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National Building Museum

 
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Dr. N. Subramanian
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 10, 2015 6:02 pm    Post subject: National Building Museum Reply with quote

National Building Museum
Building History

"National Building Museum frieze" by AgnosticPreachersKid

The Pension Building, now the National Building Museum, stands as a memorial to Civil War veterans.

In 1881 the U.S. Congress directed General Montgomery C. Meigs (1816-1892), Quartermaster of the U.S. Army and a graduate of West Point, to develop a fireproof building for the Pension Bureau. Meigs envisioned the building as both office space and as a monument to those who died fighting in the War Between the States. In commemoration of those heroes, Caspar Buberl (1834-1899) sculpted a 1200-foot terra cotta frieze depicting the Union's Army and Navy.

Construction began in 1882 and ended in 1887. Seeking to create a light and airy environment for federal workers, Meigs incorporated numerous ingenious engineering innovations into the structure, his last project. Responsible for such important engineering feats as the Capitol Dome, Meigs considered the Pension Building to be his greatest achievement. Others did not agree, disparaging it as "Meigs's old red barn."

When the Pension Bureau became part of the U.S. Veterans Administration in 1930, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) took over the building. An approved expansion plan was abandoned due to concern that an enlarged Pension Building would reduce space for growth of the nearby Courts. By 1950, when GAO moved into its own modern facility, the Pension Building was considered obsolete and demolition was contemplated.

Public perceptions of the building began changing in the late 1950s when an exhibition by the American Institute of Architects promoted it as worth preservation. In 1969 it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1980 an Act of Congress designated the Pension Building as the site of a new museum celebrating American achievements in the building arts. The National Building Museum opened in 1985, the same year the building was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Architecture
The monumental Pension Building was a technological achievement at the time of its construction in 1882 and a fitting tribute to those who served in the Civil War. The red-brick building, measuring 400 feet by 200 feet, occupies the entire city block bounded by Fourth, Fifth, F, and G Streets, N.W., in downtown Washington, DC.

Massive in size and scale, the Italianate Renaissance Revival building is twenty-seven bays long on the north and south elevations and thirteen bays wide on the west and east elevations. The lower exterior facades are modeled after Antonio da Sangallo's Palazzo Farnese in Rome. The exterior walls are load-bearing brick, measuring 75 feet high and 2 feet 4 inches thick. They are composed of common brick faced with pressed brick, decorative masonry, and ornamental terra cotta. This was an early use of ornamental terra cotta, which was an affordable substitute for carved stone or iron. The terra cotta frieze designed by Bohemian-born sculptor Caspar Buberl depicts a continuous parade of Civil War military units represented in six themes--infantry, cavalry, artillery, navy, medicine, and quartermaster. The entrances centered on each elevation are defined by projecting brick archways. The main frieze of each entry is ornamented with carved panels depicting the military units of the Civil War. The western entry is the Gate of the Quartermaster, the southern entry is the Gate of the Infantry, the eastern entry is the Naval Gate, and the northern entry is the Gate of the Invalids.

The interior plan of the Pension Building is dominated by a full-height hall or atrium at the center, with interconnecting rooms at the perimeter. The Great Hall is divided into three courts by two sets of four colossal Corinthian columns, supporting the metal and glass roof structure. Each column rises 75 feet, rests on a base 8 feet in diameter, and is crowned by a molded plaster capital and an abacus of cast iron.  Each built with 70,000 bricks and originally painted to resemble marble in 1895, and are the largest brick pillars in the World.  The cornice has two hundred forty-four niches containing life-size plaster busts representing eight prototypical Americans of the building world. A terra cotta-trimmed circular fountain is located in the center of the Great Hall.


Lining the perimeter of the Great Hall are brick arches that spring from seventy-two cast-iron Ionic columns, creating two levels of open arcaded galleries that serve as corridors to offices on the first and second floors. Four main stairways, centrally located on each side of the building near the entrances, extend from the first to the third floors. The office of the Pension Commissioner on the second floor retains its original fireplace and the only decorated ceiling original to the building.

"National building museum columns" by RadioFan

Numerous technological innovations were incorporated into the building's design. A fresh air ventilation system was based on the premise that the central atrium could act as a giant flue. The exposed roof structure, ornate fenestration, and the full height of the Great Hall acted as a chimney to exhaust unwanted heat. Air was automatically drawn from the perimeter of the building through the clerestory windows, which were opened by a mechanical system. The large central hall with perimeter offices ensured there were no dark corridors, with daylight and air permeating every space.


"National Building Museum - Corinthian column" by AgnosticPreachersKid

In anticipation of use as the National Building Museum, the first renovation phase of the Great Hall was completed in early 1985. The roof was replaced and the facades and terra cotta frieze were restored. As part of the U.S. General Services Administration's Art in Architecture program, four markers representing themes associated with the building arts were designed in 1990 by sculptor Raymond Kaskey (1943- ) and placed at each corner of the site. In 1991 extensive research was conducted prior to conservation of the Casper Buberl painted terra cotta panels located in the stairwells of the building. Restoration work continued through the 1990s under the direction of the Smith Group.



