden gem. I probably wouldn't have found it if I hadn't been checking for the best sights to see for my son, an architecture grad student. :-)