fireproof and on budget

my trip to DC’s National Building Museum

From April 6th to the 12th, my wife, Melanie, and I decided to take a vacation to see our Nation’s capitol. My initial plan included a list of about a million places to visit. Unfortunately or fortunately, there is so much to see and do in Washington D.C. that 7 days was not enough time to see actually visit 1,000,000 places.

One of the places that I was most interested in visiting was the National Building Museum. I was excited to see this particular museum because it is a place that celebrates design, engineering, and the built environment—things that are interesting to any aspiring architect. My favorite part of our visit to the National Building Museum was the guided tour of the building, led by docent Gene Bacher, who was kind enough to share with us the history of the building. From Gene, I was able to learn more about the building that I would have if I had toured it on my own.

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The year was 1881 and our country urgently needed a new institution capable of storing and processing the pension payments for thousands of Civil War veterans. The Senate approved the funds and commissioned U.S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs to design the building. The Senate has only two requirements for General Meigs: first, the building had to be fireproof to keep the paper records safe (way before cloud storage) and second, the building must stay on budget (when has that not been a requirement?).

After the Civil War ended, Meigs had taken a sabbatical through Europe to recuperate from the stress of war. He was moved by the Roman architecture and took note of many European building designs. It is no surprise then that Meigs drew inspiration from three particular Roman buildings when designing the pension building. The exterior of the building is reminiscent of the façade of Palazzo Farnese in Rome. The interior was inspired by Palazzo della Cancelleria with its open, arcaded galleries and the Croatian center columns were inspired by the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome.

By Myrabella - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=7611709
Palazzo Farnese photo credit: Myrabella

By antmoose - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=432601
Palazzo della Cancelleria photo credit: antmoose

So how could Meigs design a building that encompasses grand European design on a budget? To save money and be fire resistant, Meigs used red brick for the exterior. He is said to have inspected each brick to ensure quality.

For exterior decoration, Meigs wanted to include a carved stone frieze depicting a soldiers’ parade that wrapped around the building. He cleverly used molds and terra cotta to achieve the look at a fraction of the price.

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The building also features some of the largest Corinthian columns ever made. The columns appear to be made out of marble, but in fact the columns are made of smoothed plaster brick that has been painted to look like marble.

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What impressed me the most about the building, however, was not what I could see—at least not directly. Gene told us that in addition to making the building fireproof and within budget, Meigs imposed another requirement upon himself—to make the building a good, healthy place for the people who would work there. This manifested itself in the clever positioning of the windows which made the interior of the space well illuminated, the integration of one of the first air ducts to allow fresh air to move throughout the space, the use of planters to bring green, natural elements inside the building, and even the incorporation of a rail system attached to the building walls that helped workers transport heavy loads of paperwork throughout the building.

For all its good, the building was not exempt from controversy. Once finished, people at the capital referred to the building as “Meigs’ red barn” and an individual is quoted as saying, “The only bad thing about the new pension building is that it is fireproof”.

Love it or hate it, the Meigs building, now the National Building Museum, can be evaluated not only on its looks, but also on its performance and for that reason, I like it.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ivan and Melanie also went to the Spy Museum, the Air and Space Museum, the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Armed Forces Memorial, Veteran’s Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, the National Zoo, and the Natural History Museum. Ivan is currently working on the production of drawings for Fall River and Fifteen15 Flats and acting as project manager for a new bike garage + office and a residential addition to a historic house in downtown Boulder.

Ivan Patino
28 May 2016