Building Facts
Architect: Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs

Construction Dates: 1882-1887

Landmark Status: National Historic Landmark

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 401 F Street, NW

Architectural Style: Italian Renaissance Revival

Primary Materials: Red brick with brick and terra cotta ornament

Prominent Features: Great Hall with 75-foot high columns; Exterior terra cotta frieze of Civil War military units by sculptor Caspar Buberl

Architectural Description

The Pension Building, constructed in the style of Renaissance Classicism, is configured in a traditional Italian Renaissance plan. The building, a 15.5 million brick colossus, is 400 feet long and 200 feet wide - essentially a hollow rectangle. Around the outside is a succession of interconnected rooms intended to be offices, while in the middle is what would have been a courtyard in an Italian plan, but is instead a breath-taking hall, 316 ft long by 116 ft wide and rising 159 ft. Two levels of open arcaded galleries serve as corridors to the offices. Despite its traditionalism, the plan is innovative in that no doors separate the offices from the "Great Hall" or each other, and the flow of air into the building creates a continuous exchange of fresh air throughout the building. The interior court roof, fenestration, and the central space act as a chimney to exhaust unwanted heat. By its shear height it automatically draws air from the perimeter of the building through clerestory windows, which once opened by a mechanical system.

Meigs used advanced techniques in the construction of the roof. Above the Great Hall the tall, central gable roof is flanked by two lower gable roofs and supported by trusses of wrought iron and steel. It was originally composed of terra cotta tiles and terne-coated stainless steel painted the color of oxidized copper. Although Meigs took great care in designing and constructing the roof and making it fireproof, it was never fully waterproof which led to damage of pension documents. Two chimneys appear on the southwest portion of the building, one large and one small. The latter serves the fireplace in the second floor Pension Commissioner's Suite which, painted in 1885, is the only original decorated ceiling to have survived.

Meigs used as his model for the lower exterior facades the Palazzo Farenese in Rome by Antonio da Sangalo and Michelangelo. The exterior walls are of load-bearing brick masonry construction, 75 ft. high and 2 ft. 4 in. thick. They are composed of common brick faced with pressed brick, decorative brick, and ornamental terra cotta. This was an early use of ornamental terra cotta which was a less expensive substitute for carved stone or iron. Each facade has an entrance in the center. While the north and south facades have 27 window bays, the east and west have 13. The facades which vary on each level are characterized by pedimented windows, richly ornamented in decorative brick and terra cotta, and separated by belt courses. Another important characteristic is the Italian Renaissance style cornice which closely imitates the design of the Palazzo Farnese, however somewhat modified to introduce a military theme. The entrances to the facades which Meigs called gateways or gates are defined by projecting brick archways and are distinguished from each other, in the main frieze by the military unit of Civil War soldiers and sailors that is featured above each: the Gate of the Quartermaster on the west, the Gate of the Infantry on the south, the Naval Gate on the east, and the Gate of the Invalids on the north. The facade and terra cotta frieze that encircle the building have been cleaned and restored.

The Great Hall, the most important feature of the building, is divided into 3 courts by two screens of 4 colossal Corinthian columns which support the central roof. Each column rises 75 ft., is constructed of 70,000 bricks, rests on a base 8 ft. in diameter, and is crowned with a molded plaster capital and an abacus of cast iron weighing 3200 pounds. Not until 1895 were the columns painted to resemble Siena marble, and then repainted solid rose after 1926. In 1984 finally the columns were re-marbleized. The focal point of the hall is the large circular fountain, 28 ft. in diameter, located in the center. It has been completely restored with a new pumping mechanism and simple jet. Lining the Great Hall are a series of brick arches that spring from 72 cast-iron Ionic columns on the second floor. A five foot wide balcony of wrought iron provides access to rooms on the fourth floor. There are four main stairways centrally located on each side of the building near entrances and which extend from the first to the third floors. These brick steps have unusually deep treads and shallow risers. Due to Meigs' inability to obtain funds the Pension Building has no elevator.

In the cornice of the center bay there are 244 niches of 2 1/2 feet high containing life-size busts representing eight prototypical Americans of the building world which were cast in plaster and then hoisted 118 feet to where they are now.

In spite of the modest budget to date, the renovation has been a dramatic success. The first phase of the renovation of the Great Hall to its original splendor was completed in early 1985. The roof has been replaced and the interior painted the delicate sky blue favored by Meigs. The facade and the terra cotta frieze that encircle the building have been cleaned and restored.

Source:
http://www.gsa.gov/portal/ext/html/site/hb/category/25431/actionParameter/exploreByBuilding/buildingId/123#
http://www.nbm.org/about-us/about-the-museum/nbm-quick-facts.html
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